Let us show you how vital details can be to the whole

10 min read

More than the sum of its parts

It might sound hackneyed, but Aristotle’s statement does not appear to have lost any of its validity over 2,000 years later: ‘In the case of all things which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts’ (Metaphysics VIII, 1045a). What is it that gives the whole its dynamism and vitality, more than its individual parts have? That is a question that different disciplines take different approaches to answering. In physics, one might look at the interactions between objects – at their properties in relation to each other. In religion, the various beliefs, in spite of their differences, might agree on a spiritual solution, a higher power. And in architecture? What makes architecture good and what brings it to life?

Take a house and break it down into individual, structural elements: the windows, stairs, doors, walls, etc., and give them to another architect to rebuild. Even a layperson will understand that the new building will not be the same as its predecessor. They may only differ in nuances, in minor details, but the two buildings will never be identical. Even if the two buildings follow a modular concept with the same itemised parts lists, and even if they are built by the same architect, the difference in the spirit of place makes each build unique. This already reveals the value and significance of an individual detail – in this case a very essential one, one that is not even tangible. At the same time, this situation raises a fundamental question. Can we say that some details are significant and some trivial?

Combined, details create an enchanting clockwork

Richness of detail does not always mean many details – a simple arrangement of one detail after another. Generally, it is the opposite that is true. Detailed, sophisticated architecture is often characterised by a very minimalist look. Refined and quiet. By contrast, a subtle aesthetic often conceals a very complex and detailed interior. This ambivalence may be why details are sometimes associated with opulence and a degree of marginality in western society. The definition of the word alone includes a kind of duality. According to the dictionary, a detail can be both inconsequential and essential.

In this context, it is understandable that 1925 witnessed fierce debates on whether God or the devil is in the details. Is too much detail obstructive and disruptive? Or is there something divine, something almost sensuous in a detail? Instigated by art historian Aby Warburg, whose seminar on Italian early renaissance art focused on microstructures, the debate shone a spotlight on the significance of unprepossessing things. Warburg believed that every detail is important and worthy of consideration, even if it does not appear so at first glance. This approach plays an immense role in Eastern ideology, especially in Japanese culture. They do not recognise the above-mentioned ambivalence, which dominates our world view, as their ideology values details above all else. For instance, the traditional dish, sashimi, is far more complex in its preparation and cutting methodology than the actual result would suggest: simple sliced raw fish. However, the training required to become a sushi chef in Japan takes up to 15 years, and the first years are dedicated solely to learning how to sharpen knives and wash rice correctly. From a western perspective, they may seem inconsequential details, but they influence the perfection of the result.

Accordingly, this topic would seem to be less about the details and their role, and more about their value and the ambition of achieving a perfect result. How much effort and work do I invest in an individual detail if it ‘only’ makes up a minor, perhaps even supposedly insignificant part of the whole? Assuming we ignore Eastern philosophy, could we then decide whether there is objectively such a thing as an ‘insignificant’ detail? As a construct, the whole only exists as a combination of individual parts. How can one part be less significant than another or the aggregate itself? Consider a clockwork: if just one screw is out of place, it will no longer work. The mechanism will still be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing but lose part of its previous inherent charm due to the loss of function. And is it not the precisely coordinated interaction that makes up the actual magic and fascination? The interlaced movements and how they mesh exude a sense of balance and perfection overall. When something is in harmony, following a certain regularity, it appeals to people and calms them. German author Eva Heller, who was particularly interested in colour compositions and their impact on the human psyche and mood, believed so. She wrote ‘if the details aren’t right, nothing is right’. By inference, this means if the small details are not right, then the bigger picture will show the same inconsistencies. This is just one aspect that in turn reveals a fundamental philosophy: each part needs a counterpart to define itself and its existence. Small and large, day and night, loud and quiet, hot and cold. And the detail and its whole. Accordingly, details must be significant and have a value of their own. This value that is greater than its name would lead you to think at first glance.

What does an excerpt say about the whole?

Which conclusions can we derive for architecture from the significance of a detail? Take, for example, a detailed intersection within the overall façade of a building. In general, only the outer appearance is in the foreground, while the intersection remains concealed as part of the primary construction. But is the detail reflected in the whole or is the whole reflected in the small details, in spite of everything? Or can we assume either one from the other, or draw conclusions from one to another? ‘One only sees what one already knows and understands’ wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1819. But what does that mean for the whole – the architecture itself – if you do not see or comprehend a detail? If one does not or cannot perceive all details or has no way of accessing them, would it be possible to understand the building as such? Not according to the inference. However, it would be wrong to generalise here. We need to consider the extent to which we want to or must truly and utterly comprehend the whole, based on the given situation. Is an overview sufficient, or do we need a deeper insight? A house will be recognisable as a house without knowing in advance what floor covering was used in the kitchen. However, this information is essential when evaluating the building as a harmonious residential property. The starting point and the superordinate context are the key. In addition to this, it has become clear that one cannot exist without the other and they exist in continuous interaction. However, the key is that within these relationships, and with regard to the consideration of the individual and the whole, one must not make ‘incorrect’ inferences, like a pars-pro-toto fallacy, whereby a part represents the whole (pars pro toto) but the whole does not necessarily represent a part. A whole cannot simply be broken down into individual parts. A parquet floor is a floor covering for interiors, but not every interior floor covering is a parquet floor.

