Review: Studies in Tectonic Culture:
The Poetics Of Construction In 19th-20th Century Architecture
By Kenneth Frampton
MIT Press, 1995
Review by: Duygu Damla AYHAN
The history of contemporary architecture is inevitably multiple, multifarious even; a history of the structures that form the human environment independently of architecture itself; a history of the attempts to control and direct those structures; a history of the intellectuals who have sought to devise policies and methods for those attempts; a history of new languages which, having abandoned all hope of arriving at absolute and definitive words, have striven to delimit the area of their particular contribution.
Obviously the intersection of all those manifold histories will never end up in unity.
The realm of history is, by nature, dialectical.
Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co. L’architettura contemporanea, 1976.
As today’s architecture has multiple dimensions to read, it is not possible to come up with a formal definition of contemporary architecture nor to classify it’s works under labels of styles. Discussions on the function of architecture and space until today were centered around a philosophical and abstract plane.
Kenneth Frampton approached contemporary architecture as a more technical matter in his book by putting tectonics at the proper focus of architectural thought. He read contemporary architecture not as sequences of style and art movements, but as a style to end all styles. The notion of tectonic is the main category of his critical disquisition. The term is carefully excavated from its nineteenth century sources and deployed with relation to selected examples of buildings.
This paper aims to examine some contemporary debates done over multiple readings on architecture about space and spatial experiences by looking architecture as making of a built object, not as a representation of a “less tangible idea” (Goldberger 1996); which was suggested by Kenneth Frampton in his book, Studies In Tectonic Culture: The Poetics Of Construction In 19th-20th Century Architecture.
Kenneth Frampton, unlike most of other contemporary architectural theorists, didn’t see architecture as making of signs, or establishment of a social order, or as a tool of showing authority. He describes relation of architecture and space like; “Unlike fine art…is as much an everyday experience as it is a representation . . . the built is a thing rather than a sign…The built is first and foremost a construction, and only later an abstract discourse based on surface, volume and plan.”
The thing he calls as “everyday experience” (Kenneth Frampton Reprint edition (October 1, 2001)) stands as a broad term to describe the scope of architecture. Designing everyday of a user can be done in a great artistic way, yet if one starts with the art alone, it may cause to fail understanding “physical reality” of the building.
Both architecture and art are based on ideas but for Frampton “architecture is not necessarily an idea first.”1 (Goldberger 1996). With that the priority is given to space by a reconsideration of the constructional and structural thought. Significant importance of the building is to be achieved due to its usage.
“When an object has a use; it becomes a sign of that use…It thus supposes that once the possible use of the stone has been conceptualized, the stone itself
becomes the concrete sign of its virtual use.”
Umberto Eco The Theory Of Semiotics, 1976
In the “Introduction: Reflections on the Scope of the Tectonics”, there are two distinctive ideas that seem to shape Frampton’s understanding on tectonic.
First one, the duality of Structure and Form, is pointed by Karl Bötticher.2 These concepts are strictly related to each other and according to him, the core-form (Kernform) is the mechanical, necessary, structurally functioning scheme of forces, while the art-form (Kunstform) is its clarifying counterpart, and its symbolic expression.
Second is Semper’s distinction between the symbolic and technical aspects of structure3.
With those two starting dualities, Frampton explains his distinction between the representational and the ontological aspects of tectonic thinking in architecture (Giusti 1996). Frampton argues that our built environment is produced in an interplay of three aspects – topos (place); typos4 (building type); and the tectonic. According to Frampton, tectonic is the aspect best suited to counter present tendencies to legitimize architecture in discourses outside its own discipline (Nilsson 2007).
“The type is related to the form and in this way understands the place;
the tectonics represents the form”
Studies in Tectonic Culture
According to Anne Beim in her “Tectonic Visions in Architecture”, concept of tectonics refers to meaning of construction in architecture. “Tectonic vision” is defined as: “Visionary investigations into new materials, technologies, structures, and practices of construction, as means to construct (new) meaning in architecture.” (Beim 2004). She states that building technology and construction practice can become a matter of signification – which is tectonics itself – but only when handled consciously and intentionally.
One can argue that, tectonics has been a fashionable word among architects, but the concept has been used indistinctly. Tectonics shouldn’t be accepted only to show construction and load bearing elements uncritically. “Tectonic architecture manifests and elucidates the constructive function of a building as a support for a spatial idea. It creates constructive readability.” (Engström 2004) Tectonic architecture makes use of techniques (bearing structure, elements and details) to create experiences and associations. The construction is considered as a part of the building’s idea content, a method to show intentions of the architecture. Frampton reminds us that aesthetic quality of the work is also driven first by construction.
“We find ourselves returned to the tactility of the tectonic in all its aspects; to a meeting between the essence of things and the existence of beings, to that pre-Socratic moment, lying outside time, that is at once both modern and antique.”
Studies in Tectonic Culture
Architecture, Tectonic Visions in. 2004. Anne Beim. Kunstakademiets Arkitektskoles Forlag.
Bötticher, Karl. 1852. Die Tektonik der Hellenen, Volume 1. Berlin.
Culvahouse, Tim. 1996. “Reviewed Work: Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture by Kenneth Frampton.” Architecture New York.
Giusti, Gordana Korolija Fontana. 1996. “Reviewed Work: Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture by Kenneth Frampton.” AA Files.
Goldberger, Paul. 1996. “Bricks and Mortar.” The New York Times Press.
Gottfried Semper, Harry Francis Mallgrave. 2011. The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press.
Kenneth Frampton, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. (2001). Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture. MIT Press.
Leatherbarrow, David. 1997. “Review of Studies on Tectonic Culture.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol: 56: 98-100.
Leddy, Tom. 2000. “Review: Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture by Kenneth Frampton.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol: 58: 79-83.
Nilsson, Fredrik. 2007. “New Technology, New Tectonics? – On Architectural and Structural.” Tectonics – Making Meaning. Conference Proceedings. Chalmers Publication Library .
Sanabria, Sergio L. 1997. “Review on Studies in Tectonic Culture.” Technology and Culture, vol: ”
Soroka, Ellen. 1997. “Review on: Kenneth Frampton and John Cava.” Journal of Architectural Education, vol:51: 73-75.
1 Kenneth Frampton explains this idealization of conceptual design as; “Philosophical alienation of the body from mind resulted in the absence of embodied experience from almost all contemporary theories of meaning in architecture. The over emphasize on signification and reference in architectural theory has led to a constructual of meaning as an entirely conceptual phenomenon.” (Kenneth Frampton, 2001, Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics Of Construction In Nineteenth And Twentieth Century Architecture, pg.10)
2 Kunstform and Kernform discussion is pointed by Karl Bötticher as the realization of the concept of each member can be considered through two forms working together: through the core-form Kernform and through the art-form Kunstform. The core-forms each member are necessary components, they are the structurally functioning parts. The art-form, by contrast, is only helps to understand functional characteristic. (Bötticher 1852)
3 In the same period with Bötticher, Gottfried Semper publishes The Four Elements of Architecture where he lists the elements – the heat, the roof, the fence and the embankment – and explains the construction art with relation to the tectonics and the “royal Caribbean hut”.
4 As Antonio Monestiroli wrote, “The construction implements an external concept to itself, it reveals a sense that belongs to type and that becomes evident through it”