The best architect is the man who can best guess as to what will be the effect in the round of a drawing in the flat. —William Alciphron Boring
In 1922, the director and later dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, William Alciphron Boring, argued for “the necessity of close observation” in architectural education. Students at Columbia, he continues, “are trained to see buildings and think in terms of buildings rather than in terms of drawings.” Self-evident though this may feel today, it was a significant departure—especially in light of academia’s slow embrace of European modernism in the U.S.—at a moment when American schools of architecture taught predominantly in the Beaux-Arts vein, in which the quality of a student’s drawings was considered to be the surest sign of architectural talent. In his manifesto-like mission statement for the school, “Use of Models in the Study of Architecture,” Boring proudly declared his agenda as dean: to position model making at the center of Columbia’s pedagogy. He called for the study of architecture “from the point of view of the constructed building” rather than “the point of view of the picture,” “solid geometry” over “plane geometry,” “good buildings” instead of “beautiful drawings.” Boring’s proclamation can be understood as a turn toward the physical, away from the apparently easy facility of representation. Models were placed in opposition to drawing—an opposition that would ultimately help spark a New World sensibility in architecture, uniting European artistry with American pragmatism and a commitment to professional education.
To revisit Boring’s opposition today is particularly fruitful. The 1980s and 1990s saw the early work of two notable cadres of architects—those who participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition and the more recent group in the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s 2016 show Archaeology of the Digital: Complexity and Convention—who favored drawing, representation, and theoretical propositions long before they were given the opportunity to build, if they pursued building at all. They were followed by a generation of architects marked by their commitment to building, practice, and an engagement with the “real” at all costs (whether in the desert of inner Mongolia in Ordos or through the making of an object or an app). Today, as fabrication technology is no longer fetishized and old and new forms of drawing and making are being discovered, rediscovered, and combined by students in seamless and surprising ways, the making of models seems a fresh and fertile territory to revisit for its representational as well as generative potentials, then and now. So rather than read Boring’s statement as a critique of architectural rendering, we might think further about the possibility of what he describes as a new architectural consciousness—a way of thinking and making from the point of view of a building.
Among the most interesting intellectual investments in the model as a pedagogical tool is Kenneth Frampton’s incorporation of making—and the study of physical objects rather than only the texts and images so common to history seminars—into the discursive setting of his class, Studies in Tectonic Culture. Begun at a moment when the teaching of architectural history was unmistakably stable and linear, as it moved from its European origins to the shores of America, Frampton’s model-building assignments constituted a radical gesture: standing against the autonomy of theory from practice, introducing doubt into the interpretation of buildings—or into the “internalization” of a building, as Frampton would say—and inviting multiple understandings, perspectives, and ways of seeing. As Boring wrote just under a century ago, “it appears advisable to introduce the making of models, which really represent, in a small scale, the building ‘in the round,’ and permit a study of the structure from all points of view.” Expanding on the understanding of buildings from every perspective, Frampton invited his students to engage in the construction of architectural history itself as they made a fragment of it.
This notion of “in the round,” used to describe the knowledge that comes with three-dimensionality—the ability to see more fully and thoroughly, with all aspects visible, or more commonly, the theatrical configuration in which the audience surrounds the stage—makes an argument for understanding architecture through different and simultaneous views and materials. Frampton’s models render architecture inseparable from its materiality as lived experience and inseparable from the craft of construction—one could even imagine that these models produced a sense of empathy for the workers executing such exacting works of architecture.
No longer limited to producing a better form of representation, as these were not presentation models, Frampton’s pedagogy brings to light how different models, materials, and scales are expressions of different intentions. Eschewing oppositions between theory and practice or between drawing and building, the models move beyond the failure or obsolescence of one communicative medium and the success of another. Instead, they render modeling as a unique mode of translation between different mediums.
It is within these acts of translation, between now and then, between narratives and objects, between buildings and models, and models and photographs, that this book was produced on the occasion of the exhibition Stagecraft: Models and Photos at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery. The display of these pedagogical models (and the commissioning of a series of photographs by James Ewing) is, of course, a celebration of Frampton’s seminal legacy as an architect, historian, critic, and exceptional educator. But it is also an invitation to realize the provocative nature of his pedagogical approach—one that rejected academic dogma in favor of the messiness of life and models, one that encouraged the contamination of practice into theory and vice versa, one that gently destabilized the architectural canon with these imperfect, human-made, loved, and awkward objects that were intended to both grasp and represent.
Few history classes would embrace such experimentation today, and few design studios would engage architectural history with such freshness and depth. And yet, this hybridization of the studio and the classroom is certainly one of the most important bridges to reconstruct today. At a time when architecture students have access to more information and modes of representation than ever before, across mediums, scales, and technologies, this hybridization is not simply urgent in forming a student’s creative voice; it is also, and maybe more importantly, the forming of her critical voice—an apprehension of flows of information and images, which requires expertise and skill but also calibration, distance, and, at times, productive indifference. Physical representations are essential here, in that they help turn away from the immediate satisfaction of spectacle and toward a renewed interest in the careful and imperfect reassembly of fragments—of utopia, of architecture, of the material lived-in world, and maybe even of truths. Today’s “shop rats” are neither too cool, clubby, jargony, or techy; they are candidly mixed-media and past-present-future, casting, lasercutting, sketching, making videos, CNC milling, growing, and pouring all at once—reenacting past practices to open up the possibility of new ones, simultaneously historically aware and oriented towards the future.
