Learn architecture without going to architecture school! A quick DIY guide for game developers

I’m an architect, though I rarely turn my talents to the design of physical installations anymore. I matriculated at a major university, in a well-regarded honours architecture program. After several years of hard work and study, I successfully graduated, and, upon shaking Many Important Hands, I received a sad, austere piece of paper stating as much. I also went home thoroughly disgruntled with the architectural academy.

Architecture is a very large and very old field, and while I'm aware that there are many programs that provide valuable knowledge ( *cough* not all architects *cough*), I have found the architectural profession and academy largely dismissive of the kind of work that I have come to practice: namely, the study and creation of spaces such as videogames and the internet. Traditional architects have often described this work to me as "not concrete" and sometimes simply "not architecture." I choose to describe these spaces as "emergent.”

Despite the frustration I feel toward my discipline, I still find its approaches and lessons extremely valuable. Humans are very spatially perceptive creatures, and notions of space colour much of our experience.

The act of consciously reading and interpreting what a space is doing to its inhabitants, and the ability to use that knowledge to design systems and entities in spatially informed and deliberate ways will always, in my opinion, be worthwhile.

So when my friends and colleagues from other creative disciplines come to me and ask where a good place to begin their own private study of architecture is, it is always with a large measure of glee that I begin to respond.  They, unlike me, have begun their journey prudently; by electing to remain outside the gravity-well of the architectural establishment, they bring vital outsider sensibilities to a craft dominated by where conservatism and caution frequently rule the day.

There is, of course, much more to architecture than the formal considerations of how space is designed and composed, but it is here that we will begin. We’re going to cover some practical introductions to architecture as a craft, and then in a future post, trace a barebones lineage of architectural thought from ancient Rome to contemporary Europe and America.


Pantheon Francis Ching.png

Architecture: Form, Space, and Order by Francis Ching

This book is a superb examination of how architecture works and what it feels like. Filled with hundreds of gloriously detailed, hand-rendered images of buildings, landscapes, and cities throughout history, famous architectural draftsman and lecturer Francis Ching walks the reader through what each example is “doing,” and how it was achieved. Further, he fits all of these discrete critical readings into a comprehensive introductory framework of spatial “movements.”

What is gained by centering a piece of architecture around a single node? What is gained by extending the node upward, to form a tower? What is gained by pairing that linear element with another a short distance away, creating an implied plane?

How and why can this structure in three dimensions read as a plane? How might such a place be experienced by its occupants? These are the questions that Architecture: Form, Space, and Order both asks and answers.

I tried to keep the three introductory texts as inexpensive as possible, but unfortunately, this one is the most expensive, due in part to the fact that it is a textbook. Let me assure you, however, that of all three of these introductory texts, this is by far the most comprehensive and useful. All of the texts mentioned in the piece are commonly found in local and university libraries, and some have been made available as PDFs. Search around.


Architectural Drawing Course: Tools and Techniques for 2D and 3D Representation by Mo Zell

You might worry that you are missing out on something foundational by foregoing the academy; don't panic! This is normal. Capital-A-Architecture is distinguished at making practitioners feel inadequate, with disciples often passing on the abuse.

This book contains all of the exercises your professor would have asked of you, but won't expect you to forgo sleep for 3 days straight to prove your "commitment."

It’s constructed as a series of short "assignments," commonly known in the design community as "charrettes" -- so named for the carts the underslept architecture students of 19th century France rode upon as they frantically worked to amend unfinished drawings. The book begins with basic exercises to get you thinking spatially, slowly building in complexity as it also builds your confidence. My own prized copy was unavailable at the time of this writing, but if my memory serves, none of the exercises are longer than a day’s (or a few afternoons') work. These charrettes follow a structure similar to the previous book, inviting you first to explore the line, plane, and volume, and what working with each can grant you. This makes it an excellent companion for making sense of the more abstract groundwork laid by Architecture: Form, Space, and Order.

Don't mistake this 140-page wonder for a mere survey of what you'd get in school; the exercises contained within cover just about all of the physical media techniques used by architects to sort out their ideas on any given project. Digital techniques are largely not covered in this book, but don't fret about that too much, I’ve often found stopping work in CAD to do a quick model from foam or paper to be a fruitful change of pace. However if you find that not to be the case, these approaches can be approximated by whatever digital modeling program you prefer. These rapid-fire architectural charrettes are certain to serve you well no matter what your relationship to architecture and digital modeling is.

Clear some time and savor each exercise, spacing them out to allow for rest and reflection.


101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick

The title is fairly self-explanatory, though I'm living testament that even if you did attend architecture school, you can miss many of these lessons. Better to buy this cheap reference book, and save yourself on hilarious tuition costs.

What’s a 4-word takeaway from Postmodern architecture? What was the difference between sections and elevations, again? And what the hell is a parti? (only the single most useful design technique in architecture!)

Each of the hundred-and-one architectural lessons occupies a two page spread -- one page for a simple and evocative doodle, and the other with a few words to summarize the idea. The previous two books will likely have over-filled even the most focused and diligent mind, and that’s where this one comes in. Let each of its short, sharp lessons serve as a hook for the voluminous information you’ve already absorbed.

An inspired volume to keep on your desk to flip through.


These are the books I recommend when someone asks me how and where to begin their study of architecture. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @Cyarron. Happy reading!

In part two of this series, I will be examining (and complicating) the history of architecture.