The Use of Typologies in Designing Architecture and Urban Design

“What … is type? It can most simply be defined as a concept which describes a group of objects characterized by the same formal structure. It is neither a spatial diagram nor the average of a serial list. It is fundamentally based on the possibility of grouping objects by certain inherent structural similarities” 

From Rafael Moneo’s 1978 essay “On Typology”, published in Oppositions magazine.

• Early Occurrences of Typology

Where does categorizing, or typing, begin? From 1532-1534 Albrecht Dürer’s publishes the Four Books on Human Proportion (Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion). In the third book, Dürer gives principles by which the proportions of the figures can be modified, including the mathematical simulation of convex and concave mirrors. 

Dürer overlays a grid that enables him to study typical features in the human face. He’s graphically illustrating the basic elements that makeup a human head, and using the grid as a tool for describing variations withing the typical elements, i.e. the eyes, nose, mouth, etc.  

In 1917 D’Arcy Thompson publishes On Growth and Form.  In this book Thompson, having studied Dürer’s illustrations, develops a similar geometric transformation to illustrate how the forms of organisms and their parts, whether leaves, the bones of the foot, human faces or the body shapes of copepods, crabs or fish, can be explained.

Prior to Thompson’s work, in Charles Darwin’s treatise of 1859, On the Origin of Species, he categorizes 12 species of  Galápagos finches.  This is done by studying their typical makeup. He notes the similarities, and differences, that occurred due to their habitat, i.e. the beaks.

A page from the Origins of Species demonstrating variations in finch beaks.

• Typology in the Art of Photography

This concept of typing can occur in just about any field.  Below are two examples of typing in photography. The first, by Brend & Hilla Becher, were German conceptual artists and photographers working as a collaborative duo. They are best known for their extensive series of photographic images, or typologies, of industrial buildings and structures, often organized in grids.

In the repetitive images of the German Tudor facades the Becher’s orient the images so the pitch of the roofs aligns with each of the three rows illustrating slight differences. 

In this second example I am the author. I composed a series of flowers similar to the Becher’s process,  and arranged them by, orientation, shape, and color, and in a grid  As with the Becher’s work, the images can be viewed individually, but are combined to make one image as a final piece.

• Typology in Architecture and Urban Design

Within architecture and urban design typology is the comparative study of physical or other characteristics of the built environment into distinct types. It’s important to understand the historic writings on typology in the field of architecture and urban design.  I’ll briefly list some of these writings in chronological order 

Historically the use of typology for the study and design of architecture began during the age of enlightenment and can be traced to Abbé Laugier (1713-96) as described in his Essai sur l’architecture, 1753.

Similar to Laugier’s work are these comparative plans of theaters. From Pierre Patte’s Essai sur l’Architecture Théâtrale, 1782

Following Abbé Laugier’s essay on architecture was the work of architectural typing by J.N.L Durand, Précis des leçons d’architecture données à l’École royale polytechnique published in 1809.  Durand taught at the École Polytechnique and developed a system to illustrate typical building components, and designs.  Later he also created a series of small parti pris diagrams describing common formal plan types in architecture.

parti pris diagrams by Durand

This next example is by Quatremère de Quincy. In 1832-33 he published Dictionnaire historique de l’Architecture, .

Continuing in chronological order, below is an example from John Theodore Haneman’s, A Manual of Architectural Compositions, 1923.

Similar to Durand, Haneman constructs a series of typical floor plans that were commonly taught in the schools based on the style developed in the l’ecole de beaux arts.

In 1962 Giulio Carlo Argan’s essay On the Typology of Architecture revived the idea of type. Aldo Rossi’s 1966 Varchitettura della citta (The Architecture of the City) strengthened its importance, and reintroduces the idea of typology and the design of urbanism.  

• Typology and Urban Design

The actual early investigation of typology and urbanism occurs with the work of Camillo Sitte, an Austrian architect.  Sitte publishes City Planning According to Artistic Principles in 1889.  In his book he studies important city squares (piazze, platz, or place, etc.) He draws the squares in a similar format, and at the same scale, allowing for quick comparison.

The image shown above actually appears in The American Vitruvius ; an Architect’s Handbook of Civic Art, by Werner Hegemann and Elbert Peets, published in 1922.
In this illustration I’ve chronologically shown a few texts that investigate the use of urban typology.

• The Process of Developing Typologies

While working on The Genealogy of Cities I began to determine which parts of the urban fabric should be investigated.  The graph below was an early first attempt of identifying possible urban typologies that could be compared and contrasted.

In the end, as shown below, I generated a series of icons that represented identifiable historic stages in the design of urban fabric.

This illustration indicates how a page within The Genealogy of Cities should be read.

One of the clearest uses of typology as an instructional tool is Francis D. K. Ching’s text Architecture: Form Space and Order.

In this page from Architecture: Form, Space, and Order, Ching illustrates how three regular shapes (or types) can be transformed, or interpreted, as irregular shapes. (As a side note, all of the illustrations in Ching’s books are hand drawn.) 

• Practical Uses of Typology for Design

I’ve had many a discussion with colleagues and students who have asked, “Does the use of typological studies really aid in design of architecture and urban design?” Personally, I believe if you know the process of developing typologies, then you are able to deviate from the norm at any time.  I’ll illustrate this by looking at the example of Sir John Soane’s design for his row house in London, at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. First though, a typical London row house.