As we revisit Frampton’s radical pedagogical approaches throughout his endlessly youthful and energized years at Columbia GSAPP, we are inspired to question our own preconceived notions of how and what to teach and learn today and for the future—a future in which representation through making plays a fundamental role, not only as a continuous presence in the school’s legacy but as an agent of change at Columbia and in the field of architecture at large.
AA I would like to discuss how you see models in architectural education and architectural practice, how that has evolved, and where you think it might go. And perhaps we should begin by revisiting a certain set of models from the past—models that have peppered the halls of Avery for quite some time. Where did these models come from? Where were they situated in your pedagogy?
KF This question focuses on my course Studies in Tectonic Culture and the reason for my writing a book on this topic. One of the key aspects of architecture is the fact that it is constructed, which accounts for the subtitle of the book: Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Architecture. This involved interpreting the history of modern architecture in light of certain figures, Auguste Perret, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, and Jørn Utzon, all of whom emphasized the poetics of construction in the form of the work itself. However, as always when it comes to teaching this history, the question arises as to the form of the final submission, and in this instance I decided to give the students an option: either write a paper or make a model.
Needless to say, there were certain conditions with regard to the making of a model. Not only would I choose the topics of the works to be modeled, but I also determined the number of students to be allocated to the fabrication of each model. In fact, no one was allowed to build one alone. Before setting out to build a model, the students were required to prepare a drawing for its construction. First and last, it was important that the model should somehow exemplify the idea of its constructive poetic. I invariably encouraged them to construct sectional models in order to reveal the tectonic essence of the work in hand. The students were given a grade on the condition that the model was two-thirds complete at the end of the academic year. This entailed a “gentleman’s agreement” that students would finish the model after the pressure of finals. Of course I sometimes lost out on this deal, but I am well aware that a good model cannot be produced in a rush.
It is important to emphasize that these were not expected to be realistic models, nor were they simply schematic models. They were meant to be didactic models where what would be made manifest was a certain poetic of construction—which, needless to say, poses a problem. How do you mutually represent the different materials involved in the building and in the model? That is, how does one differentiate between metal, wood, concrete, textile blocks, so on? It becomes a question of relative sensitivity. Sometimes the differentiation between materials is quite literal. One makes metal components usually out of metal. Wood is more ambiguous—depending on the nature of the wood.
And actually one of the most amazing models in this regard is the corner detail of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Freeman House in LA—where the textile blocks out of which the house is made gradually dissolve towards the corner to become glass. There is a deliberate dematerialization of the textile block at the corner. The students made the textile block from rubber molds and then cast the blocks in plaster. The metal fenestration, however, in this case was represented by a very thin wood. So one is really reading plaster against wood and glass, and, in fact, they elected not to show the glass; they simply left it as void.
AA Well, it’s really interesting that there is this kind of either/or: either write an essay or construct a model. These are two very strong positions, one focused on accessing knowledge about architecture through making it again and the other through writing about it.
KF Right. My argument is that by making a didactic model, the students internalize the intrinsic nature of the work. Even if they don’t finish the model, they still go through the process of internalization. So, no matter what, they get something out of the process itself.
AA What about the relationship to drawing? Because we construct drawings as much as we construct models. But yet, in your mind, the drawing serves the model …
KF Yes, what’s important in the last analysis is choosing the appropriate scale. You can’t achieve what I’m describing with less than one inch to one foot. Below that, the tectonic content cannot be fully represented because at a smaller scale you can’t begin to understand the way the joints are made.
AA It’s a really interesting tension between model and drawing. We’ve been excavating the history of the school a bit, and the dean of the architectural program in 1931, William Alciphron Boring, positioned model making against the Beaux-Arts and its pictorial tradition. But then someone like Arthur Drexler at the Museum of Modern Art attacked the hegemony of the model in favor of the scenographic drawing. This kind of back and forth between model and drawing has been going on for some time. Having worked at OMA with Rem Koolhaas, I felt that in his office the model was emphasized over the drawing. That the model was the real thing. While in the American tradition around that same time, it seemed to me that offices from Peter Eisenman to Diller Scofidio + Renfro really emphasized drawing.
KF Well, Eisenman also made complex models.
AA He did, but they were almost like drawings.
KF The question of what the aim of the model is in relation to what, is surely the ultimate issue. The MoMA exhibition on Alvar Aalto, entitled Between Humanism and Materialism, under Terence Riley, used a professional model maker to build a model of Aalto’s Viipuri Library. In my view it was awful! Professional model makers, if they’re not sensitive to the situation, produce seductive, realistic models for clients. And in a way, the essential attributes of the building are often missing, because everything in the model has been all tarted up. So while it is a seductive model, it fails to reveal what it essentially is. A model, after all, like drawing, is a mode of representation and not the thing itself. All of this becomes a problem when models become too seductive. A representation of a seductive model invariably has grass that is too green. It becomes a kind of sweetmeat or something. It’s not really the building but rather some decorative little object that supposedly represents a building and fails to do so.
AA So the material quality in the models that you invited students to make brought models closer to a kind of reality.
