Meyer / The Potential of a Tectonic Approach for the Experiential Qualities of Architecture

The Potential of a Tectonic Approach for the Experiential Qualities of Architecture

Author: Tim Simon Meyer, Atelier JQTS, HCU Hamburg

Supervisor: Matthias Ballestrem, Prof. Dr., HCU Hamburg; Ignacio Borrego Gómez-Pallete, Prof. Dr., TU Berlin

Research stage: Intermediate doctoral stage

Category: Artefact


The research project is investigating the relation between the tectonics - understood as the poetics of the construction1 - and experiential qualities of architecture. This focus resulted from the observation of several DesignBuild projects I have realized within my architectural practice. The comparative study of those showed a high degree of affordance, which became obvious through the willingness of their users to appropriate the architecture. This became particularly clear in the observation of performers reacting to the physical nature of the architecture and interacting with it.

But how can the architecture express an “invitation to action”2, as Juhani Pallasmaa describes it? Or as the Swiss historian Heinrich Wölfflin asks: „How can tectonic forms be expressive?”3. His investigation on empathy proposes an explanation in analogy to bodily experiences we are making as humans. The concept of tectonics as it is defined here pays attention to those experiences as it´s giving visual expression to processes of loads and load-bearing and makes them perceptible. Eduard Sekler talks in this context about “…the noble gesture which makes visible the play of forces, of load and support in column and entablature, calling forth our own emphatic participation in the experience.”4 In that sense Tectonics within this research is not addressing the structural elements in itself but rather their expressive potential in creating a tangible experience of the architecture.

The origin of these tectonic qualities within the mentioned projects is considered in a specific design process that starts with a defined stock of materials and is characterized by a “conversation” between the architect and the material in order to excavate the materials expressive potential both structural and sensual.

POVERA Pavilion, 2015, Almada, Portugal, Atelier JQTS and Students from Lisbon, Photos by Diana Quintela

Figure 1: POVERA Pavilion, 2015, Almada, Portugal, Atelier JQTS and Students from Lisbon, Photos by Diana Quintela

Research question and goal

Along a series of three DesignBuild Projects, I am researching the question, how through designing and building yourself, tectonic qualities are entering the architecture and why these can generate specific experiential qualities. The goal is to be able to define and characterize a working method that can generate those tectonic qualities.


By making use of common materials and comprehensible principles of construction the artists of the Minimal Art intended to create a public art, which is accessible physically and not intellectually – without any need of specific knowledge: “Such work that has the feel and look of openness, extendibility, accessibility, publicness, repeatability, equanimity, directness, and immediacy…”. 5 This intention of addressing a common knowledge forms also one of the key aspects of the given research.

The mentioned characteristics in the context of the Minimal Art can also be applied to an architecture that is open for interpretation and appropriation. In contemporary architecture we can find several approaches that allow the structure to simultaneously define the spatial qualities as well as the architectural expression. For instance in the work of BRUTHER a comprehensible structure forms an initial point of creating possibilities for coincidences both within the process as well as in the experience of the architecture. 6

My research is located within the context of DesignBuild Projects but in difference to current investigations on different themes (including production methods, construction potentials, ecological and economic sustainability, local construction methods, social activation), it pays special attention to creative qualities. Those seem to play an important role in the outcome of the DesignBuild projects like the Studio of Tom Emerson at the ETH for example, which are often defined by a given material and result in a coherence of the construction, the spatial structure and the architectural expression.

However, there seems to be a lack of comprehensive studies of experiential qualities in the context of DesignBuild projects and the working methods underlying certain effects, to which I would like to respond.

VERTIGO Pavilion, 2014, Lisbon, Portugal, Atelier JQTS, Photos by Diana Quintela

Figure 2: VERTIGO Pavilion, 2014, Lisbon, Portugal, Atelier JQTS, Photos by Diana Quintela

Methodology and findings

Three DesignBuild Projects serve as case studies and should provide findings on the research questions. The initial point of the research is marked by the reflection on the DesignBuild projects realized within my practice throughout the last years, for instance, the KAIROS Pavilion built with prefabricated concrete pieces, the POVERA Pavilion assembled with modules made of filigree wooden slats or the VERTIGO Pavilion which is stacked from red-painted wooden blocks on top of a base of prefabricated concrete pieces. All these projects started from a given material and they all have created situations of bodily interactions. [ 1 - 3 ]

Within the PhD the ALBERTO Pavilion (fig. cover) was realized in 2019 and gave me the possibility of observing and documenting each step and decision of the process, from the first sketch to the architectural experience with the final project. The analysis offered an insight into the meanings of each step for the architectural expression and accordingly for the architectural experience.

