The play of contrasting materiality and permeability also create a space that differs from its traditional counterparts. The ambulatory can be seen as a “substitute for the arcaded or colonnaded side aisles of a conventional church. Yet unlike side aisles, it yields nothing of the interior of the nave or sanctuary for the visitor…”1 The chapel also has an absence of both the symmetry and dominant central axis that you find in a traditional Christian church.2 On the other hand, the ambulatory could also be seen as a cloister, but unlike the cloister which typically directs your view inward, this space directs your view outward to the death strip, a not-so-subtle reminder of the history of the place. By constructing the heavy wall on the interior and the lightweight screen on the exterior, the typical programming of spiritual space has been removed in favor of a spatial construct that embeds qualities of the past in the present, adding another layer to the palimpsest of the “no-man’s land.”
This is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
The tectonic enclosure of Porciúncula La Milagrosa Chapel can be shifted back over the entry courtyard to the east all the way to the stone wall holding the chapel bell. This transformation, first, allows the nave to double in capacity. Second, the movement opens the sanctuary to the north towards the forest and to the south towards the open meadow. And third, the shifting pulls the higher roof plane out from above the solid lower plane (which does not transmit light), allowing light to filter into the space from above.
This flexible space allows for three primary configurations. With the volume closed, a small, intimate ceremony or service can be held with about 30 people. With the volume open, larger events can be held in the chapel – up to about 60 people – while also allowing the event to better connect to the lush natural environment. However, a third configuration exists for more substantial events. The entire spatial construct rotates to a north/south alignment with the opening in the volume. In this configuration, the altar moves to the center of the nave, facing south, and the congregation moves to the terraced grassy meadow, which is ideal for seating large crowds.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
The design solution may not be replicable in other parts of the Islamic world, as local conditions vary, but the approach – which allows new design solutions to emerge from an in-depth knowledge of the local context and ways of building – clearly provides a fresh and hopeful model for sustainable building globally.1
Although mud walled buildings are widely seen as inferior by the local people because they tend to indicate a more impoverished situation, Heringer and Roswag persuaded the client to explore the use of mud construction not only to save money on the project, but to develop a more sustainable and economically responsible model for future building in the community. This new building strategy would be “based on two types of energy: muscles and sun, resources that are available everywhere…”2 The process that was developed inserts sustainable local resources and new construction techniques into the vernacular building process. It is, therefore, deeply contextual in its relationship to utilizing resources, but it also seeks to improve the context rather than perpetuating less-than-ideal practices which have, over time, become routine.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
Photograph | Courtesy of Kurt Hoerbst | METI Handmade School with students playing.
1 Pamela Johnston, ed. Intervention Architecture: Building for Change (London: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2007), 148.
At several points in the Brain Studio, the folded steel loft intersects with the concrete perimeter wall, helping to both engage in a dialogue between the two elements and to project some of the interior conditions on to the exterior of the building. The first intersection occurs at the entry door. Directly above the door is a canopy formed from a single sheet of steel. This steel is an extension of the floor of the loft, penetrating through a slot in the concrete wall above the door. This element promotes the notion of a continuous folded plane of steel forming the loft, while also serving a functional role at the entry. In a similar fashion, the landing of the folded steel stair projects through the slot window. This finger of steel cuts through the wall and defines the bottom of the slice in the protective concrete wrapper of the studio. A third example of intersection occurs with the loft’s railing. Although the original sketches show a railing composed of steel folded up from the floor, the final scheme utilizes a steel pipe as a top rail. The pipe runs from exterior wall to exterior wall, projecting through the concrete to the exterior of the building, and serving as an exaggerated joint.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics. The chapter was co-authored by my former student Suzanne Abell.
In the Chapel del Retiro, the typically stereotomic mass of the building is vaulted into the air on foundation blocks. Mass is dematerialized and disconnected. The floating concrete walls create an unsettled perception of how the structure is supported. Undurraga exaggerated the effect by extending the concrete walls beyond their supports, creating a cantilever condition that hovers above the ground.
