Guanxi, or The Power of the Section

Architecture is never an isolated entity. Regardless of whether or not you work consciously with the context of your building, new relationships will follow as a consequence, so by trying to predict and enhance them will be crucial. The essential knowledge of how to work well as an architect comes down to how to create interesting relationships. There are external relationships: Between the building and its context, the city fabric, the stories of the neighbourhood, the landscape, invisible social territories, between inside and outside, open and closed space, private and public, back of house and front of house etcetera. And there are internal relationships: Between different programmes, vertical levels, light and dark, wet and dry, warm and cool, service areas and served areas, active and passive, public and private etc etc. Out of the typical architectural drawing formats we have at our disposal - plan, section, elevation, site plan, perspective - I believe the most interesting one is always the section, because it is where those relationships become apparent. The plan is very good at showing movement and internal flows, but as a means of inviting the viewer inside to experience the life in the building, it is still too abstract and schematic. In the section though, you can tell compelling stories which not only talk about the building, but of a whole society. Since it cuts through many types of spaces; from the basement, perhaps full of illegal (im)migrant workers, to the rooftop, where affluent investors are entertained by lightly dressed ladies; the section is where our urban way of life become clear and undeniable.

There are a number of significant drawings which exemplify that the architectural section is as good as a novel at telling stories. One of the most striking is a survey of Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, a hyper-dense illegally built housing block now demolished. The section above was carried out by a Japanese team shortly before it was demolished in 1993.

Another classic example is the famous section of the Downtown Athletic Club, featured in Delirious New York with the above section. The building is a materialization of the heyday of N.Y.'s Wall St bankers and lawyers in the 1920's. 38 stories including squash courts, golf course, medical baths, massage parlours, billiard rooms, boxing ring next to an oyster bar, grill, dining halls and roof terraces, plus 111 hotel rooms for the bachelors who were not set on spending their nights uptown with the society clubs. All wrapped up behind an anonymous red brick façade, making sure that the building remains inconspicuous relative to the social "athleticism" taking place inside.

Once in a lecture about late 19th century Paris by a professor at KARCH, Carsten Thau showed a cross-section of a typical Hausmannian house, showing the full spectrum of social strata composing the then-world-leading metropolis. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find it on line, so maybe I'll have to write to my old professor to know who made the drawing. UPDATE: I successfully tracked down the section, and although it actually precedes the Haussmann typology, it still serves well in depicting Parisian society in the 1850's.

Also please enjoy this slightly more beaux-arts water colour section by Steven Holl depicting MIT Simmons Hall, one of the projects finished in the early 2000's catapulting Mr Holl into stardom.


For the design studio I am teaching in Wuhan starting next Monday I will be focusing in on the architectural section as a driver for the design process. The students will embark on a journey by examining a cross-section of their own city, a section they will have to draw. A precise recording of a complex of relations in a city infamous for its chaotic urban composition which will hopefully become an interesting tool in understanding the city. One of the reasons why I find it most interesting to examine the section here in China, is that I have discovered a lack of interest in developing architecture based on relationships. Too often the designs here tend to form isolated objects or enclaves without a dynamic relationship to their surroundings. Perhaps it is understandable since most projects here are conceived as UIMs (Urban Integrated Megaproject) and often on virgin land lacking any previous urban condition. Nevertheless, with a better understanding of the possibilities offered by designing in the section, one can create and nurture new relationship, at least within the same project.