LTL Architects elevates new views on the overlooked technique of section drawing

New York's Guggenheim Museum cut in half.

NEW YORK – The architects Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki and David J. Lewis of architecture firm LTL have worked on the designs of many cultural and academic institutions, for example Brown and Columbia University and MoMa. There seems to be an attachment to education and a will to contributing to an ever growing pool of knowledge which expresses itself in teaching at Princeton University, Columbia University, and Parsons The New School for Design. Invested in design innovation, the three architects have written a book about something that is crucial to the practical and theoretical discourse of buildings, but has yet remained widely unexplored with formal parameters: the section drawing. Their book Manual of Section is the first guide to be entirely dedicated to exploring and categorising the section and is as such a small sensation. Each of the 63 drawings, which includes milestones of architecture ranging from the Pantheon to works by Walter Gropius, SANAA and Christian Kertez, has been made from scratch with laborious accuracy. However, sensationalism is not what the founding members of LTL are interested in. On the occasion of the recent release, we spoke to the small team that is much more focused on unfolding sectional possibilities and participating in the discourses to come. Read the full interview and selected quotes from the book below.

A first question that has occupied the mind of one of our editors for a while: How much time have you spent drawing and compiling sections?
LTL: We have been working on this project since 2012. Since then, it has involved nearly 30 designers and architects. Each of the 63 drawings required the creation of an accurate 3d model and the execution of a detailed section drawing taken from the 3d model. Each drawing took approximately 300 hours of work.  

Why did you decide to take on this project?
To our knowledge, this is the first book on sections. The section is a critical representational device for depiction and design. Yet, there isn't a great deal of ways to collectively discuss the section. Architects and critics will say, 'hey, that’s a great section.' - but it's never clear what makes a compelling section or a bad section. Manual of Section is intended to provide a shared language to elevate the discourse around this important aspect of architecture.

'As architects and educators, we realized that despite the fact that section is a key method for optimizing spatial qualities, structural design, and thermal performance, there is a relative paucity of critical writings or discourse on section.' 

How is it possible, that despite its vital use the section has been neglected for such a long time?
This is a good question and one that we have tried to address in the introduction. In part, it is likely that the section is more tied to the technical documentation of construction than an initial tool or site for design in the way the plan, in its ability to set space and circulation, is used. It's less a question of the section being neglected, as the section is used all the time in design and in contract documents. Rather, it's the way in which we conceive and use the section as a self-conscious site for design, with clear and distinct ways of organizing space that has not been conceptualized or quantified to date. This is one of the goals of this book.

'The lack of direct attention to section may very well come from the ambiguous position that section occupies. It is often understood as a reductive drawing type, produced at the end of the design process to depict structural and material conditions in service of the construction contract, rather than as a means for the investigation of architectural form. While we are interested in the representational conditions of sections, we argue that thinking and designing through section requires the building of a discourse about section, recognizing it as a site for invention.'

It might be a little far fetched, but would you consider it a failure of architecture education to recognize the importance of a broader discourse around the section?
No, its rather an opportunity now to really explore the full potential of section, engaging and using the range of design tools and techniques available to the discourse.

For what reason is the plan more emphasised than the section cut? 
Yes, this is right. Plans are used more frequently and with greater impact on the architectural design than the section. In part, this likely derives from the fact that the plan deals with area (and thus real estate) as well as with movement. Plans are tied more directly to issues of property and ownership as the plan is the cut most connected to the surface of land. As such, areas and sizes of a project are first mapped according to plan, and align most closely to the representational obligations of real-estate and politics. A plan is also the location where circulation and programmatic issues have been mapped.

'Plans and sections are similar representational conventions and offer an important point of comparison. Both depict a relationship that is not directly perceivable by the human eye, between a building's mass and the space. Both describe cuts. Plans are typically argued to the locus of design agency, with sections understood as a means to manifest the effects of the plan through structure and enclosure.' 

Early on in the book you describe the difficulty of creating a meaningful discussion around something that does not have a vocabulary yet. How did you go about inventing words?
The language for describing the different classifications of sections came from closely aligning the nature of the section with its category. In other words, the titles used were intended to be self-evident and directly connected to the organizational properties of that section. A stack means 'stacked', a nested section means it is a nesting of volumes, etc. We sought to make this classification type as elegant as possible, recognizing that almost all buildings involved a combination of section types.  

You explain, that the section is able to illustrate a range of intertwined architectural issues rather than isolating them from each other. How so?
As a vertical cut through a building, the section inevitably involves issues related from gravity (and thus materials, weight, structure, and thermal performance), though the scale of the human body (which is perceived upright and vertical), to issues of view and sight emanating from the upright body. Sections can be extraordinarily complicated drawings and sites for design. This is what we find compelling about them as they align with our own interest in the complex that is architectural form and space.

'The section illuminates the interplay between a building's structure and the space framed between foundation and roof. Gravitational loads of structure trace vertically down through a building, with wind loads registering laterally against the side of a building's section. The material investment and spatial invention necessary to creatively resist these loads is best explored and depicted through the architectural section. As questions of energy and ecology have become increasingly important to architectural design, the section will take on a more prominent role. Thermal forces work in section.'

As you cannot truly cut through a building, how much of a section is imaginative or freedom of interpretation?
This question gets two different aspects of the section in different ways. Firstly, as a site for design or the conceptualization of space, the section is extraordinarily good as a locus for invention and spatial creativity. As a representation, though, of existing buildings, the drawing of a section (as well as a plan since both are cuts through walls) requires extensive research into photographs and archival drawings to reveal through this density of information what cannot be seen anymore after a building is built. So yes, there is interpretation, but one we measured against a sizable body of knowledge to create drawings that were as precise as practicable, knowing as well, the final size and scale of their reproduction within the format of a book. 

'These drawings differ from drawings of archaeological ruins, where the deterioration of a structure reveals its section to the observing eye. Since we cannot, of course, cut directly into built works, our representations depend on interpreting other drawings and images to create an accurate assessment of material conditions. These other drawings are themselves often approximations of construction yet to happen, thus raising compelling questions about historical accuracy and construction of knowledge. The work of this book is based on photographs, drawings, descriptions, and, where possible, original archival construction drawings and/or digital files obtained directly from architects' firms. The drawings in this book are as precise as practicable, given available representations and the impossibility of absolute precision that is inherent in the section as a representational technique.'

How has your increased knowledge about sections informed and influenced your own work?
We came to this project with an already keen interest and investment in the section as site for design and locus of representation in the work of the office. Now that we have been immersed in the study and pursuit of sections, we see even greater opportunities for thinking sectionally. The research into this book has helped galvanize and clarify our relationship to architecture in and through the section and provided us with a language for advancing the conversation and thus the efficacy of section in our work.  

'In the work of LTL Architects, we foreground section not only as representational technique, ripe with ability to demonstrate structure, interior space, and form, but also as a key locus of design invention.'

A lot of architecture practices use more artful and illustrative forms of visual representation, especially young firms like Assemble or Fala Atelier. Will the section experience a revival soon?
We would argue that this is not a revival, but a new discursive agenda. One cannot revive something that has not yet been crystalized. Instead, we seek with this book to foster an unfolding of sectional possibilities and exploration in architecture and affiliated design discourses.  

Manual of Section by Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki, and David J. Lewis is published by Princeton Architectural Press (2016).

Images LTL Architects

Billboard: German Design Council
Billboard: German Design Council

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