Introduction to Design, Fall 2013

Material Case Studies

Kyle Steinfeld

There exists a relationship between the constructive system employed in an architectural work at a detail scale, and the spatial and formal language that results at the building scale. This relationship, the pairing of the properties of a material with the means through which it is formed toward an architectural end, are what is meant by the term "tectonic".

In this brief project, students explore the tectonics of a precedent work of architecture through three-dimensional modeling and two-dimensional drawing of assembly details and processes.


Begin by researching the given case study building, collecting photographic, drawings at any scale, sketches, renderings, and compiling this information into a presentable set of images and drawings. Next, scan and trace all relevant drawings into 2d vector line drawings using Rhino or any other appropriate CAD software.


Using the 2d digital tracings of the documentation drawings described above, a 3d digital model is produced that describes the case-study building. The amount of detail present should be calibrated to producing two categories of digital information:

  • A generalized description of the mass, space, and structure of the building as a whole. This should display enough detail as to provide the necessary elements for the full-building analytic drawing, described below. At a minimum, this should show:
    • the site/context surrounding your building including any relevant changes in ground topography or texture
    • the overall shape and configuration of the building massing
    • all major punctures, apertures, or doorways
    • all major interior spatial divisions
    • all major structural elements (including all structural elements visible to the interior occupants).
  • A detailed description of the elements and materiality of a particular building assembly. This should describe only a selected section of the case study building. The area depicted should show a significant tectonic system that plays an important role in the realization and formal expression of the overall building. Select an area that shows at least two of the following conditions:
    • How the building meets the ground
    • Floor or foundation to wall connection
    • Wall to window connection
    • Roof or ceiling to wall connection
    • Roof to horizontal aperture (skylight) connection


From this digital model, students develop two drawings: an analytical drawing and an exploded axon detail drawing.

An analytical drawing or diagram by definition is an abstraction of the building, as it does not exist as an actual condition. Rather, the drawing seeks to reveal the relationships between construction system, spatial organization, and site. At the building scale, the formal and spatial systems which may be influenced by the constructive logic may be, but are not limited to:

  • spatial organization
  • social organization: collective vs individual
  • public/semi-public/private
  • duration: temporary vs. permanent
  • structural organization: monolithic vs aggregate

A "detail drawing" depicts the particular elements of construction with a high degree of precision. This may include not only the physical elements of the built work, but also their relationship in the sequence of construction, the elements or processes required during their fabrication, and the sequence to which they arrived on the site and found their way to their final configuration.

Case Study Projects

The case study projects described here are selected in relationship to the material experiments ongoing in design studio, which manifest in wire, wood, and plaster. The properties of these materials are reflected in the categories below:


  • Tjibaou Cultural Center, Papua New Guinea, Renzo Piano
  • Sendai Mediatheque, Toyo Ito
  • Pompidou-Metz, Metz, France, Shigeru Ban
  • Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of the Finnmark Witchcraft Trials, Vardo Norway, Peter Zumthor


  • Electrical Plant in Columbia, Felipe Gonzalez-Pacheco
  • Phaeno Science Center, Zaha Hadid
  • Tama Library, Toyo Ito


  • Yokohama International Port Terminal, Foreign Office Architects
  • The Therme Vals, Peter Zumthor
  • WoZoCo in Amsterdam, MVRDV

There's more!

Some other projects from this same class have been posted, as well as some interesting student work from this same year.