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God is in the Details

The idiom "God is in the details " is often attributed to minimalist German architect Mies van der Rohe, who probably co-opted the phrase from the German proverb "“Der liebe Gott steckt im detail”, which translates as "God is in the detail". Whereas the more modern expression "The devil is in the details" alludes to hidden, onerous details in the context of a design or composition, Mies was referring to the critical role of detailing, and specifically architectural detailing, in the deeper appreciation and experience of a work of design or architecture. Mies was a masterful detailer, and his buildings are masterpieces of proportion and detail. His approach was very much a meditation on the tectonic and proportional relationships between the various components of his buildings, resulting in works of timeless beauty.

As a Danish-American modern architect trained in Scandinavia, I have learned that the details of a design register consciously and subconsciously with the experiencer, and are critical in imparting order and meaning to a design, and ultimately making it "sing" to those who experience it. On another level, the details can be conceived to accentuate and harmonize with the overall concept, in creating a "gesamtkunstwerk", or total work of art. Sensitive detailing can make the difference between a design work of bland utility and a design which evokes a positive spiritual response, and even touches the soul.

Architectural details are diverse in type and objective, and can be functional or aesthetical in nature, ranging from the correct detailing of roof edges and penetrations to prohibit leaking (functional), to for example the introduction of shadow reveals between finish components achieve create an impression of lightness and refinement (aesthetical).

At Todd Verwers Architects we recognize the importance of good detailing, and we prioritize thorough detailing in all of our projects. In fact, the details are often conceived early in the design process, and often inform and define the schematic design.

Now that we have relocated from Denmark to California, we recognize the need for appropriate detailing in the built environment, and we stress the importance of detailing to our new clients. Detailing of architecture in the United States is often omitted from design services agreements to reduce cost and left by default to the contractor to determine, where the contractor may not have an understanding of the overarching design concept, or the critical eye to execute appropriate details, and may be motivated by a financial incentive to construct in the most expedient way. This undermines the potentail value of the built design and the client's investment in the project.

The cover photo of this essay illustrates the corner section of an exhibition wall mock-up for the Moderne Samling (Modern Collection) at the Danish Museum of National History, developed in collaboration with Hoffgaard Arkitekter. Here I had Mies van der Rohe's approach in mind when detailing the proportional relationships and joints between the functional components of proposed exhibition walls in the historic context of Frederiksborg Castle. In addition to providing flexibility in displaying exhibition pieces, these freestanding walls also incorporate lighting channels integrated into the structure and overall aesthetic. The aesthetic relationship between these modern insertions and the ornate plaster ceilings of the castle's exhibition rooms was also a critical consideration, requiring a level of sophistication and refinement in detailing the new walls.

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