KF Well, yes, but it had to be a didactic reality—the models couldn’t be realistic. They had to be didactic in order to overcome the picturesque and the decorative. A tectonic model must be expressive of its intrinsic structure by way of the way it’s made. But, of course, one cannot make everything manifest. That’s why in Studies in Tectonic Culture I try to distinguish in real life between ontological and representational tectonic. The tectonic is an expressive culture of construction, and because it’s an expressive culture, it always involves revealing and concealing. So then what you choose to reveal and what you choose to conceal are part of its poetics.
AA In today’s world of 3D printing, you often end up with these very abstract objects with no trace of joint or hand. And yet there’s a certain quality to them. I was wondering how you’re thinking about things coming together in a model at a time when models are removing, or rather model making is eliminating, the trace of things coming together.
KF Well, there’s always some code at work. If it isn’t the thing itself, then it’s a representation of the thing. Different kinds of models have very different intentions. In the Utzon model made in my course most of the wooden pieces were laser cut. On one side of the wood you have the brown of the cut, and on the other side you have the natural wood. This presents a problem of representation—because while it’s certainly a coherent and efficient way to make a model, the specific quality of certain components of the building are rendered in quite different ways even though they are one and the same element.
AA These new technologies, which operate at a certain scale—the scale of the model—are in a way betraying the possibility of capturing what gets done in the building. We still have yet to print a building; it’s still made out of parts. Though different models make different arguments. OMA’s blue-foam models were trying to reach a kind of economical abstraction.
KF Yes, models are never neutral.
AA I want to go back for a second to models as part of your pedagogical project, both to teach architecture and to teach architectural history. You’ve always said you are an architect before a historian. Would you say that introducing model making into your teaching of history is a critique of the ways in which architectural history is normally taught?
KF Well, it is both a critique of architectural history and also of design. The question “Why do we make this rather than that?” is a hard one for architects to answer. Any decision can be justified by a number of rationales and explanations, whether related to crude function or from the point of view of social amenity. So my whole critical regionalist argument was about trying to ground architecture, both in the place-form and in the material from which it is constituted. I am still involved with that … but because regionalism is so problematic, the question became more about, on what could one predicate the act of making architecture? On what could architecture be based? Which leads back to the whole concept of tectonics as a poetic expression of construction.
AA It feels necessary to consider how this pedagogical model manifests itself today given new technologies. We’ve had interns in our office who can barely cut a rectangle with an x-acto knife; they instinctually laser cut it! And so we find ourselves saying that if you were stuck on a desert island, as architects, you should be able to construct a model. We have these tools now, but we’re not making. You mentioned the choices we must make as architects, but when confronted with this situation, it seems like we need to make more intelligent ones about how to use different tools. So it’s also a question of looking back and learning from decisions about how to interpret, represent, and choose a set of techniques. And it’s an invitation to students to do the same today. At the most basic level, if you have a project about mass, it doesn’t really make sense to put it together out of pieces that are laser cut. If you have a project about surface, you might have to engage in that conversation with a different set of materials and tools.
KF What I find so amazing, going back to what you were mentioning with regard to the Beaux-Arts and Boring, is the extraordinary renderings which students are capable of making today. Looking at such renderings made on the computer is like looking at watercolor paintings. I am blown away by the level of skill involved. The computer, if you master it, which I will never do, obviously has this capacity. The laser cutter, however, is a different animal.
AA That’s a really nice way to put it … to think about the difference between the tools that we’re using to make models and the computer.
KF In a certain sense I still believe that building buildings is a craft operation. Despite the fact that you can rationalize it. If anyone has the capacity to put things together carefully, it’s Renzo Piano. Somehow this reminds me of the fact that up until 1968, students entering the architecture school at the Royal Danish Academy of the Arts in Copenhagen had to do a one-year apprenticeship as a carpenter. The student revolt of ’68 got rid of all of that, but I still think that the act of drawing and the act of making a model is in the last analysis a kind of micro-craft experience. It’s not directly applicable, but it gives you a certain respect for the making of anything with your hands as opposed to a distanced intervention via a machine.
AA Well, I think what’s so interesting about the model, the course, and the pedagogy involved is the level of clarity and intent that you have to have in putting it all together.
KF Yes, but I’m not teaching design.
AA But you are in a way; you’re teaching history as a designer.
KF I’m teaching respect, respect for what people have made and why they have made it in a particular way.
In February 2017, the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation presented Stagecraft: Models and Photos. Leading up to the exhibition, the gallery was transformed into a photography studio to shoot six architectural models. The following text appeared on the wall in the gallery; the following fragments and images form a set of reflections on the buildings, their models, and the process of recapturing both realities through images.
This exhibition explores the synergy between architectural models and photography as a wellspring of architectural invention. Staging an experiment that upends the conventions of model photography—and of architectural representation more broadly—the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery has commissioned architectural photographer James Ewing to photograph six models of significant twentieth century buildings, culled from the archives of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
Ewing’s photographs invite a reexamination of how architectural creativity and thinking unfold through the picturing of objects and the crafting of images. Using the gallery as a photographic studio for several weeks, Ewing experimented with a range of lighting, framing, and staging techniques that drew upon his research on the history of model photography. He studied the archive of the model photographer Louis Checkman, located at the Avery Drawings & Archives Collection at Columbia University, took inspiration from the work of Balthazar Korab and Ezra Stoller, and exchanged ideas with Jock Pottle, a prolific architectural model photographer active during the 1990s and early 2000s.
