Dynamics of Tectonics

Tectonics Making Meaning was the name of the congress held at Eindhoven University of Technology in early December. After the three-day event there was, of course, no clear-cut agreement about what exactly tectonics is. But what could it be?

Is it, as Jan Westra (TU/e) argued during the opening, 'what you see is what you get'? No exposed columns of the Barcelona pavilion by Mies van der Rohe for example? In other words, no fakery? I think it must be something like that, but the description given by Rudy Uytenhaak during a lecture in 2005 seems more accurate. 'Tectonics are about the building as a building. A building consists of a structure and materials that speak, in such a way that they have a meaning and, perhaps even more, that they sing.’

It is impossible today for one individual to make urban and architectural designs that fully meet all requirements. Designers cannot know or control the requirements dictated by fire safety regulations, urban context, function and mechanical engineering. The designer can no longer act as a dictator but has to become a director. Eliminating problems or parties to arrive at a design has been replaced by an integrated multidisciplinary approach to solving problems that crop up during the design process. The designer can no longer limit involvement in a pragmatic way to aesthetics. An aesthetic, pragmatic attitude has to give way to a poetic, realistic attitude. The expectation is that tectonics can acquire an important role here. Jacob Voorthuis (TU/e), for example, argued that tectonics can reconnect 'ordinary' people to architecture. After all, occupants and visitors are unaware of the architectural ideas of the designer. They want a building that functions, and to them, adds Voorthuis, it’s not about honesty, truths or impurities. The tectonics of a building can enter into a dynamic relation with the occupants, The building offers the designers opportunities to communicate with them. The question is not whether you think the design presented by Sylvia Karres (Karres en Brands) for a graveyard in Amsterdam Oost is beautiful. The care and attention with which it was made is abundantly clear. You can sense that by touching it, stroking the headstones, experiencing it. And you don’t have to be a designer to experience it.

From this perspective the stories from a number of speakers, among them Petra Blaisse (Inside Outside) and Rogier van der Heide, were disappointing. Although I greatly admire the working method of Rogier van der Heide at Arup Lighting, which involves making mock-ups and experimenting, he doesn’t seem to live in reality. The designs by Blaisse and Van der Heide confirm that their ways of working are highly unique. The designs they make can be experienced by a just happy few, and can be built, never mind paid for, by even fewer.

Van der Heide argued that the world is becoming hyper-realistic. But isn’t a building reality to its occupants? And isn’t it true that the location is increasingly influencing the design? Does SuperDutch architecture have enough meaning, enough connection to the location, enough connection with the occupants? Will SuperDutch soon turn into SuperDull? Or worse, if it doesn’t function or make any contact, SuperDumb?

That’s why my attention was caught by the lecture of Karl Wallick from the University of Cincinnati. A lecture about dirt, dust and stains. Wallick told about all sorts of ways of improving the tectonic quality of a building so that it can age beautifully. Layers are added to the surface of a building, just as a ring is added each year to a tree. Dust descends, settles on the façade and changes the building by the year, the season and the day. Time is rendered visible and enriches the building.

It is time, therefore, that supports the dynamics of tectonics. Designing a good clear structure means the design will continue to function. But the building will continue to function that way only if the tectonics of the structure genuinely speak to the occupants.

John Thackara (Doors of Perception) went a step further and talked about time regimes in his lecture. He argued that the development of architecture or urban design should no longer focus on location or programme but should be in tune with time. Going to live where a source of water, energy or food is discovered. The tectonics of the city as a function of time. Strongly centralised cities that are very dynamic. Thackara named Sao Paulo and Mexico City as examples.

Order and control would therefore seem to have become an illusion. But shouldn’t designers adapt these concepts to another reality? A reality in which fantasy is going to play a bigger role even though reality is not lost sight of. Another reality that is also a bit uneasy, as uneasy as the 'inconvenient truth'. Fed by new materials and techniques, but with an awareness that the environment and the phase of occupancy of a building should exert more influence on the design. And with a key role set aside for the dynamics of tectonics.