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Tectonic Architecture… is that with gin?!

Tectonic Architecture... is that with gin?!

Techtonic Architecture has been around since cavemen put hides on sticks to make huts! In 1851 German Architect, Gottfried Semper, published his book ‘The Four Elements of Architecture’  attempting to explain the origins of architecture through the lens of anthropology (study of humans and their behaviour). He identifies four distinct elements: the hearth, the roof (structure), the enclosure (or membrane) and the mound (the base).


Actually its ‘Stereotomics’ which is the opposite to tectonics; the former is occupied with covering up the structure and the latter about revealing it and making it part of the beauty of the form as well as part of its purpose according to the choice of materials. This is poignantly illustrated in the design ‘Brick House’ by Kenneth Frampton, the British Architect who wrote ‘Studies in Tectonic Culture’ and_ who once said:-

“…. In architecture, it has been suggested that the term architectonic is used to refer to the relativistic differentiation between the constructional elements in buildings according to their relative stability characteristics (1995).


At risk of distracting you for even longer, I discovered Archi-tectonics is also a firm that specialises in tectonic architecture and has won the competition to build the Olympic Stadium for the 2022 games in China. Presented by Dutch architect, Winka Dubbeldam (what a great name!) who is founder and principal of their offices in New York. Worth a scan if you have thirty minutes to spare (plenty of examples of strange structures)!

Leading Tectonic-ers

Great architects, including Frei Otti , Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, amongst others, are also worth a good look with regard to Tectonics. It’s interesting to note that the fifties and sixties were times that started computer programming and calculations that would help structures develop.

Without great mathematicians and keen Architects that would push boundaries we would not have the software programmes we have today, nor the construction skills and know-how to make ideas come to life. Of course, the inside of a church or cathedral has structure on display as part of the aesthetics; these historic buildings had no help from computers!

Structure study
Frei Otto. Casabella 301 1966, 35
Renzo Piano
Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas 2013
Richard Rogers – Centre Pompidou – Paris – 1971

In a unique architectural style of the twentieth century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) realised a new type of modern space defined by an unobstructed clear volume enclosed by framed glass skin. … Mies referred to the term ‘tectonic‘, or ‘architectonic’, as constructive appearance exposing the skeleton structure. (Reference from

ARC140 – Structure
Exploration of how ‘things’ work 

The project over the next four weeks is for the Falmouth University year one RIBA Part 1 Architecture students to truly understand tectonics by deconstructing one architectural element; a staircase. Class teams have been allocated one of five famous stairways to study; mine being the one located within the Olivetti Showroom in Venice, completed in 1958 and designed by the impressive Carlo Scarpa …

One of Scarpa’s oriignal drawings (Ref:
Olivetti Showroom Staircase designed by Carlo Scarpa – Venice – 1958
My first sketch of the staircase that became part of the structure of the Olivetti Showroom
First stage of making my 1:10 scale model of the Olivetti Showroom Staircase

No measurements!

The more I look at the non-readable plans found online from the Carlo Scarpa Achives and the guessed measurements, the more I admire the process that the creators undertook to create this marble masterpiece. Take a peek at the official website for the Olivetti Showroom

Not only does it sit balancing on supports but it also helps develop an illusion of ceilings higher than they actually were in a very tight and narrow space. This is not an easy one to copy!

Stage 2 – Carlo Scarpa respect! Floor levels are all over the place arrrghgh!

Time for a drink!

So, I need a gin and tonic now… not just to help me finish my model but also because I have just found this funky video on one of our most current and ingenious Architects, Norman Foster!..

And to sum up using the definition of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Architecture and from the words of William L. Porter 1986:

Tectonics in architecture is defined as “the science or art of construction, both in relation to use and artistic design.” It refers not just to the “activity of making the materially requisite construction that answers certain needs, but rather to the activity that raises this construction to an art form.” It is concerned with the modeling of material to bring the material into presence: from the physical into the meta-physical world.

Next week… hopefully a final model and the start of a new design of my own to replace this amazing staircase. Good luck with that Julia!

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