A typical Georgian Townhouse was commonly arranged with the main house facing the street, and the carriage house on a back alley. Between the two was an open yard.

In Soane’s case, “…Soane demolished and rebuilt three [typical Georgian row] houses in succession on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He began with No. 12 (between 1792 and 1794), externally a plain brick house. After becoming Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, Soane purchased No. 13, the house next door, today the museum, and rebuilt it in two phases in 1808–09 and 1812.

In 1808–09 Soane constructed his drawing office and “museum” on the site of the former stable block at the back, using primarily top lighting. In 1812 he rebuilt the front part of the site, adding a projecting Portland Stone façade to the basement, ground and first floor levels and the [center] bay of the second floor. Originally this formed three open loggias, but Soane glazed the arches during his lifetime. Once he had moved into No. 13, Soane rented out his former home at No. 12…

After completing No.13, Soane set about treating the building as an architectural laboratory, continually remodeling the interiors. In 1823, when he was over 70, he purchased a third house, No. 14, which he rebuilt in 1823–24. This project allowed him to construct a picture gallery, linked to No.13, on the former stable block of No. 14. The front main part of this third house was treated as a separate dwelling and let as an investment; it was not internally connected to the other buildings. When he died No. 14 was bequeathed to his family and passed out of the museum’s ownership.”

Wikipedia entry, Sir John Soane’s Museum.  

These two photos indicate the three units Soane owned within Lincoln’s Inn Fields. From left to right, 12, 13, 14.
On the far left is an example of a typical row house plan. Then from left to right are a series of ground floor plans that depict the extent of Sir John Soane’s renovations of the three town houses from 1796 – 1837.  The areas in dark blue are the primary spaces Soane is living in, while the lighter blue are spaces he is leasing.
This photo illustrates how Soane manipulated the somewhat bland façade of the three Georgian row houses, by extending the face a lighter stone material, which contrasted with the flat brick façade.
This plan/section through the rear museum (which originally was the carriage house) is an example of how much Soane deviated from the typology of a Georgian Townhouse.

• Examples of Typology Studies by Former Students

The following are some examples of both architectural and urban typology studies created by some of my former students.  These studies were early exercises and were tools for understanding both architectural programing and urban space.

Plans of historic theaters, drawn at the same scale. The plans were drawn in the figure ground format and the stage and seating were left open.

These next three examples are investigations of comparable urban conditions.

The top images represent streets from cities, drawn at the same scale, and incased in a rectangle that is 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) long.  This length is the average walking distance a human travels in 30 minutes.  The streets in the bottom row represent a distance of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers), and an average walking time of 1 hour.
The student for this drawing drew a square with the borders being 325m.  They then adjusted figure grounds of various urban spaces to the same scale, oriented all of them to face north, and bound them within the scaled rectangle for comparison.
A similar comparison, but with the urban spaces constructed in 3D and at the same scale.

• Using Typological Studies for Designing

Shown above are two urban spaces drawn at the same scale, and in 3D.  On the left, Amalienborg Slotsplads, in Copenhagen, Denmark, circa 1760.  On the right, Shaker Square, Shaker Heights, Ohio, USA, circa 1929.  Both squares are octagonal in configuration, but Amalienborg Slotsplads is the better design.  Quick analysis makes this apparent.  The student began by studying the relationship of the bounding facades that create the urban space.  First the viewing angles.

The above illustration is displayed in Hegemann and Peets, The American Vitruvius: An Architects’ Handbook of Civic Art.  The section through Piazza di San Pietro illustrates ‘good positions for viewing’ within the space. The angles of 27 and 45 degrees are the typical human viewing angles for a person looking straight ahead, and when tilting your head up.

These viewing angles are used as a tool for sizing the heights of facades when designing urban spaces.  An example shown here is what a person sees when standing a specific distance from Saint Mark’s Basilica in Piazza San Marco.  The vertical angle is 27 degrees, and from side to side totals 90 degrees.
Again, Amalienborg Slotsplads, and Shaker Square, with a comparison of the 27 degree viewing angle from the center of the spaces (shown in red), and up close to the bounding facades (shown in green.)  
A closer view of the same viewing angles within Shaker Square. Note that the size of the space in relationship to the height of the bounding facades.  These buildings do not define the space when you are inside.
One possible solution for Shaker Square is to raise the height of the surrounding buildings using a step-back method.

The earlier discussion and examples of typology of row housing and theaters were used within a third-year design studio that focuses on the introduction to urban design.  To fully understand the semester long exercise I refer you to my personal website, where I go into depth describing the exercises. The following is an example of one student’s solution.

The area shaded in red is the theater, and the area in yellow are the row houses.
A closer view of the theater, top center, and the row housing towards the lower half of the image.

This is just a brief introduction of typology in architecture and urban design. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, or want to add to the discussion.

Further Readings  –

• Güney, Yasemin Đ., (2007) Type and typology in architectural discourse

• Jong , T.M. de; and Voordt, D.J.M. van der, (2002) Design Research and Typology

1 Comment

  1. Hi, can you please contact me via my email address and I’ll see if I can help you. cgraves at

    Hey i am a student of architecture in 4th year and in this year we are working or our concepts that how we form a vision and connect our design to it. So my vision was forming a building in urban typology. I have been researching it from past a week but im not understanding that how these designers are bringing the form and calling it a typology. Maybe I’m not clear that how typology work in design. Can yiu please help me?


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