Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

David Letherbarrow

Second Advisor

Franca Trubiano


Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, the concept of “detail” as an item of disciplinary terminology has often been central to the discourse and practice of architects, engineers, and builders. The term has most often been associated with construction design and representation, “the construction detail,” the smallest scale at which a building is typically designed, but there are also many other dimensions (and complications) to the term’s meanings in the context of building practices. For some, particularly those writing in popular sources, the words “ornament” and “detail” are often understood as interchangeable. While others would argue, as Philip Johnson and Henry Russel Hitchcock did in 1932, that “ornament” and “detail” are categorically different things. Many architects and writers have claimed “detail” as an essential bearer of architectural meaning. However, others have aspired to create architecture with no details at all, if such a thing is even possible. How have we gotten to a point where the concept of detail and its role in building can be understood in such diverse and, at times, even contradictory ways?

This dissertation seeks to clarify this situation by offering an account of the history of “detail” as a disciplinary concept, specific to the practices of building. It locates the term’s origins in the French language and describes the processes by which it was appropriated by the building professions as an item of disciplinary terminology by 1755, then transferred from French into English-language discourse and practice, and by 1899 had evolved a collection of rich and divergent yet interrelated meanings. Each chapter is centered on a historical episode of particular importance and coherence in the history of the term “detail,” and is structured around the “world” of a particular actor or group of actors, for which each chapter is titled: The Academic, The Technician, The Student, The Engineer, and The Architect. Each of these chapters describes a specific facet of the building professional and their practice, and the ways in which their particular “world” conditioned the emergence of some new meaning of the term “detail,” a meaning shaped by bodies of knowledge and ways of thinking specific to that time, place, and individual or group. The dissertation’s conclusion employs this history of “detail” as a disciplinary specific concept to contextualize our contemporary understandings of “detail” in all their diversity, and it offers an account of the “practice of detailing” on which they all are based.

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