Architects—from Vitruvius to Le Corbusier, Alberti to Wright, and Viollet-le-Duc to Kahn—
have discussed the importance of materiality in architecture. Since the beginning of
architectural history, designers and builders articulated both practical and theoretical
principles on how materials are to be procured, refined, stored, and assembled. Architecture
is, of course, the putting together of materials: stone, wood, brick, etc. Throughout much
of architectural history, architects focused on qualities of solidity, permanence, and
heaviness. In opposition, new materials have enabled new qualities: Can buildings be
more transparent, maybe ghostly or invisible? Can buildings become lighter, maybe able
to float? Can buildings be made to move, maybe daily? Exemplified by Diller and Scofidio’s
“Blur Building” at the 2002 Swiss Expo, where the primary building material was fog, the
exploration of “immateriality” in architecture is relatively new.
Building upon Vitruvius’ work, Leon Battista Alberti wrote at length about materials
and construction in “Book III” of The Art of Building in Ten Books, the original text for this chapter. Alberti articulated the properties and procurement of various building
materials: timber, stone, brick, lime, and sand. He described how to “properly” refine
these materials, and to utilize them in construction. Beginning with the foundation, and
moving on to discussions of walls, roofs, and “pavements” (i.e., flooring), Alberti delivered
a systemic guide for constructing public buildings, predominantly based on objective,
practical, empirical, and technical expertise. Durability, much more than aesthetics, was
Alberti’s primary concern throughout the first half of his Ten Books, developing a seamless translation from raw material—the natural properties of stone, wood, etc.—to built form.
This parallels Louis Kahn’s famous dialogue with a brick, where he asks the brick what it
wants to be, and the brick, in Kahn’s words, says, “I like an arch.”1
Finnish architect and theorist Juhani Pallasmaa saw the process of construction
not only as an extension of material properties but also as an extension of the human
body. In The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, the reflective text for this chapter, Pallasmaa asserted, “Construction in traditional cultures is guided by the body
in the same way that a bird shapes its nest by movements of its body. Indigenous clay
1. This conversation appears in
the 2003 documentary film My Architect, directed by Kahn’s son Nathaniel Kahn.
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 107
and mud architectures in various parts of the world seem to be born of the muscular and
haptic senses.” Pallasmaa utilized this conceptualization to critique what he viewed as
an overreliance on the visual, rather than tactile, sense in architectural design. According
to Pallasmaa, inhabitants become “spectators,” experiencing architecture as an image,
which results in a loss of intimate, tactile, bodily connection to the work. Pallasmaa added,
“The current over-emphasis on the intellectual and conceptual dimensions of architecture
contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual and embodied essence,” and that
contemporary architecture needed to intensify material qualities of weight, texture, and
This heightened interest in “materiality”—the experienced “reality” of materials—
led to a search for complementary properties of “immateriality.” Architects sought ways
to bring “material” properties, such as heaviness or opacity, together with “immaterial”
properties, such as lightness or translucency, what Jonathan Hill, in 2006, described as
“an architecture that fuses the immaterial and the material . . . so that they are in con-
junction not opposition.” In Immaterial Architecture, the philosophical text for this chapter, Hill asserted, “Architecture is expected to be solid, stable and reassuring—physically,
socially and psychologically. Bound to each other, the architectural and the material are
considered inseparable. But . . . the immaterial is as important to architecture as the
material and has as long a history.” Furthermore, Hill contended that immateriality was
a question of individual perception; “the user decides whether architecture is immaterial”
or not. Is a particular architecture theoretically material/immaterial—e.g., historically
significant, etc.? Is a particular architecture physically material/immaterial—e.g., tactilely
New architectural materials are being invented at a rapid rate. The combined
material properties of some of these materials are highly unexpected. Nicknamed “solid
smoke,” aerogel, for example, is a solid compound that is translucent, has an exceedingly
high insulating value, is fire retardant, has a high load-bearing capacity, and is only twice
the density of air. In a more extreme sense, scientists have recently produced new elements
so unstable that they exist for mere milliseconds and their properties are not yet fully
understood. For instance, the creation of elements such as ununseptium in 2010, the 117th item on the Periodic Table of Elements, suggests the generation of “an array of
strange new materials with as yet unimagined scientific and practical uses.”3 Radical new
materials like this will invariably change architectural space and form. While it is interesting
to speculate how architecture will change because of material innovation, it may be more
intriguing to question how human perception will change as we live, work, and play in
these new material and immaterial environments.