As photographic subjects, the models are a unique provocation. Rather than realistic simulations of whole buildings, the models instead illuminate moments of structural ingenuity. Representing buildings by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerrit Rietveld, Jørn Utzon, Norman Foster, and Peter Zumthor, the models were produced by students during the 1990s and early 2000s as part of historian and Columbia professor Kenneth Frampton’s pedagogical exploration of the history of architectural tectonics. Testimony to students’ tactile intelligence and historical engagement with the “poetics of construction”—a term coined by Frampton—the models make a case for the craft of architecture. In turn, Ewing’s photographic illustrations of these objects offer a meditation on how the intersection of material and visual modes of representation can prompt new ways of seeing, making, and talking about architecture.
—Irene Sunwoo, Director of Exhibitions, Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Columbia GSAPP
I tried to flatter the models. I love them, and it’s been great to spend time with them. But I’m not trying to replicate them or reproduce them in a photograph. I’m trying to create an illustration of them, an idealized view that is very different from the model itself.
The exotic backgrounds, lens flares, crazy colors, shadows, and reflections are just tools to help efficiently describe the model. All these photographs oscillate between making something look real and making something look unreal. But they also allow the photograph to act as an illustration of what is unique and different from the model itself. I think that’s what successful architectural photography does. —James Ewing
My essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” first published in Hal Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture of 1983, itemized six points of a resistant architecture. It touched on the dialectical counterpoint between the scenographic and the tectonic, arguing that these two attributes are unavoidably present in every manifestation of architectural culture.
The perennial fragility of regionally inflected culture, especially in a mediatic mass age largely dominated by the seemingly value-free ideology of techno-science, brought me to focus on the tectonic as a poetic/pragmatic value with which to reassert the relative autonomy of architecture as a material culture, inextricably bound up with the lifeworld.
Apart from the space enclosed by its form, architecture is inescapably a constructed microcosm; it is this, plus my de facto acceptance of the postmodern condition, that brought me to a rereading of the received history of the Modern Movement, initially in terms of four architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, Auguste Perret, Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Kahn. These four masters made up the substance of the inaugural Francis Craig Cullivan Lectures that I gave at Rice University in 1986. These lectures were eventually complemented by six other essays, which together made up the substance of my book Studies in Tectonic Culture: Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture published in 1995. The material elaborated in this publication would, in short order, become the substance of a seminar which I have intermittently given at Columba University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation over the past twenty years.
—Kenneth Frampton, 2017
I have elected to address the issue of tectonic form for a number of reasons, not least of which is the current tendency to reduce architecture to scenography. This reaction arises in response to the universal triumph of Robert Venturi’s decorated shed: that all too prevalent syndrome in which shelter is packaged like a giant commodity. Among the advantages of the scenographic approach is the fact that the results are eminently amortizable, with all the consequences that this entails for the future of the environment. We have in mind, of course, not the pleasing decay of nineteenth century Romanticism but the total destitution of commodity culture. Along with this sobering prospect goes the general dissolution of stable references in the late-modern world, the fact that the precepts governing almost every discourse, save for the seemingly autonomous realm of techno-science, have now become extremely tenuous. Much of this was already foreseen half a century ago by Hans Sedlmayr, when he wrote, in 1941:
If one poses the question as to what might be a comparable ground for architecture, then one must turn to a similar material base, namely that architecture must of necessity be embodied in structural and constructional form. My present stress on the latter rather than the prerequisite of spatial enclosure, stems from an attempt to evaluate twentieth-century architecture in terms of continuity and inflection rather than in terms of originality as an end in itself.
In his 1980 essay “Avant-Garde and Continuity,” the Italian architect Giorgio Grassi had the following comment to make about the impact of avant-gardist art on architecture:
While it is disconcerting to have to recognize that there may well be a fundamental break between the figurative origins of abstract art and the constructional basis of tectonic form, it is, at the same time, liberating to the extent that it affords a point from which to challenge spatial invention as an end in itself: a pressure to which modern architecture has been unduly subject. Rather than join in a recapitulation of avant-gardist tropes or enter into historical pastiche or into the superfluous proliferation of sculptural gestures—all of which have an arbitrary dimension to the degree that they are based in neither structure nor in construction—we may return instead to the structural unit as the irreducible essence of architectural form.
Needless to say, we are not alluding here to mechanical revelation of construction but rather to a potentially poetic manifestation of structure in the original Greek sense of poesis as an act of making and revealing. While I am well aware of the conservative connotations that may be ascribed to Grassi’s polemic, his critical perceptions nonetheless cause us to question the very idea of the new, in a moment that oscillates between the cultivation of a resistant culture and a descent into value-free aestheticism. Perhaps the most balanced assessment of Grassi has been made by the Catalan critic Ignasi Solà-Morales, when he wrote:
Architecture is posited as a craft, that is to say, as the practical application of established knowledge through rules of different levels of intervention. Thus, no notion of architecture as problem-solving, as innovation, or as invention ex novo, is present in Grassi’s thinking, since he is interested in showing the permanent, the evident, and the given character of knowledge in the making of architecture.
