Formative Sections

As a way of comprehending a building, the sectional view is always regarded as secondary to the plan. Nobody’s ever said “The section is the generator!” or, even if they do, it’s seen as something exceptional even though buildings are three dimensional objects and a plan is no more or less important than a section. If we think of the horizontal position of a window in a wall then w’are thinking in plan but if we’re thinking of cill and lintel heights then we’re thinking in section. If we imagine how we’d like a window to appear on the outside or to a person within the space, then we’re thinking in some kind of virtual model in our heads. All have their uses but the bias towards the plan remains. Planning is a word describing a certain type of design activity. Sectioning isn’t.

My first formative section must have been this next one for it would’ve been impossible for me not to have seen it in some architecture book such as a 1970’s edition of Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture. It was probably about 2011 however when I finally realized the “white”apartment entered from the mezzanine and with its living room at the foot of the master bed, was rubbish.

Unité d’Habitations, Le Corbusier, 1949

The proposal by the team led by Ohl, Ivanov and Lavinsky for the 1927 USSR Comradely Competition for Communal Housing wasn’t no precursor but a true precedent showing how it should be done.


2015 was a rich year for me and sections because it was the year I was introduced to The Constructivists. Economy of materials and construction was the driver for studies such as the one above that only required corridors every third floor. The proposal by the team led by Sobolev for the same competition, is another take on this.

Another of The Constructivists’ concerns was redistributing the height of rooms so that rooms such as bathrooms and bedrooms didn’t have unnecessarily high ceilings. The team comprising Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak proposed a floor plan with secondary rooms having lowered ceiling heights (left, below) and the Ginzburg team’s later Type B (right, below) was to further rationalize this.

Best understood in section, Mosei Ginzberg’s 1927 Type F Apartment was a sincere solution to both the corridor concern and the ceiling height concern.

The Type F is a classic. My take on it had the identical living rooms of the upper and lower apartments accessed by stacked lateral stairs that were also identical. I called it the F-III.

All the entries for the competition, as well as the later work of Ginzburg’s Stroykom team were to do in The Types Study were a great inspiration. I also updated their Type E as a student dormitory. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study]

It’s a cool section. I’d like to cross it with a toulou.


I later learned that, in 1947, Russian emigré Serge Chermayeff published the Park Type Apartments studies with corridors every third floor. I made my own versions of which my Type FII was probably the best.

I experimented with laterally-placed stairs (like Chermayeff, but also like André Devin at Frais Vallon) and devised an apartment module comprising a studio apartment, a 1-bed apartment and a 2-bed apartment for a building having a corridor every third floor.

There was also a variation that could have internal stairs leading to remote rooms. Lastly, I reconfigured the core of a multi-storey apartment building so it had elevator lobbies every third floor leading to apartments that could link internally across multiple levels, making it possible to have apartments of any size in the same building and with each unit also having external access. It would be a true mixed-use building. Although no individual space would be particularly large, the building would be well suited to live-work units, small businesses and apartments for multiple occupation, whether multi-generational, communal, or some variation on a hotel. One of my better inventions.

While these proposals are all described in plans, they are better comprehended in section, mainly because they have to do with stairs and, stairs being stairs, they go well with sections. Sections are where they do their work. I enjoyed the interlocking sections of scissor apartments and, even though they required corridors every second floor instead of every third, they had the advantage of all living rooms being on the same side of the building, and all bedrooms being on the other. This led to two projects, one called New Scissor Apartments, and a further rationalization called Machine for Living Many.

I’m getting ahead of myself. There are also section ideas that are 100% spatial ideas and have nothing to do with the saving of building resources. Kazuo Shinohara’s 1963 House With an Earthen Floor is definitely one of those, and I probably saw this section for the first time in 1975 in Shinohara’s first book of houses. The problem with design ideas based on some invention in section is that they don’t photograph well, especially if they’re underground. In this one you can see the earthen floor. You won’t see hatching on a Shinohara drawing.

It must have occurred to Shinohara that underground spaces didn’t publish well. (Shinohara never designed another basement, apart from the 1981 Goto House that was never built.) I almost certainly saw this next section in 1975 in the same book. The original house was for house for three generations and it led me to propose a communal house in which one stair led to personal spaces and the other stair led to shared spaces. [c.f. Repeating Crevice Revisited] It updated the idea of multiple people living in the same house and being aware of the presence of others but without being forced together. I still believe this is a useful idea. In both Shinohara’s and my proposals it’s in the section where this awareness is generated.

As I was discovering the power of the section in Repeated Crevice, Shionohara protegé Hiroyuki Asai was exploring the poetry of the section in his 1974 Mochizuki House.

My frustration at not being able to identify this house for decades forced me to create my own memory of it in 2017. I can’t say I improved upon the original as mine turned into something different. It’s more extreme but the idea of taking some of the volume of the secondary spaces and diverting it to the volume of the primary spaces is shared DNA with the 1927 Type B and Type F. It matters little if that volume can’t be used in any practical way. The bedrooms feel more intimate and the living room feels less confining. It’s the horizontal equivalent of a double-height space and is no more or less useful.

Takefumi Aida’s 1975 Stepped Platform House has a memorable section that, fortunately, is easy to imagine. The inclined wall happen to be stairs separating inside and outside and thus public and private. Whether inside or outside, one has an awareness of the other.

Less aggressively, the famous section from Charles Correa’s 1983 Kanchanjunga Apartments shows the stepped floor of one apartment becoming the stepped ceiling of the one below. It’s a nice idea, a purely spatial one, and one that takes the section of the 1927 Soviet Type B apartment and develops it into something decadent, with the two-storey outdoor space being the space to which the excess ceiling height is diverted. It’s a Type B + Unité mashup, although it’s always the LC connection that’s mentioned. This building is not about scrimping on corridor space or conserving construction materials.

Nevertheless, this idea of a stepped ceiling of one level being the stepped floor of the one above is also present in Geoff Warn’s 1999 Glick House I recently referred to again. The effect of the section is to produce a sequence of spaces of increasing intimacy on the floor above, and a sequence of increasingly larger spaces below. This too can be traced back to the Type B even though the spaces on the two levels are used in different ways.

It’s a lovely effect on both sides of the floor slab, although I had only the upper side to admire in this recent project where I copied it so shamelessly.

As a closing statement, I can’t help feeling that the mode of architectural communication determines the types of ideas thought. A plan is useful because people occupy an x,y position in space (and with respect to all the elements defining that space). And a section is useful because it shows the often neglected z dimension in which different, non-plan architectural ideas exist. We have only three dimensions in which to place the stuff of which buildings are made. Sure, we can produce an animation to communicate some spatial or sculptural idea regardless of how that idea was conceived, but we still need to place elements in three dimensional space before we can activate the temporal.

1 thought on “Formative Sections

  1. baukunst

    was thinking about this all week. plan as generator is still king, but in built-up urban areas where only the problem-child (steep) vacant lots remain, ‘la section’ is a big driver. even the tabula rasa sites in the bay area, have other overlay restrictions that hinder the incentive to develop. looking forward to today’s post.

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