Diagram in Architecture

We have prepared an abridged version of a text on the diagram at the service of arhitecture – and the other way around, by Nevena Novaković, previously published in Prostor magazine, entitled Dijagramatična arhitektura (Diagrammatic Architecture, in Serbian).

Industrial society may be said to have most particularly been marked by change in how humans perceive time. Sanford Kwinter’s definition of this change is an evocative one: The once imperceptibly slow and stable rhythms of history that earlier furnished a kind of immobile ground for the more labile and fluid human figure began to oscillate and vary in pattems of shorter and shorter duration, effecting an epochal reversal in social and historical experience. What once appeared as a fixed and global continuum subtending human temporal experience – the historicomaterial assemblage, for example, known as ‘the city’ – began to multiply, mutate, and atomize so quickly and finely that it itself could no longer be conceived as anything other than a turbulent, punctuated fluid. [1]

Apart from the passing of time becoming more accelerated, inescapably imposing greater speeds on the quality of living today, another phenomenon has come to mark contemporary urban environments, that of data storm, of the incessant flow of information altering social patterns, typical urban activities and the organisation of cities. [2] All these changes as to how space and time are perceived and experienced pose fundamental questions before the stakeholders considering, planning and designing cities. What is the right course of action in the ever-faster changing social and spatial context? This question is a good place to enter into a discussion of the relationship between architecture and the diagram.

The term diagrammatic architecture was first used by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito in 1996 in a text in which he interprets the architecture of famous Kajuyo Sejima. Ito’s verdict is that the power and delicacy of Sejima’s architecture arise from the close similarity between the buildings themselves and the scale drawings representing them. Here works of architecture become one or merge with the diagrams, as the diagrams showing spatial functions are transformed into constructed spatial forms. [3]

Figure 1. Kazujo Sejima, medium-height residential building, design prototype, roof and floor plans, 1995.

Several years after Ito opened the contemporary diagram debate, architect Peter Eisenman published a book entitled Diagram Diaries. The book is a review of Eisenman’s designs dating back to 1970, in which he expounds on the modus operandi of architectural design. [4] Eisenman’s essays are richly illustrated with graphic appendices, and together they explain his diagrammatic approach to architecture, in which architectural structures and their contexts go through iterations in diagram form. It was the first time for Robert Somol, author of the book foreword, that the diagram became synonymous with architecture, and not simply its representation. According to Somol, the diagram is an implement of architectural production and discourse generation, which operates between form and words, space and language. This makes the diagram performative rather than representational. [5]

Figure 2. Peter Eisenman, Diagrams of transformation of House IV, 1971.

Robert Somol links the increasing focus of architectural theory and practice on the diagram to the 1960’s and the new phase in how architectural profession was perceived. Somol claims that the basic techniques and methods of architectural knowledge changed in the second half of the 20th century, transforming from the drawing to the diagram. [6] The diagram grew in importance in what may be called the information age. Swimming against the current of information, the architect is faced with the necessity to make selections, define priorities and opt for the best ways in which to use the selected. Previously, information had always been seen as a subcategory; now, it became the actual subject matter.

Figure 3. www.chora.org

According to Anthony Vidler, the diagram is one element or ingredient shared by the wholly distinct phenomena or projects of architecture and town planning. Designs done on paper, those created in digital space and actual, constructed buildings, to which such words are associated as topography, map, event-space, morphogenesis and process, have one common feature: they are all generated and represented using digital technologies. The diagram is their second common feature, says Vidler, one they also share with the modernist avant-garde, their common predecessor. [7] Unlike Somol, Vidler traces the origins of the diagram back to a much earlier period. He discovers them in the early modern period, when architectural drawings became abstract, and whose geometric linearity and simplicity pushed for diagrammatic representation. Vidler illustrates the early use of the diagrammatic drawing with Durand’s (Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand) new methods of representation, as used at the École polytechnique opened in Paris in 1785. Durand’s drawings consisted of series of lines, points and planes and contained no decorative details. Such simplified drawings were meant to point to that which is essential about architecture. [8]

Vidler’s narrative takes us to 20th-century modern architecture, more precisely, to Le Corbusier, who said his architectural concepts were an extension to classicist principles – formal Greek order, ancient Romans’ institutional and typological heritage, and the proportional systems of the 16th- and 17th-century modern French Classicists. [9] This is how diagrammatic architecture reached its apex in modernism. The abstract form promoted by modern architecture, which shied away from all decoration, was accused in the 1960’s of being sterile and drastically reduced, of being alien to man. Vidler finds common ground for all criticism of modernist architecture: too literal a transposition of new graphic techniques into physical form. Architecture literally looked like the geometric shapes that were used to design and present it in visual form on paper. [10] This leads to the following question, in light of what is stated above: can modern architecture be called diagrammatic architecture? If so, can Kazujo Sejima’s work be labeled modernist? Does the modernist drawing indeed possess all the characteristics of diagrams, or its similarity to the diagram does not extend beyond abstraction?

