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Abstraction of the name william

Parti: New Paint for an Old Lady

I originally presented this paper at the 8th Annual Beginning Student Conference in March of 1991 at The College of Architecture and Environmental Design, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. The paper was published in the proceedings of the conference. Conference co-chairs were Mary Hardin and Tim McGinty.


A "Parti" according to Webster is "the basic general scheme of an architectural design." (Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1981) There is little debate over the importance of a scheme or concept in architectural design and functionally any term could be used. However, parti with its unique architectural association presents the opportunity to have a term for a concept with a specific architectural meaning. The goal of this paper is to describe parti's historic meaning, note some of its contemporary meanings and synonyms, and then propose a definition.

Parti's French Roots

The word parti was part of the French language long before its use in the Beaux-Arts. It is derived from the Latin word partitus, a form of the root word partio which means (Glare 1982) to share, distribute, divide up, or apportion. Contemporary French definitions of parti include (Collins 1987); to take a stand; a course of action; to make a decision; a good match; to get the most out of a situation; and a political party.

Parti's first use in the Beaux-Arts context (Gallimard, 1986) of art and design occurred in Stendhal's History of Italian Painting published in 1817. In it, Stendhal referred to the artist's parti or choice as to the style in which the musculature of the human body was to be expressed. The earliest reference in an architectural context was by the theorist Quatremere de Quincy in 1825 who "defined parti as 'choice' in his dictionary, Architecture." (Bacon 1986,42)

"Composition" and parti (Van Zanten 1977) were associated terms that evolved and became prominent in the vocabulary of the professors of the Ecole in the second half of the nineteenth century. "Composition," addressed a building as a three-dimensional entity and concerned the presentation or detailing of the architectural ideas. Parti addressed the generation of the ideas themselves and was the basic scheme and fundamental solution of the building's functional program. These ideas were choices "from prendre parti, to make a choice, take a stand." (Van Zanten 1977,115)

The issue of choice seems particularly relevant because of the expansion of choices that occurred during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. These included the emergence of many new building types, the availability of many styles with Eclecticism ultimately sanctioning their mixture, Durand's proposal that buildings be systematically assembled from "combinations of basic irreducible elements" (Vidler 1977, 107), and the availability of concrete, iron and steel that broke the tie between structure, material and form and its system of articulated load and support. To define a parti was to take a stand amidst the choices—a situation that has not become any easier with the passage of time.

Parti's Place and Meaning in the Ecole

An emphasis on abstract ideas and clarity of presentation was a hallmark of the academic tradition in France. The academic architects (Egbert 1980) saw themselves as artists, and therefore, viewed drawing as the essential act of expressing or making visible their thoughts or mental conceptions. The parti was one element in this visualization process that began at the Ecole with the problem statement or program. Based on the student's analysis of the program and general knowledge of the building type, partis were conceived and typically noted through diagrammatic plans. The chosen parti was then presented in the form of a sketch or esquisse.

Ernest Flagg said,

[that the] "word parti . . . means the logical solution of the problem, and as every true architect must have two natures, the practical and the artistic, the parti must be the logical solution of the problem from his dual standpoint as constructor and artist."
Ernest Flagg (Bacon 1986,43)

In his definition, Flagg brings together "the rational and the intuitive, the pragmatic and the ideal." (Bacon 1986, 43) Arriving at a parti "was an act of reason, but the ability to 'grasp' it was an act of intuition." (Bacon 1986,43) In bringing these together, Flagg was joining the rational use of compositional principles with the intuitive choice of a direction.

Paul Cert said,

[that] "selecting a parti for a problem is to take an attitude toward a solution in the hope that a building developed on the lines indicated by it will give the best solution of the problem."
(Harbeson 1926,75)

He believed that,

"the parti was a kind of conceptual outline for the building that first established the ideal hierarchy of interior spaces and then their disposition. It was not, as it might appear, merely a two-dimensional plan. The parti established the point, or dominant element of the building and the marche, or route, through the building to the point. Thus, the parti guided the entire composition from the plan to section and finally to elevation."
(McMichael 1983,44)

The parti was able to communicate a richness of meaning because of the context in which it operated. The Ecole's system of composition which included the use of unity, symmetry and balance, clear hierarchies, axis, and reference to precedents underlay the parti's form. This system of rules and conventions meant that a very few lines could carry a great deal of information. Given this context, the meaning of a parti was clear and rich.