The effect of floating is also pronounced on the interior of the building where no structural support is visible. Attached to the inside face of the concrete frame, a steel frame supports the installation of the wood cladding – a composition of recycled railroad ties. This cladding constricts the view out and conceals the concrete construction. A similar condition occurs at the roof. A narrow skylight runs around the entire perimeter of the chapel’s ceiling. The roof’s structure – a series of lightweight trusses – is concealed above, giving the effect of a floating ceiling in the space. The progressive dematerialization of these heavy elements is the primary tectonic – or atectonic in this case – expression of the chapel.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 15 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
Building on a theme of abstracted nature, the patterning of the masonry of Lanxi Curtilage is derived from water. Disrupting the surface of water creates a pattern of ripples that roll across the surface. Archi-Union captured images of ripples in water and then developed “an algorithm that mimicked the transient behavior of water, which could be frozen in time allowing a literal architectural expression of its transient behavior.”1 After the translation of the imagery, the process continued with the introduction of materiality; the program merged the water patterning with the physical realities of the masonry, creating a staggered joint pattern that plays with light, shadow, and transparency.2
The cladding system is reflective of Semper’s ideas of the translation of cloth into more durable materials. Here, the masonry is treated as a fabric inspired by the movement of water. The material is ‘draped’ across masonry piers to not only enclose space, but to bring to it its character and essence. Masonry is at once a stable structural core (Semper’s original framework) and a flowing cladding system that dramatizes the structure.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
Drawing | Courtesy of Archi-Union.
1 Quotation taken from a project narrative provided by Archi-Union.
2 Taken from a project narrative provided by Archi-Union.
The Punta della Dogana project required an intensive survey of the existing building, one that examined not just what the building was today, but what it was historically. After all, in order for the building to be returned to its original state, when that point was and what it included had to be determined. Much of the historic building – such as the roof trusses and the brickwork – was painstakingly disassembled, restored, and reassembled. At many points, however, the scars left by the process of removal and reconstruction were retained. These blemishes allow the layers of history to maintain a presence in the museum and serve as a palimpsest of the history of the place. Throughout the working process existed the challenge of balancing Ando’s precision design work within this wildly imperfect existing environment where “walls bulged, floor levels were never uniform and no two doorways or rooms were ever the same size.1
This is an excerpt from Chapter 17 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
Preserving the ruins below the building proved challenging for the design team. It was determined that a long span system would not work as the massive foundations required would do significant damage to the existing structures. Instead, small foundations were laced into the ruins at optimal points creating a system of arches that are less regular that those in the galleries above. These subtle structural shifts allowed the building to touch the ground gently in and amongst the remains. “For this reason Roman systems of construction have been literally adopted, entrusting to them, and not to molds and orders, the satisfaction of the desire to be near the Roman world which is clearly the basis of this project.”1 In essence, the brick used in the walls does not compete with the ruins for prominence; it complements them.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 18 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
1 Rafael Moneo as cited in “National Museum of Roman Art Merida,” ed. Ministry of Culture General Directorate of Fine Arts and Archives Directorate of State Museums (Madrid: I.G. Saljen, S.A., 1991), 72.
This semester, the students undertook the critical tectonic analysis of an architectural precedent, using my book Introducing Architectural Tectonics as a template. The final task of the semester was to utilize all of the research and the tectonic analysis of the precedent to develop an inspired built work. The nature of the construction was up to the student as the assignment was open-ended, but had to satisfy some base requirements. It had to be made of traditional construction materials – dimensional lumber, metal, concrete, etc – and not modeling material – basswood, chipboard, etc. The construction also had to be a minimum of 2’-0” x 2’-0” x 2’-0” (many of the students went much larger), although it did not need to take any specific shape. Although open-ended, architectural details were recommended for this task because of their relevance to most of the written work generated by the students.
The concrete mass of Bruder Klaus can be characterized as the building of a mound, referring back to primitive construction methods.1 After finishing the formwork, the concrete was laid in twenty-four layers or lifts, each a separate pour. One lift was poured each day for twenty-four straight days, each with an approximate height of 50 centimeters [19.7 inches]. The team doing the concrete work was composed of friends and family of the client working under the leadership of several skilled craftsmen.
The technique used for this concrete work is called rammed concrete and is similar to the process used to create rammed earth structures. It results in a final product that reveals its layered nature. The striations in the concrete reflect the earth’s composition and highlight the process of construction – the individual pours made by the building team. The resulting texture is not only critical to the overall quality of the project, but a distinct departure from the texture left on the inside of the space by the log formwork.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 19 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
Casa Tóló sits on a 1000 square meter [10,764 square foot] site with a very particular set of characteristics: very long and narrow, relatively steeply sloping, facing south, and with a spectacular view of the surrounding environment. Its primary entrance sits at the top of the hill where a road allows access to the site via car. On approach from this point, you are greeted with a concrete slab and a stair descending into the earth; no building is visible. The descent you are asked to make as a visitor is an “act of faith.”1 You terrace down through a series of concrete modules, encountering program spaces in sequence, one at a time. At the bottom of the hill, a pedestrian path allows an alternative means of access to the site. Between these two points sits Casa Tóló. It is as much a staircase connecting the two points of access as it is a residential structure. Much like the drawings of M. C. Escher, the building is a game of stairs.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 20 of Introducing Architectural Tectonics.
