☰ Workshops

Structures in Building Culture

Tectonical Shape of Wood (2011)

In the last two decennia, subjects like craft and tectonics have resurfaced in the architectural discussion. The meaning of “craft” or “craftsmen” has been described quite clearly and consistently in a wide variety of literature (Sennett, 2008). The meaning of “tectonics”, on the other hand, seems to evolve through time. With this, the message of tectonics has become somewhat diffuse.

In the first half of this text a small juxtaposition of the message of tectonics through time is discussed. The second half focuses on research in craft and the use of tectonics in workshops and teaching.

One of the first well known studies in tectonics was performed by Gottfried Semper, a German architect and art critic who lived during the 19th century. In his work he wrote extensively about the origins of architecture and technical arts through time. Besides his research in tectonics, many of his theories like the stoffwechselthese (roughly translated as rematerialization) and the bekleidungsprinzip (principle of dressing) are still used explicitly in today’s research and discussion.

In his book “der Stil”, Gottfried Semper describes a distinction between the “core schema” (i.e. core-form) and the “art schema” (i.e. art-form). In this dichotomy the core-form represents the constructional principle of architecture, the art-form represents the ornamental principle. When such a clear distinction is made between the two forms, the art-form is masking or dressing the core-form. In case of masking, the art-form is not revealing the true nature of its constructional principle. It behaves like a separate layer surrounding the inside. When an core-form is dressed, the art-form is guided by the structure underneath. Like a dress is guided by the supporting body, in dressing the art-form is a derivative from its core. When the distinction between the core-form and the art-form blurrs or disappears, one can speak of tectonics. In this case structure itself becomes both art-form as well as core-form (Semper, 2004).

Semper defines tectonics as the art of combining parts into a rigid rod-like immobile assembly. In his work, carpentry and tectonics are much alike and highly valued in relation to architecture. Craft is like poetry. Like a poet combining words and phrases into a piece, the carpenter uses his craft to combine elements to a frame. A correct assembly of stiff parts to a solid frame is an art-form in itself. The framework produced in carpentry forms a rich base for Semper’s research. Described as the oldest root form of tectonics, the frame embodies one of the main characteristics of tectonics. Therefore the frame is the highest and most universal theme in architecture.(Semper, 2004).

Rigid frames provides structure. The frame itself has no direct relation to the observer but only as an addition, surrounding the form within. The filling of this frame provides enclosure. This is often made with lighter material with different qualities and aesthetics than the frame itself. This infill reveals the essence or function of the part or object (Semper, 2004). Glass infill, for instance, creates a window or mirror, textile infill creates a wall or painting.

Semper describes tectonics to the scale of carpentry, and as inspiration and influence to architecture. During the last decennia, discussion on tectonics extend to art, construction and architecture.

In art, tectonics represents the epistemology of internal structure. This assumption seems in contradiction with Semper’s description. Since internal structure is only partly or not visible at all, external structure will mask or dress the internal.

In architecture, tectonics expands to architecture as a technical craft (Frampton, 2001). In a more particular description, tectonics represent the unity of opposite pairs: representation and structure, art and technique (Kollhoff, 2001). With this broader conception of tectonics more qualities are incorporated into its meaning. From then on, different crafts and professions start using tectonic expressions which results in a different evolution of the content itself. In most cases tectonic deals with expression and structure.

On the one hand, this broadening of meaning of tectonics as described in Semper’s work, blurs its essence. While on the other hand, this renewed interest in tectonics in the architectural discussion makes way for a new structural logic of buildings. Since, in this discussion, representation and structure are mentioned within the same sentence, architectural interests shift towards engineering and vice versa. In this so called “structural turn”, the traditional relationship between architect as creator and engineer as problem-solver changes. Engineers start to pay attention to the aesthetic qualities of structure, architects formulate concepts with structural qualities as a starting point. With a growing mutual respect, interdisciplinary practices emerge. In engineering architecture, normally a strictly technical profession, different parties negotiate and interact. With their own specific knowledge and interests, all participants contribute to a final design (Cross, 2011).