In summary, the parti established the abstract layout of the plan as separate from the specific form of the design. It directed the layout and relative importance given to the elements in response to the functional requirements of the problem. However, the parti was not a single-minded response to function. It also addressed the artistic, emotional and experiential qualities of the building as a three-dimensional whole. The parti held within it a vision of the experience of being in and moving through the building. It was the taking of a position—the making of a choice—as to what the building should be.


Many terms in addition to parti are used to identify design ideas. Of these "concept" is the most commonly used. Concepts (McGinty 1979) suggest specific ways that requirements and beliefs can be brought together—they integrate elements into a whole.

Paul Laseau (1989) states that the "basic concept" or parti at its best, provides:

"1. The first synthesis of the designer's response to determinants of form (program, objectives, context, site, economy, etc.)
2. A boundary around the set of decisions that will be the focus of the designer's responsibility.
3. A map for future design activities in the form of a hierarchy of values and responding forms.
4. An image that arouses expectations and provides motivation for all persons involved in the design process."
(Laseau 1989,155)

Although concepts occur at all scales and in all phases of the design process, the basic concept, big idea, superorganizing idea—the parti—refers to the most important and inclusive. This is reflected in the definition of parti presented by Clark and Pause in Precedents in Architecture (1985) who define it as,

"the dominant idea of a building which embodies the salient characteristics of that building. It encapsulates the essential minimum of the design, without which the scheme would not exist, but from which the architecture can be generated."
(Clark & Pause 1985,3)

Concepts, however, do not just appear out of the problem but are perceived as a result (White 1975) of the individual designer's world view, general philosophy, design philosophy and view of the problem. Concepts are a statement of what we value. As such, they take a stand and impose a hierarchy. Those issues that we see first in a problem are those we value most and solve first. Furthermore, "the concepts generated early in the planning process tend to solidify our perception of the problem and thus influence and even govern the concepts that follow." (White 1975, 19)

Contemporary examples and definitions of parti (Friedman 1989, Clark & Pause 1985) tend to present it as a diagram without an accompanying interpretation or explanation. They appear as distilled logical diagrams whose meaning is ambiguous because unlike the parti within the Beaux-Arts there is no commonly held compositional system with its rules and conventions. If a parti is to be understood today there must be some explanation or interpretation that accompanies the diagram.

Parti: A Definition

A Parti is an inclusive geometry, and its interpretation that identifies and articulates the essential elements, relationships and intended meanings of a design.

If design is the process that transforms ideas into things then the parti provides the link. It is the fundamental move in the transformation of words into form. Human beings have the ability to formulate concepts and transform them into symbolic representations through "two principal media: verbal language and visual images What links these two forms of expression is the concept" (Lynch & Marc he 1990, 128)—the parti. If a parti is to stand alone as the abstract representation of the essential architectural concept it must do so by employing both drawing and its interpretation—both visual and verbal representations.

To further develop what I am proposing, the implications of key ideas from the definition will be explored.


The more inclusive and mature the parti, the greater its gathering power—the larger the number of ideas it is able to accommodate. A parti is more inclusive if it simultaneously addresses more issues and interrelationships, meets more requirements, includes more elements and affects more decisions.


The visual representation of a parti is its geometry or formal structure. The nature and beauty of language is that each word or sentence can carry many meanings. Physical things however, afford a more limited range of meanings. The geometry is a commitment to a more specific direction. It is a circle versus a square, close versus far, straight versus crooked, identical versus different, one versus nine, light versus heavy, simple versus complex.
Historically, the parti was associated with a plan view representation of the idea. However, the parti should use any means that allows it to communicate its three dimensional essence. It may be a drawing, model or computer image; orthographic, axonometric or perspective; figural, diagrammatic, or gestural; in any combination or form.
A parti's geometry should be an efficient, clear and complete visual representation that communicates the rational and experiential or expressive intention of the design.


