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Mirko Russo

Topos, Typos, Tekton

The appropriate placement of things

Serpentine gallery pavilion, Frank Gehry, 2008

Serpentine gallery pavilion, Frank Gehry, 2008

The text explores the relationship between the project composition and the construction methods, above all aims to emphasize the expressive potential of construction, meaning the "tectonics" as an internal architectural principle in opposition to the contemporary trend to deduce the validity of the architecture from what it is different.

In recent decades, the architecture was reduced to a purely artistic field: this tendency, proposed by the most famous names of the international scene, can certainly be motivated by the privilege of art’s regardless of the practical, functional, technical and economic limits of construction. In the Italian introduction to Studies in tectonic culture by Kenneth Frampton, Vittorio Gregotti expresses a clear point of view about the role of the work of art and about the conflict between art and technique that today overlooks our discipline «the Greek unity of tekné was split in a conflictual relationship between technology and art, expression and objectivity, while the goal of the artwork is returned the unity through art» (1).
Following this reasoning, it may be useful to reflect on the role of the building in the contemporary architecture, in order to investigate the relationship between expression and objectivity and starting from the meaning of the term tectonic, clarifying the related variations and the relationship with the term stereotomy, as well as the connections that hold together the methods of the architectural construction of architecture and their compositional procedures: the syntactic approach, by separate elements, and the paratactic additive or hypotactic approach working for juxtaposed masses.
The term tectonic come from the Greek term tekton and means the carpenter, the builder and is related to the practical skills of composing wood elements. Between 1844 and 1852, Karl Bötticher publishes Tectonics of the Greeks (2) in which tries to use the term with a broader meaning including the composition of the whole Greek system of the temple, where the memory of the wood construction of the temple arises through the decorum making an important difference between the “nucleus-form”, Kernform, and the “representative form”, Kunstform.
In the same period, Gottfried Semper publishes The Four Elements of Architecture (3) where lists the "fundamental" elements - the heat, the roof, the fence and the embankment - and classifies the construction art following two fundamental processes: the tectonics, linked to the “royal Caribbean hut” and to the frame that encloses its spatial matrix, and the stereotomy, linked to the heavy basement elements. «Around the fire the first groups gathered, the first alliances were made, the primitive religious conceptions were codified in cultural practices. In all the phases of the society’s development it is the sacred centre, around it everything is ordered and configured. The fire is the first and the foremost, the moral element of architecture. Around it three other elements are collected, as the defensive denials, the protectors from the three natural and hostile elements to the hearth’s flame: the roof, the fence and the embankment» (4).
The term stereo-tomia (stereotomy) is resulting from the union of stereos, meaning solid and tomia that indicate the action of cutting: thus it defines the act of the section of an element not yet completely defined.
The two construction techniques suggest the direct relationship with many compositional procedures. In the case of tectonics, the composition is carried out through the syntax of defined by form, material and size elements, placed in relationship through the repetition, the variation, the hierarchy in order to make clear the horizontal and vertical effort system. In the stereotomic composition, the compositional problem consists of the combination of autonomous but not yet defined volumes, through the combination, the contrast or the interpenetration, where the architectural organism shows a different effort system, just related to the compression. The theme of the element identity and the pure volume masses are the focus of the stylistic project of modern architecture (5) and are important in particular for some architects such as Louis Kahn and Mies van der Rohe. In Studies in tectonic culture, Kenneth Frampton states that the building is the result of three converging factors: topos, typos and tectonic. The type is related to the form and in this way understands the place; the tectonics represents the form and thus, 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» (6).
The construction as architectural principle contributes, with the type that realizes the theme and through the composition, to determine the character of the buildings. On the other hand, it is easy to understand that not all the elements and forms are suitable to represent the identity and individuality of the buildings. The choice of the necessary forms, the grammar and their settlement, the syntax, are the starting point from which moving searching a «new aesthetic synthesis, appropriate to the new demands and contemporary impulses, not just recording them, but in order to bring them back to a possible and desirable order» (7). The intention is not to reduce the building just to a constructive act «but to clarify the links between architectural elements, the constructive and static solutions that these buildings require and the architectural concept behind them to report and investigate the turning points of the construction problems and techniques that these architectures show» (8). Dispositio, understood as “appropriate placement of things” highlights an important aspect of the composition in geometric-topological terms. The dimension of a beam, for example, does not depend only by its span, but above all by its warp frequency and also by the frequency of the supports, as well as by the materials it is made of.
A short reflection should be done about the role of architectural elements, starting from the differences proposed by Semper theory that identifies certain recognizable parts of the building. In particular, the base, which contains the act of the architectural foundation and leads back to the stereotomy, the wall that may have a structural or only conformative function, the supports that through the beam warping support the roof and the roof itself that «is the element that certainly contributes more than others to establish the place of staying».
An important synthesis of the concept that we are here discussing is efficiently summarized in the well-known definition of architecture by Mies van der Rohe: «constructive clarity brought to its exact expression. This is what I call Architecture» (10). The first part is to emphasize the rational aspect of the construction in which each element is rightly placed, while the second part is the specifically targets on the architecture: the exact expression mentioned by Mies is what leads to transform the construction in architecture.
The contemporary architectural production, or at least a large part of it, seems to have completely lost its first foundation, the construction, submitting to external logics, like the market, advertising or industrial design. The common goal became the seduction, the extravagance, the eccentricity, producing images of architecture that had made concrete the idea that Rem Koolhaas illustrated, almost 20 years ago, of the bigness (11): the architecture is dematerialized for an exasperated technicality that controls the core of the building, completely disconnected from the wrapper that offers the appearance of an object to the city. How it is correct today talk about these different forms of expression? And, mostly, is it still possible distinguish, as Bötticher said, between Kernform and Kunstform, between ontological forms and representative forms? According to Frampton, the return to tectonic, as a fundamental aspect of the practice of architecture, represents a potential enrichment, not only open to a wide range of expression but also able to become a critical tool « to resist the ever-present trend reducing architecture to a more spectacular commercial product that pretends to be a work of art» (12).