The diagram may also serve as a tool to understand the architecture that is already out there or, as Douglas Graf puts it, as a tool of interpretation. In regard to this, however, an object may never be fully comprehended or known. An architectural object may be seen as an array of abstractions, reductions, as a series of segments and boundaries which are manifested simultaneously and which are prone to expansion and contraction, never letting the eye settle on what it sees and constantly eliciting revisions. [11] Our analysis of architectural objects would greatly benefit from an instrument which would allow us to simultaneously move back and forth between contradicting views – those of typologies defining programmes on the one hand, and those defining form on the other; between the distinct qualities of an object and the general qualities of architecture; between cognition and perception as two discrete processes; between the dynamic quality of function and the static quality of composition. It is precisely the diagram that is capable of this. Thus, it develops its own inherent characteristics through aspects of binary oppositions. The content suggested by a diagram is preliminary and transitory. By means of its continuous debate between oppositions, the diagram reveals weaknesses, insecurity and originality, thus assuming revisionary authority in the process of interpretation. [12] If modernist graphic representations possess the characteristics of the diagram, then the diagrammatic quality, or rather the potential of the diagram for a great number of possibilities and combinations of architectural positions, is wasted as the diagram, being a graphic presentation, is literally transposed into physical space.

Figure 4. Plan diagram – structure of events in space. Rem Koolhaas, Melun-Senart urban design, 1987.

Toilet groups mutate into Disney Store then morph to become meditation center: successive transformations mock the word plan. The plan is a radar screen where individuals pulses survive for unpredictable periods of time in a Bacchanalian free-for-all… In this standoff between the redundant and the inevitable, a plan would actually make matters worse, drive you to instant despair. Only the diagram gives a bearable version. There is zero loyalty – and zero tolerance – toward configuration, no original condition; architecture has turned into a time-lapse sequence to reveal a permanent evolution… [13]

Finally, why do architects like diagrams? The diagram debate in contemporary architecture concerns several major issues: that of the relation between architectural representation and the process of design, and also of the strategy of architectural-urban design in the context of continuous, rapid change at all levels and of all aspects of the urban environment, as vividly described by Koolhas. Essentially, the actualisation of the diagram in contemporary architecture and town planning is intricately linked to the accessibility of the wealth of information which the architect must understand and format. The previously mentioned dual nature of the diagram, with its ability to simultaneously make references in two domains, that of the general and of the specific, singles the diagram out as a valuable reflective tool in the field of architecture. The diagram allows the architect, researcher, to identify and visually analyse discrete elements of a problem, theory, idea or physical object, while maintaining a holistic view of it.

Diagrams are visualisations of the thinking process, in which one image is not merely a representation of a fixed intellectual or physical state, but rather of a number of possible options and combinations of attributes juxtaposed, as binary oppositions, by the diagram. They are single graphic representations that allow the consideration of a great number of combinations and relations, i.e., that encapsulate a whole range of possibilities inherent in the thinking process, allowing the architect to carefully balance between the ideational and visual, dynamic and static.

…the diagram is the possibility of fact – It is not the fact itself. [14]


1. Stanford Kwinter, “The Reinvention of Geometry”, Introduction to “Urbanism after Innocence: Four Projects,” by Rem Koolhaas, Assemblage 18 (1992): 8.

3. http://www.archplus.net/download/artikel/1064/‎ (accessed on 23 November 2013)

2. Raoul Bunschoten, “Urban Gallery, Urban Curation”, CHORA – Urban and Architectural Research Laboratory.


3. Anthony Vidler, “Diagrams of Diagrams: Architectural Abstraction and Modern Representation”, Representations 72 (2000): 1-20.

4. Ibid, 17.

5. R.E. Somol, “Dummy Text, or the Diagrammatic Basis of Contemporary Architecture”, Introduction to Diagram Diaries, by Peter Eisenman, 7-25. (New York: Universe Publishing, 1999).

6. R.E. Somol, “Dummy Text, or the Diagrammatic Basis of Contemporary Architecture”.

7. Anthony Vidler, “Diagrams of Diagrams: Architectural Abstraction and Modern Representation”.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Douglas Graf, “Diagrams”, Perspecta 22 (1986): 42-71.

12. Ibid.

13. Rem Koolhas, AMOMA and &&&, Content, 167. (Tachen, 2004).

14. Gilles Deleuze, “The Diagram”, in The Deleuze Reader, Constantin V. Boundas, ed.: 199. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).


Anthony Vidler, “Diagrams of Diagrams: Architectural Abstraction and Modern Representation”, Representations 72 (2000): 4.

Rem Koolhaas, “Urbanism after Innocence: Four Projects,” Assemblage 18 (1992): 88.

Other: www.chora.org

Nevena Novaković work as a senior teaching assistant at the Chair of Urban Planning

at the Faculty of Architecture and Civil Engineering, University of Banjaluka, from where she graduated in 2003 at the Department of Architecture. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Belgrade.


Architects, Architecture, Diagram, Diagrammatic architecture, Kajuyo Sejima, Le Corbusier, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito

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