Within this structural turn, structural integrity of buildings is often studied digitally. In the book “Digital Tectonics”, the seemingly contradiction of this title is discussed. Where for Semper, tectonics only resonate with the material world, digital tectonics are supported by the immaterial world of scripts and algorithms (Leach, 2004). These two worlds seem total opposite, but strangely enough, it is this structural turn that make tectonics and craft in general this contemporary. Where in traditional craft precision and techniques are practiced and trained during a great part of the craftsmen’s childhood, programming and CNC milling are able to reproduce a great part of these techniques and precision digitally as well as physically without a direct touch of human hands.

For the Erasmus IP Workshop “Structure in Building Culture 2011”, Semper’s definition of tectonics is revisited in a contemporary way. In his work, the frame as a core form, is supported by an independent art-form that does not contribute structurally to the system as a whole. However, the core-form often possesses great structural potential. Infill like lattices or wickerwork show light textile surfaces, the use of folding techniques and paper provide transparent, origami like geometries.

In this IP workshop wooden sheet material are chosen as a starting point. Since the time Gottfried Semper wrote his work, material development has changed the use of wood strongly. By slicing tree trunks, large sheets can be produced. By layering these sheets in a particular way, traditionally anisotropic material is provided with isotropic behavior. Instead of using material as filling, sheet material obtains structural qualities. By revisiting the art-forms geometrically or theoretically, and materializing them structurally, the architectural vocabulary of paper and textile techniques and geometries can be extended. Rematerializing the art-form itself should result in a contemporary tectonic.

Generating knowledge in art and craft differs greatly from research in sciences and humanities. As described by Torbjørn Tryti in the Erasmus IP publication “Concretum”, aspiring architects learn by doing. Through physical exploration and experimentation in 1:1 models, the understanding of material is extended (Tryti, 2011). Just like a craftsman, the aspiring architect explores the dimensions of skill, commitment and judgment in a particular way. By constantly reflecting on the process, the immediate connection between hand and head is calibrated. In this reflective practice thinking is accompanied by doing. With this knowledge, also referred to as tacit knowledge, a gap is bridged between understanding and making, theory and actual solution (Sennett, 2008) (Schön, 1983).

To obtain the required tacit knowledge, the workshop is divided into four courses. The first course has a more traditional character, the second one a more experimental. The third and fourth course focus mainly on the application of gained knowledge from the first and second course.

The first trajectory is guided by a craftsman with an expertise in classical wood joinery. With a limited amount of electric tools and an extensive amount of handsaws and chisels, students practice the joinery of two or more beams in a classical and traditional way.

In the second course, knowledge from the beam joinery is projected on the joinery of wooden plates. Inspired by woodcraft as well as textile and origami, a double curved surface is designed and built. Material connections can only be obtained by the use and manipulation of the plate itself.

The results from the first and second trajectory are aesthetically very appealing. When creating surfaces, crafts like weaving appeal to these students because of the intuitive character of the geometry. Folding is another technique applied in these designs. Compared to weaving, folding seems to be less intuitively applicable by the students. Making the geometry work and the connections fit seems to be a big challenge for them. To accompany an aesthetic exploration, the third course focuses on structure. In a design of a bridge of about 2 meters, the art-form and the core-form have to come together.

During the last course a plywood or chipwood structure is erected on-site. Several locations are picked with their own specific structural challenges. Some structures are constructed between trees, others in a tower or church. By combining knowledge from the three previous courses, aesthetically appealing and structurally progressive designs are developed.

Workshops like Structure in Building Culture are still very important in architectural education. Even in our digitally driven design culture, designing something you have never experienced by making it yourself is harder than one might expect. Still, I am surprised how many students I meet that have never had any 1 to 1 building experiences after 4 years of design or architectural education. One might expect that an aspiring architect is driven to create designs and build objects. Fortunately enough, when they do start to build the most beautiful and interesting objects are made.

by Ivo Vrouwe
Sint-Lucas, School of Architecture, Belgium