… The work of Grassi is born of a reflection upon the essential resources of discipline, and it focuses upon specific media which determine not only aesthetic choices but also the ethical content of its cultural contribution. Through these channels of ethical and political will, the concern of the Enlightenment … becomes enriched in its most critical tone. It is not solely the superiority of reason and the analysis of form which are indicated, but rather, the critical role (in the Kantian sense of the term), that is, the judgment of values, the very lack of which is felt in society today … In the sense that his architecture is a meta-language, a reflection on the contradictions of its own practice, his work acquires the appeal of something that is both frustrating and noble…4
The dictionary definition of the term tectonic to mean “pertaining to building or construction in general; constructional, constructive used especially in reference to architecture and the kindred arts” is a little reductive to the extent that we intend not only the structural component in se but also the formal amplification of its presence in relation to the assembly of which it is a part. From its conscious emergence in the middle of the nineteenth century with the writings of Karl Bötticher and Gottfried Semper, the term not only indicates a structural and material probity but also a poetics of construction, as this may be practiced in architecture and the related arts.
The beginnings of the Modern, dating back at least two centuries, and the much more recent advent of the Postmodern, are inextricably bound up with the ambiguities introduced into Western architecture by the primacy given to the scenographic in the evolution of the bourgeois world. However, building remains essentially tectonic rather than scenographic in character, and it may be argued that it is first and foremost an act of construction rather than a discourse predicated on the surface, volume, and plan, to cite Le Corbusier’s “Three Reminders to Architects.” Thus one may assert that building is ontological rather than representational in character and that built form is a presence rather than something standing for an absence. In Martin Heidegger’s terminology we may think of it as a “thing” rather than a “sign.”
I have chosen to engage with this theme because I believe it is necessary for architects to reposition themselves given that the predominant tendency today is to reduce all architectural expression to the status of commodity culture. Inasmuch as such resistance has little chance of being widely accepted, a “rear-guard” posture would seem to be an appropriate stance to adopt rather than the dubious assumption that it is possible to continue with the perpetuation of avant-gardism. Despite its concern for structure, an emphasis on tectonic form does not necessarily favor either Constructivism or Deconstructivism. In this sense it is astylistic. Moreover, it does not seek its legitimacy in science, literature, or art.
Greek in origin, the term tectonic derives from the term tekton, signifying carpenter or builder. This in turn stems from the Sanskrit taksan, referring to the craft of carpentry and to the use of the ax. Remnants of a similar term can be found in Vedic, where it refers to carpentry. In Greek it appears in Homer, where it again alludes to carpentry and to the art of construction in general. The poetic connotation of the term first appears in Sappho where the tekton, the carpenter, assumes the role of the poet. This meaning undergoes further evolution as the term passes from being something specific and physical, such as carpentry, to the more generic notion of construction and later to becoming an aspect of poetry. In Aristophanes we even find the idea that it is associated with machination and the creation of false things. This etymological evolution would suggest a gradual passage from the ontological to the representational. Finally, the Latin term architectus derives from the Greek archi (a person of authority) and tekton (a craftsman or builder).
The earliest appearance of the term tectonic in English dates from 1656 where it appears in a glossary meaning “belonging to building,” and this is almost a century after the first English use of the term *architect in 1563. In 1850 the German oriental scholar K. O. Muller was to define the term rather rudely, as “a series of arts which form and perfect vessels, implements, dwellings, and places of assembly.” The term is first elaborated in a modern sense with Karl Bötticher’s The Tectonic of the Hellenes of 1843–52 and with Gottfried Semper’s essay “The Four Elements of Architecture” of the same year. It is further developed in Semper’s unfinished study, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, or, Practical Aesthetics, published between 1863 and 1868.
The term tectonic cannot be divorced from the technological, and it is this that gives it a certain ambivalence. In this regard it is possible to identify three distinct conditions: 1) the technological object, which arises directly out of meeting an instrumental need; 2) the scenographic object, which may be used equally to allude to an absent or hidden element; and 3) the tectonic object, which appears in two modes. We may refer to these modes as the ontological and representational tectonic. The first involves a constructional element that is shaped so as to emphasize its static role and cultural status. This is the tectonic as it appears in Bötticher’s interpretation of the Doric column. The second mode involves the representation of a constructional element that is present but hidden. These two modes can be seen as paralleling the distinction that Semper made between the structural-technical and the structural-symbolic.
Aside from these distinctions, Semper was to divide built form into two separate material procedures: into the tectonics of the frame, in which members of varying lengths are conjoined to encompass a spatial field, and the stereotomics of compressive mass that, while it may embody space, is constructed through the piling up of identical units (the term stereotomics deriving from the Greek term for solid, stereos, and cutting, -tomia). In the first case, the most common material throughout history has been wood or its textual equivalents such as bamboo, wattle, and basketwork. In the second case, one of the most common materials has been brick, or the compressive equivalent of brick such as rock, stone, or rammed earth, and later, reinforced concrete. There have been significant exceptions to this division, particularly where, in the interest of permanence, stone as been cut, dressed, and erected in such a way as to assume the form and function of a frame.
While these facts are so familiar as to hardly need repetition, we tend to be unaware of the ontological consequences of these differences; that is to say, of the way in which framework tends toward the aerial and the dematerialization of mass, whereas the mass form is telluric, embedding itself ever deeper into the earth. The one tends toward light and the other toward dark. These gravitational opposites, the immateriality of the frame and the materiality of the mass, may be said to symbolize the two cosmological opposites to which they aspire: the sky and the earth. Despite our highly secularized techno-scientific age, these polarities still largely constitute the experiential limits of our lives. It is arguable that the practice of architecture is impoverished to the extent that we fail to recognize these transcultural values and the way in which they are latent in all structural form. Indeed, these forms may serve to remind us, after Heidegger, that inanimate objects may also evoke “being” and that through this analogy to our own corpus, the body of a building may be perceived as though it were literally a physique. This brings us back to Semper’s privileging of the joint as the primordial tectonic element, as the fundamental nexus around which building comes into being, that is to say, comes to be articulated as a presence in itself.
