Exponential Documentation vs Just Building


Compressive Transverse Section of a Typical Gothic Cathedral from Bearing Walls: Monolithic Masonry Construction, Columbia University

People tend to assume the way things are done now is the way they have been done forever which is not always true. For example, the thrilling video Blaise Aguera y Arcas: Photosynth Demo shows a sequence where Flickr images are assembled to form Notre Dame cathedral.

One geometry can be put together from different view points and angles because we know what Notre Dame cathedral looks like now.  In comparison, trying to decipher the geometry of knowledge being built over time, or precisely reconstruct the topology of similar idea and information exchanges, is very difficult because the geometry of the end result is not known yet.  There is not one existing structure to assemble the different points of views and angles to a single structure.

Surprisingly, according to Brian Bowen of Georgia Tech and the newly forming Construction History Society, it turns out many builders of the old cathedrals did not know what they were doing ahead of time either.   Scholarly research indicates there are only approximately 3000 drawings and 400 contracts from the medieval period.  Paper was not available and papyrus was simply to expensive.  More often than not, plaster was used as a temporary canvas to depict parts of the building until that stage was complete.  New plaster was applied on top to show the next phase of work.  Thomas Jefferson used similar techniques in the design and construction of the University of Virginia.  The masons controlled the execution, often changing their minds part way through the construction process.

Today, the contract documents for 1 building may be comprised of 3000 drawings with 400 contracts and subcontracts = the entire history and all of the documentation left of the medieval period.  3000 and 400 are the quantities that can be validated now, maybe scholars will discover more records in the future, especially if these records can be pieced together by subject matter or physical location.

The whole world of buildings and geography is being constructed and documented both backwards and forwards in time.  At some point instead of documentation rising exponentially, hopefully the tide will reverse to become smaller, shared records of places stepping back in time and detail as needed.

Now when you see a video like 1 Week of Artworks




It makes more sense that perhaps semantic space can be built in a controlled and creative fashion without knowing the optimal geometry of the end result.  This is actually history repeating itself from other monumental efforts in the past.

Reading List, Courtesy of Brian Bowen



The Construction Industry Processes, Players and Practices, Ralph Liebing, 2000

Broken Buildings, Busted budgets, How to fix Americas Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry, Barry B. Lepatner, 2007

Construction History, Journal of the Construction History Society, 1984

Proceedings of the International Congresses on Construction History, First Congress, Madrid 2004; Second Congress, Cambridge 2006

Building: 3000 Years of Design Engineering and Construction, Bill Addis, 2007

Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition, Jeff Byles, 2005


Pyramid, David Macauley, 1975


How the Great Pyramid was Built, Craig B. Smith, 2004

The Greek Temple Builders at Epidaurus, Alison Burford, 1969

Roman Architecture and Society, James C. Anderson, Jr.,1997, Part 1, pgs 3, 180.

Roman Builders, a Study in Architectural Process, Rabun Taylor, 2003

Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, edited by Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe, 199

Roman Fort: Building a Roman Legionary Fortress, Elizabeth Shirley, 2001

The Roman Jurists and the Organization of Private Building in the Late Republic and Early Empire, Susan D. Martin, Collection Latomus, Volume 204, 1989.


Cathedral, David Macauley, 1973

The Cathedral Builders, Jean Gimpel, 1961

Building the Great Cathedrals, Francois Icher, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1998

The Template Makers of the Paris Basin: pioneers of the Gothic movement, John James, 1994

The Medieval Mason: An Economic History of English Stone Building, Douglas Knoop & G.P.Jones, Third Edition, 1967

Building in England down to 1540; a Documentary History, L.F. Salzman, 1967

Gold was the Mortar; The Economics of Cathedral Building, Henry Kraus, 1979

The Choir of the Cathedral of Clemont-Ferrand : the Beginning of Construction and the Work of Jean Deschamps, Michael T.Davis, JSAH XL:3, October 1981

Henry Yevele: The Life of an English Architect, John Harvey, 1946



The Renaissance: a Short History, Paul Johnson, 2000


The Building of Renaissance Florence: An Economic and Social History, Richard A. Goldthwaite, 1980

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius reinvented Architecture, Ross King, 2000

Brunelleschi’s Cupola: Past and Present of an Architectural Masterpiece, Giovanni Fanelli & Michele Fanelli, 2004

Juan de Herrara, Architect to Philip II of Spain, Catherine Wilkinson-Zerner, 1993


London, Rebuilding the City after the Great Fire, T.M.M.Baker, 2000


A More Beautiful City, Michael Cooper, 2003

The Great Fire of London, Stephen Porter, 1996

The Rebuilding of London, T.F.Reddaway, 1940

Versailles, le chantier de Louis XIV 1662 – 1715, Frederic Tiberghien, 2002


The Industrial Revolution, T.S.Ashton, 1997 edition

A History of the European Economy, 1000 – 2000, Chapter 3, Francois Crouzet, 2001