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
2. These concepts were part of
the emergence of the larger
architectural realm known as
Phenomenology was originally
an early twentieth-century
paradigm of philosophy that
focused on the first-person
entered architecture through
two primary paths. First,
extended their philosophies to
include architecture. Martin
century essay entitled “Building,
Dwelling, Thinking” is one
definitive example. Second,
began reading and
philosophical texts and
concepts into their built and
written works. In addition to
Pallasmaa, late twentieth- and
architects—such as, Peter
Zumthor, Tadao Ando, and
Steven Holl—focused on
sensory perceptions of space
and material, e.g., tactility,
acoustics, kinesthesia, etc. For a
straightforward explanation of
phenomenology, see the
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website: http://plato.stanford.edu/
3. James Glanz, “Scientists
Discover Heavy New Element,”
The New York Times, April 6, 2010, http://www.nytimes.
February 1, 2011.
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 108
OOrriiggiinnaall TTeexxtt LEON BATTISTA ALBERTI, EXCERPTS FROM THE ART OF BUILDING IN TEN BOOKS.
First Published in 1486
In my opinion, the labor and expense of building should not be undertaken lightly:
apart from everything else that may be at stake, one’s esteem and good name may suffer.
A well-constructed building will enhance the renown of anyone who has invested under-
standing, attention, and enthusiasm in the matter; yet equally, should the wisdom of the
designer or the competence of the workman be found wanting anywhere, it will greatly
detract from his reputation and good name. Merits and defects are particularly obvious
and striking in public buildings, though (for some reason, I do not understand) criticism of
impropriety is more readily given than approval for a work elegantly constructed and with
no imperfections. It is remarkable how some natural instinct allows each of us, learned
and ignorant alike, to sense immediately what is right or wrong in the execution and design
of a work. . . . If presented with anything in any way inadequate, unstable, redundant,
useless, or imperfect, we are immediately struck by the desire to make it more agreeable.
. . .
For this reason I will always commend the time-honored custom, practised by
the best builders, of preparing not only drawings and sketches but also models of wood
or any other material. These will enable us to weigh up repeatedly and examine, with
the advice of experts, the work as a whole and the individual dimensions of all the
parts, and, before continuing any farther, to estimate the likely trouble and expense.
Having constructed these models, it will be possible to examine clearly and consider
thoroughly the relationship between the site and the surrounding district, the shape
of the area, the number and order of the parts of a building, the appearance of the walls,
the strength of the covering, and in short the design and construction of all the elements.
. . .
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 109
In particular, great attention should be paid to ensure that the design of the roof
is the best possible. For unless I am mistaken, the roof of its very nature was the first of
all building elements to provide mankind with a place of shelter: so much so that it was
for the sake of the roof that the need arose not only for the wall and all that goes with
it, but also for anything constructed below ground, such as water conduits, rainwater
channels, sewers, and the like. From my own not inconsiderable experience in these
matters, I am aware of the difficulties encountered in executing a work in such a manner
that it marries practical convenience with dignity and grace, so that, among other
commendable advantages, these parts are imbued with a refined variety, in accordance
with the demands of proportion and harmony: that really is difficult! . . .
We shall now deal with the materials suitable for constructing buildings, and we
shall relate the advice handed down to us by the learned men of the past, in particular
Theophrastus, Aristotle, Cato, Varro, Pliny, and Vitruvius: for such knowledge is better
gained through long experience than through any artifice of invention. . . .
