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les presses du réel
Renaissance of a concept (p. 9-11)
Cyrille Simonnet
(architect and art historian, professor at the Institute of Architecture, University of Geneva, editor of the Swiss architectural review Faces, author of books and articles on architecture)

A name is never inconsequential. As both a logotype and a micro-manifesto of identity, it can be eloquently concise. “Tectoniques,” for example—the word is charged with history, but still active, clear and significant, as a name for an agency that is resolutely committed to the connotations of its uncompromising pseudonym.

The genealogy of the term should be recalled. It has been played out in two acts. In the first place, it was a concept that developed within German culture in the middle of the 19th century, when architecture was embroiled in a philosophical debate on aesthetic issues, which took place in a relatively circumscribed intellectual and artistic environment. The central question was that of style—a notion that was forged, in a sense, as it was being influenced by developments in archaeology, historiography and inventories. Its emergence as something that was pluralistic by definition imperilled its universalist validity. In the 19th century, style became option, ornament, colour. In which style should we build? was the title—provocative, to say the least—of an essay by Heinrich Hübsch. (1)
It gave rise to a vigorous debate, and radicalised the opposing champions of the Gothic and the Antique. Two important publications—Carl G.W. Bötticher's The Greeks' Tectonics, (2) and Gottfried Semper's Style (3)—set the seal on an essential theoretical movement that had to do with the status of the visual and the constructive in architecture. The inaugural concept of “tectonics” played a major role both for the neo-Gothic movement and the neo-Classicists. Henceforth, construction took its place in the aesthetic debate, with the claim that visual significance was essential to the comprehension of the architectural object.

Act Two: in 1995, the historian Kenneth Frampton revisited the work of some towering figures—Wright, Perret, Mies van der Rohe, Kahn, Utzon, Scarpa—whom he subjected, as it were, to a neo-tectonic examination as part of his enquiry into postmodernism. (4) The term thereby acquired a certain familiarity, while retaining its analytical and critical power. There was something articulated
and constructed about it, onto which a certain kind of visual evidence superimposed both the clarity of a constructive concept and the incisiveness of a form. Thus, a century and a half after its theoretical introduction, and having shadowed the great (architectural) revolution of modernity and its avatars, the concept has now been exemplified in an increasingly diversified body of work, whose material and structural dimensions it affirms.

Constructive culture

Tectonics is thus a question of discourse, more than of actions or deeds. What, then, is being said by the eponymous agency that is the subject of the present work? What it is doing (along with a number of other firms, no doubt) is to inaugurate what one might call “Act Three” of the tectonic onslaught. That of commitment. That of doing. Taking this rigorous patronymic as its watchword, Tectoniques is transforming the constellation of sense that is covered by the term into a real professional strategy. From this point on, the demonstration is less intellectual than material, or, let us be clear about it, architectural. Flicking through the book, it becomes clear that Tectoniques is producing a form of architecture whose constructive register explicitly expresses objectives such as authenticity and comprehensibility. In this approach, both ecological and productive, site time—which in theory leaves no trace—can actually impose order on a project retroactively, in a subtle relationship between its practical working features (expertise, organisation, handling, etc.) and its more concrete character (materials, templates, equipment). It is clear that Tectoniques favours one particular type of material—wood—whose advantages are well known, as are the aberrations it can lead to, with the various manipulations, modifications and alterations that have ended up by turning it into just another industrial product. In France, the wood industry is small by comparison with the mammoths of concrete and metal. But the country's stock of trees is large, and, although the 80% that is in private hands is under-used, there is considerable potential both in terms of species (forestry management), processing (sawmills and distribution) and public awareness (cf. the remarkable initiatives being undertaken by the Comité National pour le Développement du Bois). What is needed is the means to take proper advantage of this resource. Ready for use though it may be, it still needs the touch of an architect's pencil (or computer), an architect's project, an architect's agency. But what constructive postulate does it put forward? To what technical tradition does it belong? What references does it identify with? The answers to these questions are what constitute a “constructive culture” capable of impressing its stamp on a world view, a generation. This is a subtle aspect of architectural identity: more than a style, less than a hallmark. In this register, there is a model—canonic, so to speak—of which no architect can be ignorant, but which few are capable of interpreting, namely the 36 Californian prototypes of “Case Study Houses,” designed between 1945 and 1966, notably by Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra and Craig Ellwood. These fine, light edifices, full of transparency, were built among giant cactuses and Joshua trees planted by the landscape architect Garrett Eckbo. At the outset this was an economic project based on the development of what was to be called the “dry method” —a form of architecture based on the mechanical assembly of light components (metal angle posts, panels) that were easy to transport and put together. And it implied, of course, the kind of design that would be capable of incorporating new parameters. The domestic American tradition, with the “balloon frame” still fresh in people's memories, was directly summed up in these splendid yet discreet achievements. And in a certain sense, the programmes implemented by Craig Ellwood and Raphaël Soriano were perfectly in keeping with the rules of tectonics. Their visual and material superimpositions of structural and spatial concepts came across as being constructively and functionally self-evident. And their minimalist houses were an invitation to domestic repose in the form of eternal, and eternally sunny, vacations. This masterful lesson, so closely identified with the constructive culture of the American west coast in the 1950s, has been taken up and regenerated by Tectoniques through the use of wood in a way that is, perhaps, particularly striking in our troubled contemporary context of environmental panic, and its emphasis on performance, no longer exclusively on the basis of profitability or robustness, but rather sustainability, with everything that this represents in terms of responsibility.