Building Capitalism, Linda Clarke, 1992

Constructing the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, 1766-72,
Peter Cross-Rudkin, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 75, 289-304, 2005

Architect and Patron, by Frank Jenkins, Chapters 4, 5, 6 & 7, 1961

Fair and Reasonable: Building Contracts from 1550, by James Nisbet, Chapter 2

A Proper Price: Quantity Surveying in London 1650 to 1940, by James Nisbet, Chapter 2

Building the Georgian City, by James Ayres, 1998

The Provincial Towns of Georgian England: A Study of the Building Process, by C.W.Chalkin, 1974, Parts II & III

Civil Engineers and Engineering in Britain 1660-1830, by A.W.Skempton, 1996

Building in Britain: The Origins of a Modern Industry, by Akira Satoh, 1995, Parts One & Three (HD9715.G72.S25)

The British Building Industry since 1800: An Economic History, by Christopher Powell, 1996, Chapters 1 & 2

The Office of Works and Building Contracts in Early Nineteenth Century England, by M.H.Port, from The Economic History Review, Vol 20, No 1 (April 1967)


The Courthouses of Early Virginia, by Carl Lounsbury, Chapter 4, 2005

Architects and Builders in North Carolina, by C. Bisher & others, Chapters 1 & 2, 1990

The American Architect from the Colonial Era to the Present Day, by Cecil Elliott, Part 1, 2003

From Craft to Profession, by Mary N. Woods, Chapter 1, 1999

Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Talbot Hamlin, 1955

Grand Avenues, the story of the French visionary who designed Washington, D.C, Scott W. Berg, 2007

The Carpenters Company of the City and County of Philadelphia 1786 Rule Book, edited Charles E. Peterson, 1992


From Craft to Profession, by Mary N. Woods, 1999, Chapters 2 – 5

The American Architect, by Cecil D. Elliott, 2003, Parts II & III

The American Civil Engineer, Origins and Conflicts, by Daniel Calhoun, 1960

Structures in the Stream, by Todd Shallat, 1994

Wedding of the Waters, the Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, Peter L. Bernstein, 2005

Making Houses, Crafting Capitalism, Building in Philadelphia 1790-1850, Donna J. Rilling, 2001

The Transfer of Early Industrial Technology to America, by Darwin H. Stapleton, 1987,
Chapters I, II & IV.


Norcross, Fuller and the Rise of the General Contractor in the United States in the Nineteenth Century, Sara E. Wermiel. Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Construction History, pages 3297-3313, 2005

The Makers of Trinity Church in the City of Boston, ed. James F. O. Gorman, Chapter 6, 2004

George A. Fuller Company, General Contractors 1882-1937, George A. Fuller Company, 1937

Some Stewart Structures, James Stewart & Company, 1909

First You Take a Pick and Shovel, The Story of the Mason Companies, Ann Arnold Lemert, 1979

Ironworkers 1896 – 2006, A History of the Iron Workers Union, Richard Rowe, 2006

Mill, David Macauley, 1983

Lockwood Greene: The History of an Engineering Business, 1832 – 1958, Samuel B. Lincoln, 1960


Turner’s First Century, A History of Turner Construction Company, Donald E. Wolf, 2002

Skilled Hands, Strong Spirits, a Century of Building Trades History, Grace Palladino, 2005

Industrial Relations in the Building Industry, William Haber, 1930

Builders for Progress, The Story of the General Contractors of America, Booth Mooney, 1965

America’s Builders, Walter Nashert, 1975

Architects to the Nation, Antoinette Lee, 2000

Building the Empire State, Carol Willis, 1998



Projecting Capitalism, Marc Linder, 1994

Pioneers of Prefabrication, Gilbert Herbert, 1978

Japanese Building Practice from Ancient Times to the Meiji Period, Kenneth Frampton & Kunio Kudo, 1997

Built by Japan, Competitive Strategies of the Japanese Construction Industry, Fumio Hasegawa, 1988

Japanese Architecture as a Collaborative Process, Dana Buntrock, 2001

For further information contact Brian Bowen: brian.bowen@coa.gatech.edu


6 thoughts on “Exponential Documentation vs Just Building

  1. Complimentary insight of all the works done and hosted by a fascinating motley of talents. I wonder how much people write and what it amounts to in sharing one’s mind and ligament with the world. Yet there are places left out of such engineered civilizations as yours. Too much darkness at hand, the lights blow off early for some races and the lights are on for most others. Whatever, the other is better if the end is not at hand under one’s own quill. Now, after all the books, what happens?

  2. What’s Up! Just wanted to tell you that you built a wonderful little blog and I want you understand how welcoming it looks. Will come back on a regular basis.

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