It would be most convenient, I believe, to follow the natural order and begin with
the material that man first used for building; this, unless I am mistaken, was timber from
trees felled in the forest. . . .
The ancients, then, especially Theophrastus, recommended that trees, in particular
the fir, the pitch tree, and the pine, should be felled as soon as they germinate and begin
to send out young shoots, in that the high quantity of sap produced at that time will
facilitate the removal of the bark. Yet they recommended that other trees, such as
the maple, elm, ash, and linden, should be cut down after the vintage. Likewise they
maintained that the oak would be prone to worms if felled in spring, but would suffer
no defect and would not split if felled in winter. Equally relevant is their observation that
timber felled in winter, when Boreas is blowing, will burn beautifully and almost
without smoke, although still green, showing that the sap it contains is not raw but well
Vitruvius prefers that timber be felled from the beginning of autumn until Favonius
blows. Yet in the words of Hesiod: Reap the crops when the sun hangs over your head
with raging heat and gives men a dusky tan; but do not fell the trees until their leaves
begin to drop. But this is Cato’s advice on the matter: “Fell timber, if it is oak, during the
solstice; for in the winter it is always ready. Fell all other timber when it is mature, if it
bears seeds, or if not, whenever you wish; fell any whose seed is both green and ripe,
when the seed falls, and the elm, when its leaves fall.” . . .
Once the timber has been cut, it should be laid down away from the severities of
the sun or the harshness of the wind; above all, wood with an inherent tendency to split
ought to be particularly well shaded. This was the purpose behind the ancient architects’
practice of smearing the wood with dung, usually of oxen. Theophrastus argues that the
reason for this was to close up the pores to force any congealed gum and any moisture
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 110
that had built up to seep along the marrow and evaporate, so that the process of drying
imparted a more even density to the whole length. It is also believed that timber will dry
out better if stood upside down. . . .
These are the trees whose wood is reckoned most useful for the construction
of buildings: the turkey oak, common oak, bay oak, winter oak, poplar, linden, willow,
alder, ash, pine, cypress, oleaster, olive tree, chestnut tree, larch, box tree, likewise the
cedar, ebon tree, and the vine. Each has a different character and so is best suited to a
different use. Some fare better when exposed to the sky, others keep better in shadow;
some flourish in the open air, others grow hard in water, and others last longer
underground. Therefore, while some are more suitable for lamination, paneling, statues,
and internal furnishing, others make better posts and beams, and others strong supports
for terraces and roofs.
In particular, the alder makes the very best stakes for restraining rivers and marshes,
and is very resistant to moisture, although it will not last long when exposed to air and
sun. The winter oak, on the other hand, has little resistance to water. The elm hardens
if left in the open, but elsewhere splits and does not last long, whereas the pitch tree
and the pine, if buried underground, last for ever. The bay oak, being a hard, sinewy,
dense wood, with only the smallest of pores, does not absorb moisture and is therefore
thoroughly suitable for any work underground; it is most usefully employed for bearing
weights and makes extremely strong columns. Yet, although it has such innate natural
strength that it cannot be drilled unless it is soaked, above ground it is said to be less
reliable, and apt to crack and warp, while even in seawater it may be easily ruined.
This will not happen to the olive or the holm oak or the oleaster (which are very like the
bay oak in other ways) when soaked in water. The common oak does not deteriorate
with age, but retains its sap as if it were young. The beech and the walnut tree never
rot in water and are counted among the most suitable for use underground. The cork
tree, meanwhile, the wild pine, mulberry, maple, and elm are not unsuitable for columns.
. . .
To sum up . . . trees that do not bear fruit are more robust than those that do, and
. . . wild trees, uncultivated by hand or steel, are hardier than domestic ones. . . .
We have also to prepare the stone to be used in the walls. There are two kinds of stone,
one to be used as aggregate in mortar, the other suitable for the structure of the building.
. . .