Semper’s emphasis on the joint implies that fundamental syntactical transition may be expressed as one passes from the stereotomic base to the tectonic frame and that such transitions constitute the very essence of architecture. They are the dominant constituents whereby one culture of building differentiates itself from the next.
There is a spiritual value residing in the “thingness” of the constructed object, so much so that the generic joint becomes a point of ontological condensation rather than a mere connection. The work of Carlo Scarpa would seem to exemplify this attribute.
The first volume of the fourth edition of Karl Bötticher’s Tektonik der Hellenen appeared in 1843, two years after Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s death in 1841. This publication was followed by three subsequent volumes that appeared at intervals over the next decade, the last appearing in 1852, the year of Semper’s “Four Elements of Architecture.” Bötticher elaborated the concept of the tectonic in a number of significant ways. At one level he envisaged a conceptual juncture, which came into being through the appropriate interlocking of constructional elements. Simultaneously articulated and integrated, these conjunctions were seen as constituting the body-form, the Korperbilden of the building that not only guaranteed its material finish but also enabled this function to be recognized as a symbolic form. At another level, Bötticher distinguished between the Kernform or nucleus and the Kunstform or decorative cladding, the latter having the purpose of representing and symbolizing the institutional status of the work. According to Bötticher, this shell or revetment had to be capable of revealing the inner essence of the tectonic nucleus. At the same time Bötticher insisted that one must always try to distinguish between the indispensable structural form and its enrichment, irrespective of whether the latter is merely the shaping of the technical elements—as in the case of the Doric column, or the cladding of its basic form with revetment. Semper will later adapt this notion of Kunstform to the idea of Bekleidung, that is to say, to the concept of literally “dressing” the fabric of a structure. Bötticher was greatly influenced by the philosopher Josef von Schelling’s view that architecture transcends the mere pragmatism of building by virtue of assuming symbolic significance.
For Schelling and Bötticher alike, the inorganic had no symbolic meaning, hence structural form could only acquire symbolic value by virtue of its capacity to engender analogies between tectonic and organic form. However, any kind of direct imitation of natural form was to be avoided since both men held the view that architecture was an imitative art only insofar as it imitated itself. This view tends to corroborate Grassi’s contention that architecture has always been distanced from the figurative arts, even if its form can be seen as paralleling nature. In this capacity architecture simultaneously serves both as a metaphor of, and as a foil to, the naturally organic. In tracing this thought retrospectively, one may cite Semper’s “Theory of Formal Beauty” of 1856 in which he no longer grouped architecture with painting and sculpture as a plastic art but with dance and music as a cosmic art, as an ontological world-making art rather than as representational form. Semper regarded such arts as paramount not only because they were symbolic but also because they embodied man’s underlying erotic-ludic urge to strike a beat, to string a necklace, to weave a pattern, and thus to decorate according to rhythmic law.
Semper’s “Four Elements of Architecture” brings the discussion full circle inasmuch as Semper added a specific anthropological dimension to the idea of tectonic form. Semper’s theoretical schema constitutes a fundamental break with the four-hundred-year-old humanist formula of utilitas, firmitas, venustas that first served as the intentional triad of Roman architecture and then as the underpinning of post-Vitruvian architectural theory. Semper’s radical reformulation stemmed from his seeing a model of a Caribbean hut in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The empirical reality of this simple shelter caused Semper to reject Laugier’s primitive hut, adduced in 1753 as the primordial form of shelter with which to substantiate the pedimented paradigm of Neoclassical architecture. Semper’s “four elements” countermanded this hypothetical assumption and asserted instead an anthropological construct comprising: 1) a hearth, 2) an earthwork, 3) a framework and roof, and 4) an enclosing membrane.
While Semper’s elemental model repudiated Neoclassical authority, it nonetheless gave primacy to the frame over the load-bearing mass. At the same time, Semper’s four-part thesis recognized the primary importance of the earthwork, that is to say, of a telluric mass that serves in one way or another to anchor the frame of the wall, or Mauer, into the site.
This marking, shaping, and preparing of ground by means of an earthwork had a number of theoretical ramifications. On the one hand, it isolated the enclosing membrane as a differentiating act so that the textual could be literally identified with the proto-linguistic nature of textile production that Semper regarded as the basis of all civilization. On the other hand, as Rosemary Bletter has pointed out, by stressing the earthwork as the fundamental basic form, Semper gave symbolic import to a nonspatial element, namely, the hearth, which was invariably an inseparable part of the earthwork. The phrase breaking ground and the metaphorical use of the word foundation are both obviously related to the primacy of the earthwork and the hearth.
In more ways than one Semper grounded his theory of architecture in a phenomenal element having strong social and spiritual connotations. For Semper the hearth’s origin was linked to that of the altar, and as such it was the spiritual nexus of architectural form. The hearth bears within itself connotations in this regard. It derives from the Latin verb aedisficare, which in its turn is the origin of the English word edifice, meaning literally “to make a hearth.” The latent institutional connotations of both hearth and edifice are further suggested by the verb to edify, which means “to educate, strengthen, and instruct.”
