Studies in Tectonic Culture
The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture
MIT Press, 1995, 421 pp., $50 hardcover, 8.5x11, 485 illustrations
Reviewed by Lester Korzilius
Approximately 730 words
Published in Oculus, May 1996; Architectural Record, September 1996
This is Kenneth Frampton's most theoretical book. A professor at Columbia University, Mr. Frampton has earned his high reputation among architects primarily because of his books Modern Architecture - A Critical History (1980), Modern Architecture 1851-1919 (1981), and Modern Architecture 1920-1945 (1983), the later two produced with Yukio Futagawa. Studies in Tectonic Culture expounds on ideas presented in outline form in these earlier books.
Since the late nineteenth century, the concept of space has been an integral part of architectural thinking, and we cannot help but evaluate architecture in spatial terms. Mr. Frampton seeks to redress this imbalance by focusing on the art of construction, i.e., the tectonic.
The book begins with a background on the evolution of tectonic form considering the work of Schinkel, Labrouste, Pugin, de Baudot, and others. Mr. Frampton presents the theories of Viollet-le-Duc and Gottfried Semper, and refers to them throughout the book. Viollet-le-Duc sought to establish architecture as an art of construction based on logic, economy, and craft production. Semper postulated that architecture contains four elements; earthwork, hearth, framework/roof, and an enclosing wall membrane.
The heart of the book devotes one chapter each to the work of six architects; Frank Lloyd Wright, Auguste Perret, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Jrrn Utzon, and Carlo Scarpa. As in Modern Architecture - A Critical History, Mr. Frampton uses the work of a particular architect as the basis for a thematic discussion. The inclusion of Utzon and Scarpa in this book gives added breadth, particularly as neither were mentioned in Mr. Frampton's 1980 book.
The book is strongest when it combines an analysis of a work's underlying principles with its tectonic manifestations. The chapters on Perret, Utzon, and Scarpa are particularly strong. The author postulates that the tectonic elements of Perret's work include an expressed structural skeleton as an ordering principle, the emphasis on the joint and separation of materials, and a reinterpretation of traditional features. He astutely notes that Perret provided inflections in his work to differentiate the hierarchical importance of different building types and elements.
The chapter on Jorn Utzon alone is worth the price of the book. Many of Utzon's projects, unknown to most architects, are featured and extensively discussed. Mr. Frampton analyses Utzon's work by structural types and notes Utzon's overriding concern for the expressivity of structure and construction. He perceptively discusses the concept of pavilion and pagoda in the context of the Sydney Opera House, and observes that Sydney is proof that a tectonic concept and a structurally rational work do not always occur together.
The joint is all important in Carlo Scarpa's work. It is a tectonic condensation that contains the underlying elements of the entire design. Mr. Frampton gives several examples to explain this concept, and further discusses underlying themes, such as duality in the Brion-Vega cemetery, and transition and bearing at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia.
The chapters on Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Kahn are strong in their tectonic view of these architects' work, but less clear in their underlying themes. In the chapter on Wright, Mr. Frampton discusses the tectonic application of textured concrete block in Wright's houses of the 1920's, and the articulated curtain wall proposed for the National Life Insurance offices. He considers Johnson Wax a tectonic tour-de-force that weaves Semper's four elements into an intricate composition.
Mies van der Rohe, following the precedent of Schinkel and Berlage, sought a discipline of clear construction as the means to combine a rational order with the poetics of construction. For Mies, a structure was a philosophical idea. Mr. Frampton gives many examples of this concept, including a well-written section on Mies' brick country houses from the 1920's. Mies has talked of his work in terms of almost nothing and the will of an epoch translated into space, both ambiguous concepts that would have benefited from Mr. Frampton's clarification.
For Louis Kahn, a space was architectural when the evidence of how it was made could be comprehended. From the Richards Medical Laboratories onwards, Kahn treated the structure as the potential generator of space. In the Kimbell Art Museum, the barrel vaulted roof and the earthwork presence are the dominant tectonic elements determining the overall character.
Despite minor criticisms one might have, this book remains a superb and important work. It is a valuable contribution to current architectural theory, particularly in light of current hyper-intellectual trends at many architectural schools today.