A Guided Tour

A good device for describing a building is to take your reader for an imaginary walk to, around and through the building. In that way you can describe the building in terms of its setting, its visual and functional organisation, the arrangement of its volumes, the articulation of its surfaces, you can make the reader aware of the significance of the building’s forms, its texture, rhythms and colour.


All those features have to be tied to the building’s full function: the reason it is there and the reasons it is like that, because of the peculiarities of the site it occupies, the climate it inhabits, the culture it participates in and the people the building houses and their activities.


You guide your reader through your eyes, telling him what you see, pointing to the salient features and describing them within their context. That helps the reader by allowing him to imagine the building you are describing in terms of a sequence of experiences he is already quite familiar with in a generic way.


But the description of a sequential journey is not enough. The description should always start with a schematic characterisation of the shape and plan. A schematic diagram in words if you will, which sets up a basic framework into which the rest of the description fits. How is the building visually organised?


Remember that the reader is -in a sense- blind. He has not seen what you have seen. Even when he looks at a picture selected by you, he will not necessarily see what you think is important about that picture, he will look at that picture with his own eyes, not yours. After all, a picture paints a thousand words. That leaves an awful lot of room for misunderstanding. Let’s take the description of a building in steps.


step 1: Towards: the context & first impressions

First walk to the building. Describe the surrounding landscape and the site, the road up to the house, your first glimpse of the building. Dwell on the mood of the exterior and how it relates to its place and function. Perhaps describe the pattern of access and

the landmarks leading you to your destination.  You could use maps to illustrate the setting of the building and describe the orientation and placement of the building with regard to its surroundings.


step 2: Around: the outside

Take your reader around the building. Prof. Ivor Smith has lectured and written about elevations in a way that has been of great help to me personally in developing an understanding of what I should look for.[1] I would like to use some of his remarks about designing elevations to help us in our own description of them.


In order to understand a building we need to search out the factors that determine its order. An elevation is the diaphragm separating the inside from the outside and exists in tension with both. A good elevation, according to Prof. Smith, is one, which unites and marries the internal demands of the building with the external demands of the street. That means to join in such a way that each separate half benefits from the tension between the two sets of demands. Elevations, he goes on, express relationships. That is a lovely phrase.


Describe the building in terms of its volumes and massing. It is always useful to start with a schematic characterisation of the basic shape of the structure you are describing, perhaps showing the basic proportions and arrangement of the volumes as well as the horizontal and vertical organisation of the building. This will help to bind the rest of the description and place the details in the proper relationship to each other.

·         How is the elevation ordered?

·         Is there an economy in its design? With this I mean to ask whether means and ends are properly configured with regard to each other.

·         What is the basic module?

·         How does the elevation divide up (can you draw a diagram of its order?): 1. horizontally: bottom, middle and top; and 2. vertically: left, middle, right.

Then look at the elevations in greater detail. Thinking of the way they have been organised focus on issues of arrangement, symmetry and proportion. In describing the surfaces of the walls you can describe

·         the articulated rhythms

·         the relationship between solids and voids

·         the textural qualities of the material

·         the colour of the building

·         the program of decoration and its significance.


·         How does the entry do its magic of sifting people and celebrating the building’s purpose?

·         How do the windows help the street retain or alter its order.

·         How does the light articulate the profile of the building.

Look at  the relationship between the various sides of the building, the relationship between interior and exterior.

·         How does the elevation express the internal arrangements of the building?

·         How does the building establish a mood?

·         How does it express the degree of privacy the building tries to convey?

·         How does it characterise the function of the building and the status of its occupants?

Remember that in answering the question: “How?” You need to explain what ingredients are needed and in what order and in what way they must be combined.


Look at the relationship of the volumes and elevation to the street or landscape.

·         How does the elevation relate to the street?

·         How does it perform its role in the hierarchy of symbolic form within the street: does it express its relative importance appropriately?

·         What about its scale with regard to its surroundings?

Always relate your description to the purposes and functions of the building and to your own purpose for the description. To describe is to re-create an object or event with reference to your own purpose. That is the main selection principle for the information you want to communicate. Back to the description.

Enjoy comparisons with buildings that present a striking contrast or similarity. Remember to explain the comparison and dwell on the building’s peculiar qualities.


Reading a good description is great pleasure. Every form has a cause, a reason why the form is as it is. That cause can be habit, chance, the result of decay and neglect or more intellectual. It is your job to penetrate that cause.


step 3: In and Through: the plan

Now take your visitor in and through the building. First of all try to penetrate the overall shape and organisational principle of the plan. Is it derived from a nine-square, is it circular, is it open, cruciform, L-shaped, T-shaped, another shape?

·         does the plan behave according to the logic of simple geometry?

·         what is the logic and order of the plan with reference to circulation and communication patterns, social hierarchies and domestic habits?

·         describe the threshold transforming the outside to the inside;

·         rehearse the movement of people as they move from the public spaces to the increasingly private.

·         describe the dressing and working of the interior in terms of mood, space and light, the mechanisms of communication and privacy.

·         look at how one’s movement is directed through the spaces.

·         Enjoy, or enjoy hating the furnishings, their placement and their purpose try to penetrate the reasons behind the placement and character of the furniture.


Step 4: About: the condition and history

Place the building in time. Tell the reader about the present condition of the building and then try to reconstruct the way the building must once have looked.

Discuss the people who were involved in the building using, whenever possible, illustrations such as prints, portraits and anecdotes.


step 5: The innards: the section

Describe how the building was made: describe the structure of the building, using words and drawings of joints and arrangements.



Parts of buildings all have names. Without becoming absurdly technical, there is no harm in using those names and familiarising yourself with the traditions of architectural and spatial description: words of spatial and temporal relation, words characterising shape in terms of mood and character. But also remember that Jargon can exclude the layman. Your client is often a layman. You yourself have to find a balance.


[1] Prof. Ivor Smith, “Inside out, outside in, a twelve point guide to designing elevations,” Axis, Vol. 1, November 1997, p. 10 ff.