"Tectonics" in Architecture
Hafize Büşra Bostancı Sabur
Semra Arslan Selçuk
Published Jul 14, 2020
In geology, tectonics describes the artifacts of earth layers and the evolution of these artifacts (Bostancı Sabur, 2019). The tectonic concept, deriving from the terms “tecton” – meaning carpenters or builders in ancient Greek – or “techne” – meaning the art of technology or the art of building in Ancient Greek (Hartoonian, 1994, p. 2) – represents construction/structural/material integration that buildings need in the architecture (Frampton, 1995, p. 24). The term tectonics has been used in architectural discourse for several centuries and has evolved after the second half of the 20th century, with the emergence of digital and information technologies, into a digital tectonic concept. Digital environments are increasingly used to explore a new generation of tectonics connected to digital tools and algorithms, as well as to combine digital methods with classic elements expressing building elements and construction/structure/material integration used during earlier periods of architecture.
At the beginning of architecture, early human beings gave more importance to functionality than symbolic expression, meeting the need for shelter over artistic production. By using all kinds of materials these peoples found in nature, they manipulated their structures in accordance with their needs. As a result of increasing technical knowledge, they used these materials by increasing their performance, laying the foundations of both the material and structural aspects of architecture. Theoreticians who have given various meanings to the term “tectonic” – pioneers such as Karl Müller, Karl Bötticher and Gottfried Semper – have argued that the most important thing in classical tectonic thought was the integration of construction/structure/material.
The first architectural use of the term “tectonic” can be seen in the book “Handbuch der Archaologie der Kunst” (Handbook of the Archaeology of Art) published in 1830 by German architect and theoretician Karl Müller, defining the term ‘tektonische’ by applying it to a set of art terms (Frampton, 1995, p. 4). While adding meaning to the term as “symbolic value of convergence,” Müller also uses the term technically as an “artistic action of assembling pieces.”
Karl Bötticher, accepting the tectonic duality between structure and pavement, was the first to believe that the tectonic in architecture has two main elements – a nuclear inner structure and an outer cladding. He has demonstrated the difference between ontology, which aims to ensure the integration of functional, cultural and structural factors in architecture, and representation, which separates the rest of the structure because of its non-functionality as a single term. In his study “Die Tectonic der Hellenen” (The Tectonics of the Greeks), Bötticher categorized the concept of tectonics as a detailed system combining all the elements of a Greek temple and proposed a third architectural ontology – a combination of the two, dividing the core-form (kernform), defined as the core of the carrier system from the art-form (kunstform), the decorative coating of the nucleus that serves to represent and symbolize cultural traditions (Frampton, 1996, p. 10). This becomes the main elements of German tectonic theory by combining the structural features of Gothic architecture and the ornamental features from Greek architecture.
Gottfried Semper, in his work “Four Elements of Architecture,” defines four basic elements of architecture based on traditional construction methods: earthwork, hearth, framework/roof, and light-weight enclosing membrane (Semper, 1851/2015, p. 52). Semper classifies the art of building into two main processes: the tectonics of the frame and the stereotomics of earthwork. According to Semper’s tectonic approach, the use of different materials in architecture should be seen as a more cultural expression, claiming that in tectonic theory the priority is the appearance of architecture.
In 1998, Greg Lynn described curvilinear forms in architecture based on the study of Cartesian geometry in Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. This led to the emergence of the concept of “blob” architecture and thus began the digital transformation in architectural tectonics (Lorenzo-Eiroa and Sprecher, 2013, p. 35). Kolarevic (2003) states that contemporary approaches in architectural design are digitally activated and directed.
Through these transformations in the 1990s, a wide range of digital technologies have been used as part of a new environment that drives the design process. Digital technologies such as 3D modeling software, multidimensional generative systems/algorithms and CAD/CAM fabrication have contributed to these changes in architecture and differentiated traditional architectural thinking in design, fabrication, and construction processes. As a result of technological developments, new manufacturing materials and construction methods have been simultaneously created, and, consequently new tectonics have emerged.
This transition to digital tectonics has been a direct consequence of the ubiquity of digital tools. New techniques and tools widely used through computer programs have led to innovative and revolutionary works in the design and production of complex forms in the engineering and architecture. These forms, shaped by new technologies, have begun to create their own tectonics and the new forms of making, and can be called “digital tectonics.” They have re-shaped the architect’s dialogue with materials and structure. Theoreticians Eduard Sekler and Kenneth Frampton have contributed the most to this discussion.
In 1965, Eduard Sekler in his book “Structure, Construction and Tectonics” described the term “tectonic” as a specific expression of structured form resulting from the static resistance. Sekler argues that structure should be evaluated with the efficiency of the selected system in mind. While the relationship between construction, construction method and material has been discussed, submits that structure and construction should be in interaction, noting these two concepts cannot be considered separately. Continuing to show how similar combinations of structures and construction can be an opportunity for an ingenious variation in expression, he claims that the visual result in this relationship between construction and structure would lead to an artistic expression and described this visual expression as tectonic.
The description of the term “tectonic” defined by Kenneth Frampton in the digital field shows that the term has a simpler understanding as another word for the act of construction. Frampton rejects the distinction between material culture and construction and has adopted the architectural view that unites these two in his 1995 book entitled “Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture.” Frampton states that construction forms material, so it cannot be thought apart from architecture, and submits that the construction of a structure and its existence is important in material-based design. For Frampton, the integration of structural and constructional components into the architectural form, space and order is one of the developments of modern architecture because it is related to structure and construction more so than space and form. However, Frampton’s theory maintains a balance between structure/construction and space/form. This extended interpretation is even closer to a contemporary recognition of fabrication and manufacturing as digitally informed systems (Oxman, 2012).
Tectonics is a term defining not only building construction techniques, but also the integration of construction processes. Theoreticians who gave various meanings to the concept of tectonics have argued that the main concept in classical tectonic thinking was to ensure the integrity of construction/structure/material by interpreting natural materials shaped by human beings in the light of scientific and technical principles. In addition, digital tectonics is not just the addition of digital technologies to the traditional tectonic term, but a new way of thinking about architecture as a clear and logical result of a complex process. In this case, the concept of architecture and the tectonic represents structure and structural contents. Considering the advantages of new technologies, digital tectonics can be considered as a combination of interaction between material, construction and structure.
The term “tectonic” has been researched and described in an article entitled “Mimari Tektoniğin Evrimi: Dijital Tektonikler Üzerine Bir Değerlendirme,” Sabur, H.B., Arslan Selçuk S., (2018) International Refereed & Indexed Journal on Mathematic, Engineering and Natural Sciences (EJONS), 2 (3) 75-87.
 Philosophers, from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) to Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), have also contributed much to the concept of tectonics.
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Deleuze, G. (1993). The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 6.
Frampton, K. (1995). Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 4, 10, 24.
Hartoonian, G., (1994). Ontology of Construction – On Nihilism of Technology in Theories of Modern Architecture, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p. 2.
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Lynn, G. (1998). Folds, Bodies & Blobs: Collected Essays, Brussels: La Lettre Volée, p. 115.
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