The École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which dominated architectural education in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, developed a strict method of teaching building design. After being assigned a problem, the student was isolated in a cubicle without the benefit of books or external advice, and given twelve hours to produce an esquisse
, or preliminary design sketch. The chief purpose of this exercise was to decide on a parti
, the governing idea that the student would turn into a detailed design over the next two months. A student handbook advised, “Selecting a parti
for a problem is to take an attitude toward a solution in the hope that a building developed on the lines indicated by it will give the best solution of the problem.” Although the esquisse
is a thing of the past, the term parti
has survived, for it embodies an enduring truth: great buildings are often the result of a single—and sometimes very simple—idea.
When you enter the Pantheon in Rome, you take it all in at a single glance: a vast drum supporting a coffered dome, illuminated from above by an oculus, or circular aperture. Nothing could be simpler, yet no one would describe the Pantheon as a one-liner. Finished by Hadrian in the first century A.D., it is one of the most influential buildings of Western architecture, having inspired Bramante at St. Peter’s, Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s, and Thomas Ustick Walter at the U.S. Capitol. King’s College Chapel of Cambridge University, begun by Henry VI in 1446, is another building whose design expresses a singular idea: a tall space whose dematerialized walls are almost entirely stained glass. Modeled on a cathedral choir, the narrow chapel is eighty feet high and almost three hundred feet long. There is no apse, no crossing, no rose window, just a numinous, soaring space. In buildings, the idea also informs the details. While the coffers of the Pantheon emphasize the solidity and weight of the dome and lead the eye up to the oculus, the lacy fan vaults of the Perpendicular Gothic chapel harmonize with the delicate tracery of the windows.
A more recent example of a building whose design is driven by an idea is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Wright started with the insight that, given the high cost of Manhattan real estate, the museum had to be vertical. He explored four schemes, one of them octagonal, and settled on a spiral ramp coiling around a tall skylit space. The museumgoer would take the elevator to the top of the ramp, viewing the art as he descended. Uncomplicated in conception, yet no matter how often I go there I am always surprised—and delighted—anew. Wright kept the details in the background: the spiraling balustrade, for example, is a plain concrete parapet with a rounded top; the ramp floor is simply painted concrete. “The eye encounters no abrupt change,” he explained, “but is gently led and treated as if at the edge of a shore watching an unbreaking wave.”
Another modern museum that is based on a simple idea is the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, a building designed by Norman Foster in the mid-1970s. Although the building was to house a variety o
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