A la carte architecture

If you’ve ever been to a tapas restaurant (a Spanish tradition in which diners enjoy a variety of food in small portions rather than a single entree), you know the appeal of sampling wide. Eventually you might settle on a favourite or two and just hit the repeat button, but in the meantime you get to try a lot of different things to see what really suits you.

Well, anyone with an interest in architectural design can indulge the same behaviour with a new book, “1000 Architectural Details: A Selection of the World’s Most Interesting Building Elements.” Compiled by, appropriately enough, three Spanish authors — Alex Sanchez Vidiella, Julio Fajardo and Sergi Costa Duran — the book casts a wide net to capture not the depth of any one design trend or philosophy, but rather to offer 1,000 glimpses of creativity as expressed in contemporary architecture throughout the world.

The authors describe the book’s format and mission as a “visual and theoretical analysis of the role of detail in contemporary architecture.” While the details portrayed in the book do include the literally small and specific, there are large-scale examples as well, including some entire structures and landscapes. Each image is captioned to highlight a particular feature or virtue of the design, however, so the focus remains concentrated on the singular element rather than the entire space or structure.

Many of the examples are from commercial or institutional sites rather than residential buildings, and while some features could not be duplicated practically on an individual home, many could be adapted on a smaller scale. That’s the appeal of presenting such a diverse array of bits and pieces: Almost anything you see could be borrowed or modified for use elsewhere.

The loosely fitted format organizes the book around structural and aesthetic elements alike and discusses the many instances when these roles overlap. Columns, beams, roof structures and other hardworking elements are exposed or even emphasized in these buildings in a way not ordinarily duplicated in residential architecture, and that’s one of many lessons to be learned here. Some are engineered and designed to combine materials — primarily steel, aluminum, stone, concrete, glass and wood — in new and surprising ways. Others simply solve a particular site problem really well.

Even if you aren’t designing an airport terminal or a commercial elevator lobby, there are plenty of solutions and successful design templates contained here that might be writ small successfully for a residential setting. Observant readers will be able to glean these opportunities and a better understanding of contemporary design by noting patterns that emerge in the book.

Fewer walls and divisions

Many of these spaces tend to be open and flowing, thanks to columns, beams, cantilevered roofs and other features that reduce the need for load-bearing walls.

Overlap of functional 
and aesthetic roles

Large metal beams or other structural elements that would traditionally be concealed by “finish” materials are not only left exposed, they are integrated into the design deliberately. The result is not always a harsh industrial look, especially if fabrics, woods and other “friendlier” materials end up in the overall mix of design and decor.

Materials modified for more diverse or appropriate looks

Advances in building and manufacturing technologies have had a pronounced side effect in the explosive growth of “faux” materials, especially plastics that are engineered to mimic wood, stone and other natural materials. The examples in this book aren’t about one material posing as another, which seldom makes for good design. Instead, colour, texture and other elements are added to explore more diverse effects. Concrete is pigmented and textured not to mimic stone but to create abstract designs and intense colours. Glass is etched or sand-blasted to soften light transmission or to provide privacy. Metals are stamped, plated, corrugated, perforated, hammer-textured, even left to rust each option creating a different effect.

Surfaces interrupted/intersected

Bay windows and balconies are fairly common features in residential designs, but most of the examples here are bolder and more interesting, and their scale is more impressive. Odd angles or an unexpected mix of materials turn simple wall bump-outs or directional changes into strong focal points, all while sneaking in the traditional function of extra space these features offer.

Like foods that taste so good you forget that they also sustain your health, the images in the book can win you over out of sheer appeal and never shout out their practical virtues. It’s fun to see so many creative and elegant ideas made real with so many materials, and it’s easy to forget how many tangible lessons your imagination is quietly absorbing while your eyes enjoy the dance. Later, after the images have had time to mingle and percolate inside your head, you can perhaps expect some new and original designs to call your own.

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