1. V. Gregotti, “Introduzione”, in K. Frampton, Tettonica e Architettura, SKIRA, Milano, 1999, ed. orig. Studies in Tectnoic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture, MIT press, Cambridge, 1995.
2. K. Bötticher, Die Tektonik der Hellenen, Postdam 1844-1852, trad. parziale in F. Dal Co (a cura di), Teorie del moderno, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 1985.
3. G. Semper, Die vier Elemente der Baukunst, Braunschweig, 1851 trad. ital. in, H. Quitzsch, La visione estetica di Semper, Milano, Jaca Book, 1991.
4. Ibidem.
5. R. Capozzi, “Tettonica vs stereotomica? Del discreto e del continuo tra costruzione e composizione", in C. D’Amato (a cura di), Il progetto di Architettura fra didattica e ricerca. Vol. 4. La costruzione, Polibapress, Bari, 2011, p. 1879.
6. A. Monestiroli, “Il tetto e il recinto”, in Id., La metopa e il triglifo, Laterza, Bari, 2002.
7. S. Bisogni, Introduzione alla ricerca Murst, Funzione e Senso, 2003, cit. in R. Capozzi, Le architetture ad Aula: il paradigma Mies van der Rohe, CLEAN, Napoli, 2011.
8. Ibidem.
9. R. Capozzi, L’idea di riparo, CLEAN, Napoli, 2012.
10. W. Blaser, Mies van der Rohe. Lehre und Schule, Birkhäuser, Basilea, 1977, cit. in A. Monestiroli, La metopa e il triglifo, Laterza, Bari, 2002.
11. R. Koolhaas, Junkspace, Quodlibet, Macerata, 2006.
12. K. Frampton, Costruzioni pesanti e leggere. Riflessioni sul futuro della forma architettonica, in Lotus n° 99, 1998.

Mirko Russo è Dottorando in Architettura, area tematica: Il progetto di Architettura per la città, il paesaggio e l'ambiente, presso il Dipartimento di Architettura dell’Università degli Studi di Napoli “Federico II”. Si laurea con lode nel 2013, con una tesi in Progettazione architettonica dal titolo “Metodologie e riferimenti per la costruzione di un’ipotesi urbana a Ling Gang new city”, relatore prof. Franco Mariniello, correlatori Renato Capozzi e Federica Visconti. Collabora ai corsi di “Composizione architettonica e urbana”  tenuti dai proff. Renato Capozzi e Federica Visconti.
'The Caribbean hut in the Great Exhibition of 1851', from G. Semper, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Kunsten, 1860-1863

"The Caribbean hut in the Great Exhibition of 1851", from G. Semper, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Kunsten, 1860-1863