There is something magically ambiguous about the two phrases ‘God is in the details’ and the ‘The Devil is in the detail’. We are reminded of the perhaps apocryphal story of Basil Spence, asked by one of his colleagues while working on the roof details of Coventry Cathedral, who would see it. Spence looked up to the ceiling and said, he will. More likely he meant God rather than the devil but the anecdote nicely captures the spirit and challenge of the detail. It has to work well supporting the visual quality of the building as a whole, yet if it fails there is a long way to fall!
This conflict of aspiration leads often to the observation that buildings are often said to be ‘designed’ (Gods work), while details are deemed to have been ‘worked out’ (the devils job). However there is a more complex relationship between large and small. They influence each other and both require an ability to think in three dimensions about the assembly of a range of components and junctions. Detailing is like planning out spaces in a building but at a different scale. It is putting together a jigsaw but at the same time keeping in mind a host of parameters, technical and aesthetic. An ingenious concept is not enough on its own.
Standing back there seem to be two directions of travel, on the one hand architects can strive for an aesthetic to make details disappear, or on the other we can try to express the details as junctions and elements which participate in the aesthetic. The invisible detail is an exercise in eliminating trims and projections that are the evidence that a technical problem has been solved, perhaps best captured in early work by Foster & Partners such as the Faber Dumas building. Actions such as the shedding of water, supporting glass or joining materials are smoothed out into the aesthetic of a sculptural object best seen In the expressed detail such as Mies van der Rohe’s famous IIT corner where the joining of elements is made visible.
Our position is that detailing can be compared to language; all the constraints and elements to detailing being like the words, without which we cannot create the poetry of architecture. We adopt an eclectic but not unconsidered voice. There are occasions when there is a need to hide the tectonic whilst others when it requires full expression, the overall setting determining the right approach.
Two extremes highlight our position. At our pavilion for the War Blinded at Linburn we sought to smooth the detail out of the complex curvilinear form creating a common detail throughout for the skin and interior, the experience of the building was through space shape and light not detail which in anycase could not be seen by the users. In contrast our pavilion for Rosslyn Chapel expresses the detail of every junction in anticipation of the complexity of detail to be found in the chapel, in a way a taster for the historic visitor experience of the chapel.
In these approaches we seek to juggle ‘God and the Devil’s’ work.