New system for a deeper, more objective understanding of architecture

Designing a building or structure is like orchestrating a piece of music: all the components must be in balance in order to achieve perfection. In his thesis, PhD student Jack Breen explains this concept of layering in more detail and unravels its complexity by using a system he developed himself.

The extensive study, 'Patterns & Variations. Designerly explorations in architectural composition and perception’, focuses on the area around Aalsmeer. This horticultural enclave provides a kind of sample sheet of Dutch residential architecture. Affluent market gardeners and flower growers who live in the area like to express their cultural ambitions in the architecture of their homes. "The various styles you come across are representative of the development of Dutch architecture," says Jack Breen. “Especially the houses built in the 20th century – the Golden Age of Dutch architecture – are often great examples.”

The oldest of the ten case studies that he examines in his thesis is a wooden house built in 1825. The main support structure, which is made of wood, is inspired by that of the many windmills in the area. The houses become more complex the further forwards in time you go. The 1920s and 1930s especially are well represented with the early work of famous architects such as J.P Berghoef (“a modern traditionalist, but with real chutzpah"), M. de Klerk ("his last masterpiece") and J.J.P Oud ("an early work, still quite traditionalist compared to his later Cubist work"). Designs by G. Baneke and C. van der Hoeven date from the second heyday of Dutch architecture – the 1980s and 1990s. The final example is a prefabricated house, constructed solely in concrete by architect M. Engel in 2012 ("Rational neo-modernism").

In the course of his research, Breen has developed a new system for codifying fundamental architectural concepts. He analyses the ten houses using four key concepts (space, order, form, detail), plus twelve sub-domains. It sounds complex, but an astonishing amount of illustrations, floor plans, drawings and quotations enliven the lengthy text.

In concrete terms, this means that each design is peeled away layer by layer and that each decision made by the architect is analysed. In each chapter, the study charts the architectural themes found in a house, the techniques and materials that have been used, as well as the layout, function and proportions. Each chapter ends with a notes section. "Architecture isn’t rocket science, but it's still very complex," Breen explains. "This is due to the layering of different, simultaneous themes, just like a piece of music. I hope my methodology will contribute to a deeper, more objective understanding."

The chapter about Suermondt, a house designed by J. Duiker and B. Bijvoet, uses computer models, exploded views and drawings to show that this is a typical example of transitional work. It balances traditional and modernist, with its all-wood construction, steel window frames and a cylindrical brick staircase. Breen identifies the key concepts, but he also delves into the details. How have the gutters and corner elements been designed? Are there connections with later works by the two designers? And, after decades of haphazard renovations, how did it regain its original form after a thorough restoration process?

'Patterns & Variations’ is not only Jack Breen’s PhD project, but it also marks his farewell after 25 years at TU Delft. Breen: “It’s the culmination of a long personal quest, in which I have tried to bridge the gaps between practice, education and research.”

Published: May 2019