Part of the series:

Attention to Detail [#8] or: What is precious to you?

More about this theme

The same applies to a construction or structure. A joint is part of a tiled surface, but a tiled surface does not consist entirely of joints. Some might say ‘you still need tiles’, but that only meaningful to a limited extent. For example, if we consider the fascinating interior spaces of the Alhambra in Spain, it is clear that most of the rooms are dominated by impressive, intricate tiled compositions. However, if we break them down into individual parts, they retain little of their fascination. This reveals the value of the interaction. If it is coherent, harmonious and balanced, the respective construct appears to gain an additional quality, lending it an inexplicable but perceptible appeal. The joint is no more valuable than the tiles, or the tiled surface itself. They are absolutely equivalent. Even the grout influences the tiled surface, holding it together and in place. However, you do not have to know the exact composition of the grout to recognise that the Alhambra is an impressive building. Perhaps the impression would be even more significant if you knew exactly all of the individual parts that are present and installed. Perhaps a certain degree of mystery is what contributes to the overwhelming impression – like a secretive layer between the building and observer. Like an enigma, it is something for people to discover and research. You want to look behind it – uncover what is hidden, in the dark. In turn, this intermediate layer, the mysterious and unknown, is different for every individual. In particular given the fact that perceptions and views are guided by experience, and influenced and shaped by the subjective background, everybody sees buildings, landscapes and the world itself differently.


If we return to our initial example of the same building – the house built twice by the same architect, but assume two different observers, both will probably see the same building, but perceive and feel something different beyond the different spirit of place. Their focus will always be different. Even identical twins will respond with different associations and descriptions, as everybody experiences, perceives and feels different influences in their childhood, even in the same family. Perception remains subjective and ‘true’ for every individual from their own perspective. At the same time, this also means that every individual perceives and focuses on different things when looking at a design. Different associations are evoked, filtering diverse details from a structure. As a result, a detail remains an excerpt from a whole. But where an excerpt reaches its limits ultimately remains individual, as is the classification of a detail and its relationship to the remainder. Accordingly a window can be a detail of a building. Equally, a pane of glass can be a detail for a window and the quartz sand can be a detail for the glass in a pane.

Part of the whole as a form of humility

Fundamentally, it is clear that every detail is significant in and of itself. The extent of its value depends on the point of view and, proverbially, to a certain extent on the ‘eye of the beholder’. If one changes perspective, ceases to be an external observer and identifies oneself with the detail itself, one could become aware of one’s own value for the whole. Without its own existence within a structure, it would lose a part of its function. Accordingly, the beholder has an important, an existential function. At the same time, being part of the whole is a form of humility. You become aware of your own position within a structure, and do not stand above it but are merely one part among many. You are also influenced yourself and will lose something if the function and thus the magic of the whole is lost, as soon as this harmony falls apart. So all parts must interact to maintain the status quo. In turn, this status quo is not a self-contained system in most cases. Life is a continuous process, a development. It is difficult to draw clear boundaries and consider individual areas as self-contained. Like the difficulty of defining an excerpt, it is hard to define individual systems, as superordinate interactions always prevail. One influences the other – in all things great and small. This symbolises their own dependency. As a result, the old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is just as applicable as the saying that even the weak become strong when they are united. Both are frequently used starting points in team building activities to promote team spirit and mutual respect. These approaches are increasingly important especially with regard to the current societal developments. Of course, it cannot (figuratively) always be about the same parts, in this case the same persons or groups of persons, being the only ones making an effort to keep the construct, in this case society, together and preserve it. However, perhaps every individual should realise what they stand to lose themselves if the whole should cease to function and exist as such. While the supplemental, intermediate layer, added in a harmonious whole remains invisible and intangible, it is always perceptible and fascinating as something special. It is something very desirable, that gives each individual, every detail something more and something magical, when everything or everyone comes together to form a coherent, functioning whole. Maybe neither the devil nor God is in the details. Maybe Theodor Fontane was right when he said that it is the magic that is always in the details.

Still believe you have found a devil in the details after reading that, or want to look for one? Then check this out: Devil in the details

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