Diagramming the Big Idea : Methods for Architectural Composition book cover
2nd Edition

Diagramming the Big Idea
Methods for Architectural Composition

ISBN 9781138549906
Published February 4, 2019 by Routledge
330 Pages

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Book Description

Becoming an architect is a daunting task. Beyond the acquisition of new skills and procedures, beginning designers face an entirely unfamiliar mode of knowledge: design thinking.

In Diagramming the Big Idea, Jeffrey Balmer and Michael T. Swisher introduce the fundamentals of design thinking by illustrating how architects make and use diagrams to clarify their understanding of both specific architectural projects and universal principles of form and order. With accessible, step-by-step procedures that interweave diagrams, drawings and virtual models, the authors demonstrate how to compose clear and revealing diagrams.

Design thinking defines a method for engaging the world through observation and analysis. Beyond problem solving, design is a search for possibilities. Mastering design thinking begins with learning the fundamentals of visual composition. It embraces the ability to synthesize deductive and imaginative reasoning, combining both shrewd scrutiny and fevered speculation.

Design diagrams make visible the abstractions that order the built environment. Premised upon the Beaux-Arts notion of the architectural parti, Balmer and Swisher adopt the ‘Big Idea’ as a foil and as a suitcase to organize fundamentals of architectural composition. The goal of this book is to make explicit to students what they are learning, why they are learning it and how to internalize such lessons toward their lifelong development as designers.

Table of Contents

Part I: Setting the Stage

1. Introduction

Read me first!

Why read this book?

What is architecture?

Organization, order, composition

Utility, function, purpose

Measure & matter

Design & method

Strategies & tactics

The structure of the narrative

The sequence of the chapters

The role of precedents

The point of departure

Glossary of terms

  • Details 1 - Order & Measure

    From the divine to the secular

  • Demonstration 1.1

    Organizational figures

  • Demonstration 1.2

    The courtyard schema

  • Demonstration 1.3

    Courtyards as objects

  • Demonstration 1.4

    Additional courtyard schemata

2. Sorting through ideas

Diagrams as method

Diagram types

Diagramming & design education

Learning diagrammatic form

Gestalt sub–categories

The diagram & visual order

Our purpose

Glossary of terms

  • Details 2

    Indigenous diagrams

  • Demonstration 2.1

    Diagrams & contexts

  • Demonstration 2.2

    Plan as diagram

3. Order First

On order

On measure

Dividing the square

Rules of engagement

Positive & negative space

Order & the orthogonal

Glossary of terms

  • Details 3 - Order, Orientation, Orthogonal

    The gridded city

  • Demonstration 3.1

    Gestalt defined

  • Demonstration 3.2

    Gestalt readings of basic form

Part II: The First Project Set

4. Design & drawing fundamentals

On drawing

Relevance to design

Deriving order in drawing

Exercises in relational geometry

Defined & implied space

Analyzing the composition

Three variant compositions

Observing contrast, repetition, alignment & proximity

The variations considered

General observations

Motif, pattern & theme

Defined fields

Sorting through results

Implied fields

Adding fields

Combining fields


Glossary of terms

  • Details 4 - The Courtyard

    Figure–ground & solid–void

  • Demonstration 4.1.1

    Figures & field in variation

  • Demonstration 4.1.2

    Variation & elaborations

  • Demonstration 4.1.3

    Variation & elaborations

  • Demonstration 4.2

    Further variations

  • Demonstration 4.3

    Contrast, repetition, alignment & proximity

The second project set

5. Building on proportion

Object on a field

A figure in the relational field

Looking at the groups

Selecting & analyzing an aggregate composition

Adding to the quadrants

Two elements

Refining the figures

Observing the new figures

Observing the new group 

Glossary of terms

  • Details 5 - Figures & Fields

    Objects & space

  • Demonstration 5.1

    Regulating lines dividing space

  • Demonstration 5.2

    Figures & their construction

  • Demonstration 5.3

    Field, grain & path

6. Conventionos in Design

Drawing in the third dimension

Adding fields & overhead planes

Turning the grid

Reading the section

A final model

Glossary of terms

  • Details 6 - Axis & Path

    Lines, planes & volumes

Part III: The third project set

7. Starting in three dimensions

Design on a grid

The site

Three figures

Spatial models

Volume, form & space: an example

Visualizing connection with constructed axes

The gestural nexus

Spatial hierarchy: field grain & path

Clarifying plan elements

The new grid

Strategy set

Tactical definitions & variations

A final remark

Glossary of terms

  • Details 7 - Spatial Systems

    Frames, planes & cells

  • Demonstration 7.1

    Axial volumes

  • Demonstration 7.2

    Additional composition models

8. Models & diagrams

More complex approaches to strategies

Strategy definitions

Tactical themes & variations

Tactics expanded – procedure & results

Three–dimensional diagrams

Combined diagram models

Planning the final model

Fragments models

The final model


Glossary of terms

  • Details 8 - Treshold & Boundary

    Containment & connection

  • Demonstration 8.1

    Axial volumes

  • Demonstration 8.2.1

    Alternate tactical diagrams

  • Demonstration 8.2.2

    Additional hybrid tactical diagrams

  • Demonstration 8.3

    Demonstration model

  • Demonstration 8.4

    Demonstration drawings

  • Demonstration 8.5.1

    Assembly images

  • Demonstration 8.5.2

    Alternate model #1

  • Demonstration 8.5.3

    Alternate model #2

Part IV: Precedents

9. Precedent diagrams in two dimensions


Two concepts

Two expressions

Two dimensions

Two projects

House with Three Courts

The Danteum

Glossary of terms

  • Details 9 - What an Architect Sees

    Margaret Esherick house

10. Precedent diagrams in three dimensionos


Representing the third dimension

Phillips Exeter Academy Library

Unity Temple

Diagram as generator

Glossary of terms

  • Details 10 - The Language of Color
    Color as a subject
    Glossary of color terms

Part V: Resources

  • Master glossary of terms
  • Index

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Jeffrey Balmer and Michael T. Swisher are associate professors of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.


‘Balmer and Swisher’s objective is to explore the orthogonal geometric frameworks essential to architectural design. It drives their teaching and was rigorously expounded in the first edition of Diagramming the Big Idea. It is expressed so much more clearly in this second edition. Explanatory text has been considerately revised and expanded. The number of examples and case studies has been increased. Interpretation of the many diagrams has been enhanced by the subtle use of colour. The clarion call remains powerful: architecture is a serious intellectual discipline.’
Simon Unwin, Emeritus Professor of Architecture, University of Dundee, Scotland

‘Diagramming the Big Idea was a tremendous help to me when first learning to teach beginning design. The book is full of useful techniques and processes that distill the basics of teaching architecture. The book continues to help me focus and target my teaching on foundational principles of the discipline.’
Sallie Hambright-Belue, Assistant Professor Clemson University, School of Architecture, USA