Book Review: Comparative Architectural Details

Comparative Architectural Details: A Selection from Pencil Points 1932-1937

Edited and with an introduction by Milton Wilfred Grenfell

Published by W. W. Norton, New York 2010

REVIEWED BY Seth Joseph Weine

What’s the best book for a practicing designer? Probably not a neuron-stretching theses or prettily photographed compilations of eye-gaga. Those have their uses, but today’s busy designer needs a book that will solve today’s problems: the challenges that come up at the drawing board (or mouse pad) while a project is in the process of design and detailing. That’s why you need to order this book right away. It has those answers—lots of them! Need to do a cupola? There are thirteen ways other talented architects have worked it out. Need to detail a built-in radiator cover? There are six solutions. What about dormers, or bookcases, or gambrel gables, garden shelters, overmantels, or fences and gates? This book covers 34 of those types of items—giving designers a place to begin. For each type of problem, you’ll find multiple examples by solid and inventive architects practicing during the interwar period. Each example comes with a photo of the finished result, blissfully accompanied by clearly detailed drawings (so you can see how the result was achieved).

Now, don’t think that the purpose of this material is to allow you to do a quick crib so you can get to the bar earlier than usual. In my own experience, reviewing this collection of solutions triggers one’s own creativity. Something about clicking (it comes with a disk) through all these cleverly solved precedents just sets the brain racing. Racing good.

These sets of comparative details were a regular feature in Pencil Points during the thirties. At the time, that magazine’s self-description was “The journal of the drafting room”—a most functional approach. Just so, publishing this series of details was a truly practical aid to the work of their readers. The material is as useful today, but unless you had access to rare old copies of the magazine, this valuable resource had been inaccessible. Now, thanks to the stewardship of Mr. Grenfell, the information is conveniently available again, but with but with an even bigger vision: he reached out, beyond the vintage material, and asked contemporary architects to contribute their versions of solutions to these design problems. And that’s not all. To make this fund of material truly useful in the digitized drafting room, as stated above, the book comes with a disc from which all the material can be downloaded.

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