The tectonic ethos

In many of its short, limpid texts, Tectoniques points to the “political” dimension of what may sometimes appear as simply a technical choice. And this is where the idea of “responsibility” comes in. Wood is no longer used the way it was 10 or 20 years ago, when sentimental or nostalgic considerations were often uppermost. The notion of a technical, material perspective calls for a broad-based familiarity with production and industrialisation processes. The choice of the Douglas pine, for example, does not stem from a logic of catalogues. It is not arbitrary. Like the tree that hides the forest, so to speak, it presupposes an awareness of what the word “forest” means, in its full environmental and ecological force. Where and how do trees grow? Who uses them? What industrial and manufacturing processes are involved? What techniques are required for their constructive utilisation? What forms, what structures, what assembly procedures does a given type of wood suggest? These are among the questions that have to be addressed by a technical and architectural project whose formal traditional parameters are replaced by a fresh approach to the material and economic aspects of the problematic. Hence the subtle inversion that has taken place in the very act of projection. Enriched and complexified by the active recrudescence of everything that defines a technical process, the design approach is transformed by a new rationality which, in a certain sense, “de-hierarchicalises” it, with a keener focus on sawing, storage and assembly techniques, or again the idea of programmatic flexibility, and that of recycling. The overall plan for architectural thinking is re-scaled to accommodate constraints that are all of equal importance, at the same level. In some ways, this is the modus operandi that has been adopted by Renzo Piano, who starts off with an inventory, and then rolls out, on a sort of stave, all the variables, all the data suggested both by the programme and by his technical intuition. Tectoniques uses a remarkable compositional method in which traditional intuitive geometry (which in general looks for ideas in combinations of diversified forms) gives way to systematic compilations of the constructive and procedural features of the now-classical“wood frame.” It may be that Semper's lesson is making a comeback, in the light of the new sensitivity to “durability.” Semper favoured actions over things, process over product. Behind a form, there was always, to his mind, a gesture, a way of acting. There was work, and then there were social considerations. At any rate, there was something more than an artistic intention, however inspired (which is what set him at odds with Aloïs Riegl). But the wood frame, in the tectonic-Tectoniques spirit, has less to do with the consistency of a static schema, or a structural plan that may be “materialised” in wood, than with the objective expression of a manufacturing process which, in all its modern complexity, takes the mechanical behaviour of an assemblage, or the formal configuration of a frame, to be a part of a complex dependence on the “technical approach” that characterises the chosen material. Felling, sawing, machining, storage, assembly —these are technical activities that are aligned with, and determined by, the open-ended idea of a “process.” They also configure the end result, to one degree or another. These different stages, entailed by a project and choreographed by a construction process, make up a sort of scenario—a scenario, rather than a signature, which, whatever the programme, can be discerned in the fine grain of the final result, and its particular personality.

1. Heinrich Hübsch, In welchem Style sollen wir bauen?, Muller, Karlsruhe, 1828.
2. Karl G.W. Bötticher, Die Tektonik der Hellenen, Berlin, 1852.
3. Gottfried Semper, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten oder praktische Ästhetik (Band 1): Die textile Kunst für sich betrachtet und in Beziehung zur Baukunst, Munich, 1860.
4. Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1995.
Tectoniques architectes: other titles

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