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Tectonics in Building Culture

Textile Blocks (2009)

Erratic Blocks

The cultivation of a tectonic approach towards building is a strong source of power and renewal. And one of the key lessons is prototyping at full scale. This is the approach we tried to work with over the last five years on the Erasmus Intensive Programme series ‘Tectonics in Building Culture’ and ‘Building Anatomy’. Instead of materialising conceptual ideas, students were forced to work physically with a concrete building material. The process of generating ideas was shifted towards that of development – a notion that Mies van der Rohe always preferred to use instead of design. In all the past summer workshops the potential of physical materials opened a field of thought that nourished the design process and generated structures and forms through the act of building. The expression ‘textile blocks’ goes back to early experiments of Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1920s. Treating the mould with great care, Wright brought the relief of the surface into the serial production of concrete blocks and gave an almost textile pattern and a powerful expression to the buildings. This aspect of tactile qualities gained through the work with structure and surface was the starting point of the stone workshop. What qualities can we bring out of raw stones, broken out of the rock in the quarry and delivered in an archaic condition? How to deal with the huge weight, unloaded from the huge truck on our building sites? Are we able to create form out of a shapeless mass?

The Tectonic Game

As we soon found out, dry stone walling is deeply connected to the primitive use of physical strength. The speed of building in stone is dramatically related to the weight of the material. It gets physical. After five minutes of work one needs a break of five minutes in order to relax the body and refresh all muscles even if tools such as wheelbarrows and so on are used. This leads to a highly structured working process that is connected to the strength of the human body more than to the ability of rapid thinking. On the other hand, dry stone walling needs a fine sense for weight, dimensions and proportions. It needs the hand to put the stone in place, to shift it to the exact position or more often to take it back again and find another one that fits better. Mortar that allows working with a certain tolerance was not part of the game. Building with uncut stones means a constant negotiation of parts matching, interlocking and reacting with each other. Like in a tectonic game, like in a three-dimensional puzzle. One of the most important things we learned – apart from patience – was the ability to watch. Finding the stone means listening to the stone, means taking measures without measuring, means developing a sense of dimensions. In remembering Louis Kahn’s sentence ‘And the brick says: I want a vault’ we discovered that stones ask for certain things. Stones react with other stones, stones rely on each other, stones need a bed. Architects are used to taking rules not just as a given but as constraints that might be interpreted. There is always a range of possibilities within a framework. But dry walls are built on stronger rules. They are almost impossible to break. The experimental process is limited to a strongly defined field. Stone is unforgiving. That is the rule of stone.

Prototyping in another domension

The brick workshop of the year before was based on the constant repetition of stacking and re-stacking. It brought up a wide range of sculptural experiments that were finally dismantled and packed to the pallets to return where they came from. Compared to this, the stone workshop resulted in erratic pieces of work that remained at their site forever like real buildings do. It led to a different learning process and back to the idea of permanence. Dry stone walling originates in the rural landscape, in the cleaning of the fields and in the somewhat natural use of this material for erecting borders between properties. These walls are linear marks, drawn into the landscape, making it man made. In that sense, stonewalls do integrate naturally into the landscape. Dry stone walls are not only sustainable in the use of a “given” material but also in the sense that they have the power to sustain. A dry stone wall can be adapted and rebuilt at any time. If properly built, a dry stone wall lasts forever. It is flexible and easy to repair: a system open to be worked on. Careful maintenance enables its durability. If we reconsider the idea of tectonic, it not only means the issue of understanding how parts must be aggregated in order to form a consistent structure but, moreover, it contains the attempt to understand how buildings need to be designed and assembled in order to remain standing for the next generation. Tectonic in that sense is also a reaction to the context, topography and landscape and a wonderful tool in the process of creating the built environment.

by Urs Meister
University of Liechtenstein, Institute of Architecture and Planning, Vaduz

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