Juan Bonta proposes an interpretational model of architecture in which the meaning of architecture is "removed—and sometimes even dissociated—from what architecture actually is. The real functions of a building... [can] be quite different from those expressed in its design and perceived by different people." (Bonta 1979, 14) "When a designer discusses his work, he is behaving as an interpreter, not as a designer." (Bonta 1979, 226) She is expressing what she believes to be the meaning communicated by the design.

The parti includes an interpretation of the geometry—a verbal representation of the concept. The interpretation makes manifest the designer's intended meanings, beliefs and priorities and describes the parti's implications for the elements of the problem. Once stated, it launches a dialogue over meaning. Within the studio the dialogue brings out the fit between the student's and other's interpretation and the consistency between the verbal and visual representations


The inclusiveness of a parti is related to the number of problem elements or determinants it is able to address. Each design problem brings together a set of factors or determinants. These may be grouped for example under the categories of:

Technology (structures, environmental controls, and construction)
Context (the natural and man-made environment)
Function (physical, psychological and social needs)
Aesthetics (the perception of things as beautiful or pleasurable).

A parti must identify and address a problem's essential elements and establish the relationships between them.


The nature of relationships is of central concern in transforming ideas into things (the relating of physical qualities and structures to conceptual qualities and structures). In the process of design we search for and create thee fundamental types of relationships:

Pattern (repeated or predictable relationships)
Hierarchy (relationships of relative importance)
Contrast (relationships of variation, pattern disruption, or the unpredictable)
Balance (relationships of symmetry and asymmetry).

The parti must describe these relationships. It must establish what is to be expected, what is most important and what is a surprise. It gathers and locates essential problem elements and establishes their patterns and hierarchies against which contrasts can be seen. It affords the perception of (Friedman 1989) the ordering principles, logic, or rules that guide the development of the design.

Intended Meanings

Meaning is read from and attributed to a thing through its affordances and the personal, social and cultural filters or schemata each person has constructed through the process of learning. Each thing affords or supports a certain range of meanings at any given point in time for each observer. A designer's decisions relating physical qualities to ideas are made with the intention of communicating certain meanings. These intended meanings are based on the designer's interpretation of the form and his understanding of the users.

Meaning, according to Hershberger (1974), is both presentational and referential. Presentational meaning is based on the form of the thing itself. "We separate the object from its context (field), perceive its shape, texture, color, and so on, realize its status relative to us and other objects, and categorize it according to known objects and events." (Hershberger 1974, 149) Referential meaning results from connections between things and our memories and includes both association (meaning based on intellectual memories thst find their reference in human culture) and empathy (meaning based on bodily memory). Presentational and referential meanings are the basis for constructing feelings, emotions, values, attitudes and ultimately behavior.

In other words, meaning is both rational and intuitive, mind and body, abstract and experiential. If the parti is to be the fundamental concept, it must have the capability of addressing and communicating this full range of meanings.


What has been proposed is a parti employing two forms of communication—a geometry or visual and an interpretation or verbal communication. Furthermore, these address the essential elements, relationships and intended meanings of the design. In my thinking and teaching, two issues have become pivotal. First, partis should include both visual and verbal representations; and second, partis should contain both rational and experiential information.

The verbal/visual combination is particularly important for students who usually have a word orientation. The parti provides a link or bridge between the verbal and graphic systems and each can be used to understand and critique the other. The dialogue that grows from this juxtaposition can develop an awareness of the relationship between ideas and form and build an understanding of the meanings afforded by form and its representation

The expression of both thought and feeling—the rational and intuitive—in the parti is equally important but more difficult. It is important because previous education has usually emphasized the logical. It is difficult because students have had little experience in translating emotional or bodily centered experience into form and because the logical and experiential are usually addressed through separate means. If the parti is the essential architectural concept then it should address architecture as a whole—it should communicate its rational and expressive content.

I began with the goal of learning what a parti was. The result has been a renewed interest in the nature and use of concepts in design and design education. I have presented a definition for parti that acknowledges both its historic and contemporary meanings. In one sense, any term could be assigned this definition. Parti's value lies in its unique architectural association. However, regardless of whether you are comfortable with repainting an old lady, the definition and representation of the essential architectural concept is a powerful tool in design and design education.