Photograph: The upper entrance of Casa Tóló. By Fernando Guerra, FG+SG, courtesy of Álvaro Leite Siza
1 Clifford A. Pearson, “In Northern Portugal, Alvaro Leite Siza Vieira Cascades Casa Tolo Down a Steep Slope through Terraced Gardens,” Architectural Record 194, no. 4 (2006): 129.
Several years ago, I decided that participating in community-based design/build is an experience that every student passing through the school of architecture should have at least once in his or her education. As an individual faculty member, however, the design/build studio was incapable of providing this type of reach. As such, a design/build project was initiated in an introductory building science course operating in the second year of both the architecture and interior design programs. The project, the design and construction of an outdoor meeting space at a local nature center, was ultimately a success. It was completed within budget, well-received by the client and others, and the facility is used extensively.
The quality of the learning experience of the majority of the student participants, however, ultimately classifies this project as a failure. Some of this diagnosis resulted from the excessive amount of time required to complete the project, resulting in dozens of extra work days during which just a small number of the students participated in the construction of significant portions of the structure. Another contributing factor was the lack of infrastructure in place to handle this type of project pedagogically. The most significant reason for the failure of the project, however, rests on the division of labor. Unlike a design studio, technology sequence courses often have more focused learning objectives, which every student in the course must meet equally. The significant division of labor required to allow over fifty students to simultaneously work on a single project resulted in most students only engaging with a small portion of the design and construction process. As such, few students had a true design/build experience and exited the class at the end of the semester meeting the project and course learning objectives.
This paper is the last in a series of four written works that studied the progress of a design/build program over a five year timespan while teaching building technology at Southern Illinois University. Other works in this sequence are Constructing Experience, Debating the Merits of Design/Build, and Examining Strategies for Delivering Design/Build Content in High-Enrollment Architecture Courses.
Schwartz, Chad. “A Taxonomy of Architectural Tectonics.” In Poetics and Pragmatism Proceedings: Papers Presented at BTES 2017 edited by Shelby Doyle, Tom Leslie, and Rob Whitehead, 179-186. Building Technology Educators’ Society, 2017.
“[O]ne might argue that a building is intensified through the elaboration of its own medium – a language of sticks and stones – to induce a state of architecture. The “material” that underlies architecture is somehow rooted in construction and its details, and yet beguilingly, the devices that engage the building practice are most often in tension with the seemingly direct necessities of fabrication. Herein lies one of the most fertile and debated topics in architectural theory: the subject of tectonics.”
Architecture is often described as the intersection of art and science. These two distinct realms, however, cannot be set in opposition; they must be cooperatively utilized in the creation of the built environment. Architecture is an integrative art, one that combines the design of productive space with the tangible realities of gravity, material properties, and assembly sequences. The study of architectural tectonics can help to illuminate the partnership between these elements in the creation of the built environment. Tectonics has many definitions, but they all tend to focus on the relationships between those architectural elements we tend to hold apart: space and construction, structure and ornamentation, atmosphere and function. It seeks a relationship between the design of space and the reality of the construction that is necessary for it to exist.
This paper outlines a framework for examining the core concepts ingrained in the history and evolution of architectural tectonics. Each of the following topics examines a particular characteristic of the theory drawn from different lines of historical and contemporary thought:
Anatomy | the study of the primary components and systems of a building
Tectonic + Stereotomic | the study of the means and methods of construction as well as the materiality of the built environment
Detail + Intersection | the study of the joints and other critical conditions that make up the smallest scale of a work of architecture
Place | the study of the impact of a specific place or context on the tectonic makeup of a building.
Representation + Ornamentation | the study of the relationship between the actual construction of the building that is required for stability or enclosure and the cladding or ornamentation that is used to create the aesthetic scheme.
Space | the study of the relationship between the creation of space and the construction and representational qualities of a building.
Atectonic | the study of conditions that run contrary to typical tectonic ideas
The tectonic theories of Karl Bötticher, Gottfried Semper, and others have evolved over time to be able to successfully integrate into contemporary society, but this “transformation, adaptation and above all the reduction of and simplification of an extremely ambitious theory of tectonics was in fact ineluctable.” Despite its shifting, its transforming, and its adapting, architectural tectonics remains a central tenet of both the study of architecture and the practice of its design and construction. The lessons available to all students of architecture that have arisen from this linage of architectural thought have the potential to positively influence our built environment for the foreseeable future.
Nader Tehrani, “Forward: A Murder in the Court,” in Strange Details, ed. Michael Cadwell (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007), xii.
Werner Oechslin, Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, and the Road to Modern Architecture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 50.