The following sequence of five steps roughly described here is an approach to define the specific working method – the tectonic approach - behind the mentioned qualities and resulted from the reflection.

  1. Universe of Instruments. Materials are limited by an economy of means. Their examination forms the starting point to get clarity about specific properties both physical and sensual.
  2. Art of Joining. The Joint connects the parts and puts them in a context, it considers the materials inherent properties and answers to structural needs but moreover it fulfills creative intentions to give the act of joining a meaningful expression.
  3. Structure as Space. Through repetition elements and details are merged into a spatial structure that exposes its inner logic, variations and exceptions can highlight specific moments or create tensions.
  4. The Generic becomes specific. The context comes into play and excerpts its influence on the architectural expression. By taking final decisions in order to react to contextual and functional circumstances the generic structure becomes its specific Gestalt!
  5. Building as an Act of Design. Self-building allows us to make decisions during construction, following primarily intuition and seeking a strengthening of the architectural expression. In the process of building, ideas can be tested directly on the object at a scale of 1:1. The specification of a generic design approach finds its continuation.

It will be verified and refined throughout the research with the help of further DesignBuild Projects. The experiential qualities of the ALBERTO Pavilion could be evaluated by making use of different strategies (such as observations, surveys or performances) to document people’s perception of the built architecture. Reflecting on the two lives of the architecture, the process on the one hand and the interactions on the other, tectonics seems to take a mediating role, the role of communication. 7

KAIROS Pavilion, 2012, Lisbon Portugal, Atelier JQTS

Figure 3: KAIROS Pavilion, 2012, Lisbon Portugal, Atelier JQTS

State of research

The Tectonic Approach has been tested within design studios with students (due to Corona without the realization) and found a preliminary description. At the moment I'm investigating the capacity of the Tectonic Approach in the context of reuse and Bricolage8. “A defined stock of materials that is not selected by the architect neither it´s connected to a certain project”9 create the origin of two case studies in progress, one will be a garage open for diverse uses, one a small Biogas Plant within an Urban Context as a place of community. Those projects are questioning the ability of the Tectonic Approach to reveal tectonic qualities by using discarded materials. This investigation researches the potential of a Tectonic Approach as an ecological approach.10

ALBERTO Pavilion, 2019, Minde, Portugal, Atelier JQTS with Matthias Ballestrem and Students of HCU Hamburg and UAL Lisboa, Photos by Joao Barata

Figure 4: ALBERTO Pavilion, 2019, Minde, Portugal, Atelier JQTS with Matthias Ballestrem and Students of HCU Hamburg and UAL Lisboa, Photos by Joao Barata

  1. Frampton, Kenneth (1995): Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture. US: MIT Press
  2. Pallasmaa, Juhani (1996): The Eyes of the Skin - Architecture and the Senses. England: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Wölfflin, Heinrich (1886): Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur. München: Gebrüder Mann Verlag
  4. Sekler, Eduard F. (1965): Structure, Construction, Tectonics.
  5. Morris, Robert (1995): Notes on Sculpture, in: Continuous Project Altered Daily. The Writings of Robert Morris. US: The MIT Press
  6. ARCH+ (2020): Neuer Realismus in der französischen Architektur. Berlin: ARCH+ Verlag GmbH
  7. Frascari, Marco (1983): The Tell-the-Tale Detail, in: Deely J.N., Lenhart M.D. (eds) Semiotics. Springer, Boston, MA.
  8. Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1962): The savage mind. France: Librairie Plon
  9. Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1962): The savage mind. France: Librairie Plon
  10. Beim, Anne (2016): Towards an Ecology of Tectonics: The Need for Rethinking Construction in Architecture. Stuttgart: Edition Axel Menges