Influenced by the linguistic and anthropological insights of his age, Semper was concerned with the etymology of building. Thus he distinguished the massivity of a fortified stone wall, as indicated by the term Mauer, from the light frame and infill— wattle and daub, say—of medieval domestic buildings, for which the term Wand is used. This fundamental distinction has been nowhere more graphically expressed than in Karl Gruber’s reconstruction of a medieval German town. Both Mauer and Wand reduce to the word wall in English, but the latter in German is related to the word for dress, Gewand, and to the term Winden, which means “to embroider.” In accordance with the primacy that he gave to textiles, Semper maintained that the earliest basic structural artifact was the knot, which predominates in nomadic building form—especially in the Bedouin tent and its textile interior. There are etymological connotations residing here of which Semper was fully aware, above all, the connection between knot and joint, the former being in German die Knofen and the latter die Verbindung, which may be literally translated as “the binding.” All this evidence tends to support Semper’s contention that the ultimate constituent of the art of building is the joint.
The primacy that Semper accorded to the knot seems to be supported by Gunter Nitschke’s research into Japanese binding and unbinding rituals as set forth in his seminal essay “Shime” of 1974.5 In Shinto culture these proto-tectonic binding rituals constitute agrarian renewal rites. They point at once to that close association between building, dwelling, cultivating, and being that was remarked on by Martin Heidegger in his essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” of 1954.
Semper’s distinction between tectonic and stereotomic returns us to theoretical arguments recently advanced by the Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti, who proposes that the marking of ground, rather than the primitive hut, is the primordial tectonic act. In his 1983 address to the New York Architectural League, Gregotti stated:
…The worst enemy of modern architecture is the idea of space considered solely in terms of its economic and technical exigencies indifferent to the idea of the site.
The built environment that surrounds us is, we believe, the physical representation of its history, and the way in which it has accumulated different levels of meaning to form the specific quality of the site, not just for what it appears to be, in perceptual terms, but for what it is in structural terms.
Geography is the description of how the signs of history have become forms, therefore the architectural project is charged with the task of revealing the essence of the geo-environmental context through the transformation of form. The environment is therefore not a system in which to dissolve architecture. On the contrary, it is the most important material from which to develop the project.
Indeed, through the concept of the site and the principle of settlement, the environment becomes the essence of architectural production. From this vantage point, new principles and methods can be seen for design. Principles and methods that give precedence to the siting in a specific area [sic]. This is an act of knowledge of the context that comes out of its architectural modification [my emphasis]. The origin of architecture is not the primitive hut, the cave, or the mythical ‘Adam’s House in Paradise.’ Before transforming a support into a column, a roof into a tympanum, before placing stone on stone, man placed a stone on the ground to recognize a site in the midst of an unknown universe, in order to take account of it and modify it. As with every act of assessment, this one required radical moves and apparent simplicity. From this point of view, there are only two important attitudes to the context. The tools of the first are mimesis, organic imitation and the display of complexity. The tools of the second are the assessment of physical relations, formal definition and the interiorization of complexity. 6
With the tectonic in mind it is possible to posit a revised account of the history of modern architecture, for when the entire trajectory is reinterpreted through the lens of techne certain patterns emerge, and others recede. Seen in this light a tectonic impulse may be traced across the century, uniting diverse works irrespective of their different origins. In this process well-known affinities are further reinforced while other recede and hitherto unremarked connections emerge asserting the importance of criteria that lie beyond superficial stylistic differences. Thus, for all their stylistic idiosyncrasies, a very similar level of tectonic articulation patently links Hendrik Petrus Berlage’s Stock Exchange of 1897–1904 to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building of 1904 and Herman Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer office complex of 1968–1972. In each instance there is a similar concatenation of span and support that amounts to a tectonic syntax in which gravitational force passes from purlin to truss, to pad stone, to corbel, to arch, to pier and abutment. The technical transfer of this load passes through a series of appropriately articulated transitions and joints. In each of these works the constructional articulation engenders the spatial subdivision and vice versa, and this same principle may be found in other works of this century possessing quite different stylistic aspirations. Thus we find a comparable concern for the revealed joint in the architecture of both Auguste Perret and Louis Kahn. In each instance the joint guarantees the probity and presence of the overall form while alluding to distinct different ideological and referential antecedents. Thus, where Perret looks back to the structurally rationalized classicism of the Greco-Gothic ideal, dating back in France to the beginning of the eighteenth century, Kahn evokes a “timeless archaism,” at once technologically advanced but spiritually antique.
The case can be made that the prime inspiration behind all this work stemmed as much from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as from Semper, although clearly Wright’s conception of built form as a petrified fabric writ large, most evident in his textile block houses of the twenties, derives directly from the cultural priority that Semper gave to textile production and to the knot as the primordial tectonic unit. It is arguable that Kahn was as much influenced by Wright as by the Franco-American Beaux-Arts line, stemming from Viollet-le-Duc and the École des Beaux-Arts. This particular genealogy enables us to recognize the links tying Kahn’s Richards Laboratories of 1961 back to Wright’s Larkin Building. In each instance there is a similar “tartan,” textile-like preoccupation with dividing the enclosed volume and its various appointments into servant and served spaces. In addition to this there is a very similar concern for the expressive rendering of mechanical services as though they were of the same hierarchic importance as the structural frame. Thus the monumental brick ventilation shafts of the Richards Laboratories are anticipated, as it were, in the hollow, ducted, brick bastions that establish the four-square monumental corners of the Larkin Building. However dematerialized, there is a comparable discrimination between servant and served spaces in Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre of 1978, combined with a similar penchant for the expressive potential of mechanical services. And here again we encounter further proof that the tectonic in the twentieth century cannot concern itself only with structural form.
Wright’s highly tectonic approach and the influence of this on the later phases of the Modern Movement have been underestimated, for Wright is surely the primary influence behind such diverse European figures as Carlo Scarpa, Franco Albini, Leonardo Ricci, Gino Valle, and Umberto Riva, to cite only the Italian Wrightian line. A similar Wrightian connection runs through Scandinavia and Spain, serving to connect such diverse figures as Jørn Utzon, Francisco Javier Saénz de Oíza and most recently Rafael Moneo, who as it happens was a pupil of both.
Something has to be said of the crucial role played by the joint in the work of Scarpa and to note the syntactically tectonic nature of this architecture. This dimension has been brilliantly characterized by Marco Frascari in his essay on the mutual reciprocity of “constructing” and “construing”:
If the work of Scarpa assumes paramount importance for stress on the joint, the seminal value of Utzon’s contribution to the evolution of modern tectonic form resides in his reinterpretation of Semper’s “four elements.” This is particularly evident in all his “pagoda/podium” pieces, which invariably break down into the earthwork and the surrogate hearth, embodied in the podium, and into the roof and the textile-like in-fill, to be found in the form of the “pagoda”—irrespective of whether this crowning roof element comprises a shell vault or a folded slab (as in the Sydney Opera House of 1973 and the Bagsvaerd Church of 1976). It says something for Moneo’s apprenticeship under Utzon that a similar articulation of earthwork and roof is evident in his National Museum of Roman Art completed in Merida, Spain, in 1986.
As we have already indicated, the tectonic lies suspended between a series of opposites, above all between the ontological and the representational. However, other dialogical conditions are involved in the articulation of tectonic form, particularly the contrast between the culture of the heavy-stereonomics, and the culture of the light-tectonics. The first implies load-bearing masonry and tends toward the earth and opacity. The second implies the dematerialized A-frame and tends toward the sky and translucence. At one end of this scale we have Semper’s earthwork reduced in primordial times, as Gregotti reminds us, to the marking of ground. At the other end we have the ethereal, dematerialized aspirations of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, which Le Corbusier once described as the victory of light over gravity. Since few works are absolutely the one thing or the other, it can be claimed that the poetics of construction arise, in part, out of the inflection and positionings of the tectonic object. Thus the earthwork extends itself upward to become an arch or a vault, or alternatively withdraws first to become the cross-wall support for a simple lightweight span and then to become a podium, elevated from the earth on which an entire framework take its anchorage. Other contrasts serve to articulate this dialogical movement further—such as smooth versus rough at the level of material (see Adrian Stokes’ study Smooth and Rough, 1951), or dark versus light at the level of illumination.
Finally, something has to be said about the signification of the “break” or the “dis-joint” as opposed to the signification of the joint. I am alluding to that point at which things break against each other rather than connect: that significant fulcrum at which one system, surface, or material abruptly ends to give way to another. Meaning may be thus encoded through the interplay between “joint” and “break,” and in this regard rupture may have just as much meaning as connection. Such considerations sensitize the architecture to the semantic risks that attend all forms of articulation, ranging from the overarticulation of joints to the underarticulation of form.
Postscript: Tectonic Form and Critical Culture
As Sigfried Giedion was to remark in the introduction to his two-volume study The Eternal Present (1962), among the deeper impulses of modern culture in the first half of this century was a “transavantgardist” desire to return to the timelessness of a prehistoric past; to recover in a literal sense some dimension of an eternal present, lying outside the nightmare of history and beyond the processal compulsions of instrumental progress. This drive insinuates itself again today as a potential ground from which to resist the commodification of culture. Within architecture the tectonic suggests itself as a mythical category with which to acquire entry to an anti-processal world wherein the “presencing” of things will once again facilitate the appearance and experience of men. Beyond the aporias of history and progress and outside the reactionary closures of historicism and the neo-avant-garde lies the potential for a marginal counterhistory. This is the primeval history of the logos to which Vico addressed himself, in his Nuova Scienza, in an attempt to adduce the poetic logic of the institution.9 It is a mark on the radical nature of Vico’s thought that he insisted that knowledge is not just the province of objective fact but also a consequence of the subjective, “collective” elaboration of archetypal myth, that is to say, an assembly of those existential symbolic truths residing in the human experience. The critical myth of the tectonic joint points to just this timeless, time-bound moment, excised from the continuity of time.
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Stagecraft: Models and Photos
Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery Columbia University GSAPP February 9, 2017–March 10, 2017
Director of Exhibitions: Irene Sunwoo Assistant Director of Exhibitions: Adam Bandler
Exhibition Attendants: Jake Cavallo, Andrew Davis, Aastha Deshpande, Marwah Garib, Jean Im, Paul Provenza, Betzabe Valdés
Exhibitions Crew: Nabi Agzamov, Valentina Angelucci, Vanessa Arriagada, Tim Battelino, Axelle Dechelette, Ying Huang, Deniz Onder, Emily Po, Shruti Shubham, Elif Unsal
Exhibition Design by Adam Bandler Graphic Design by MTWTF, Glen Cummings, Anni Seligmann
Special thanks to Nicholas Knight