White stone is easier to handle than dark, and translucent more workable than
opaque, but the closer a stone resembles salt, the harder it is to work. If a stone is coated
with shining sand, it will be coarse; if sparkling with gold particles, stubborn; if it is, as it
were, flecked with black, unmanageable. Stones dappled with polygonal markings are
more solid than those with circular ones; and the smaller the markings on a stone, the
greater the weight it can bear; the purer and clearer the color, the longer it will last; and
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 111
the fewer veins it has, the sounder it will be; and the closer the color of the veins to that
of the surrounding stone, the more uniform its structure; while the thinner the veins, the
more capricious the stone will be; the more tortuous and twisted they are, the more
troublesome; the more knotted, the more refractory. The veins most likely to crack are
those whose center is streaked with the color of red clay, or the ochre of rot, followed by
those tinted in places with a pale, faded grass color; but the most awkward of all are
veins that have taken on the blue color of ice. A large number of veins means that a
stone will be unreliable and apt to split, while the straighter the veins, the less trustworthy
it will be.
The sharper and cleaner the edge of the pieces into which the stone breaks, the
more compact it is; while the smoother their surface, the easier the stone will be to work.
But those with rough surfaces will prove more awkward the whiter their color, whereas
with dark stone, the closer the grain, the greater its resistance to the iron blade. With stone
of inferior quality, the greater its porosity, the hardest is; and the longer it takes to dry
out, when soaked all over with water, the coarser it is. A heavy stone will be more solid
and easy to polish than a light one, and a light one will be more friable. A stone that rings
out when struck will be denser than one that does not. Any stone that produces a sulphur-
like smell when rubbed will be stronger than one that does not; finally, the greater its
stubbornness to the chisel, the more rigid and steadfast a stone will be against the assaults
of the weather. . . .
It is agreed that the ancients were quite willing to use bricks instead of stone. I
do believe that men were first prompted by necessity, in the absence of other
suitable material, to build in brick. Noticing both how easy this method of construction
was and how practical, graceful, solid, and reliable, they proceeded to use brick for
other buildings, and even royal palaces. Finally, whether by accident or by careful
investigation, they discovered that fire strengthened and hardened bricks, and went
on to construct everything of earthenware. Indeed, from what I have observed from
studying very ancient structures, I would be so bold as to state that there is no building
material more suitable than brick, however you wish to employ it, though it must be
baked rather than raw, and the correct methods of molding and firing must be strictly
followed. . . .
It is useful to note here the opinion that a whitish, chalky clay makes very good
bricks; likewise reddish clay and the so-called masculine sand. It is advisable to avoid clay
that is sandy or full of gravel; but above all, clay containing pebbles ought to be discarded
utterly: clay of this type tends to warp and crack during firing and to break up afterward
Freshly dug clay should not be used to make bricks, they say: rather the clay should
be dug in the autumn, allowed to macerate throughout the winter, and not used for making
bricks until the beginning of spring. If bricks are made during winter, obviously the frost
will split them, or, if during summer, the intense heat will crack them as they dry. But if it
is absolutely necessary to make them during the cold of winter, they should be covered
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 112
immediately with a layer of very dry sand, and if in the heat of the summer, with damp
straw: stored in this way they will neither crack nor warp.
Some prefer bricks to be glazed. If so, sandy clay or clay that is too thin and dry
ought to be strenuously avoided, as this will absorb the glaze; instead, glazed bricks should
be made of a white, chalky, rich clay. The bricks must be thin: if they are too thick, they
will not bake properly and will be liable to crack. But if thick ones are required, the problem
may on the whole be avoided if a number of holes are spiked here and there through the
middle: these will act as vents and will improve the drying out and firing of the bricks by
allowing moisture and vapor to escape. . . .
Bricks, they say, should be polished either immediately after their removal from the
kiln and before they have been wetted, or after they have been wetted and before
they have dried out; for once they have been dampened and allowed to dry out again,
they become so hard that they will blunt or wear down the edge of any tool; but, in our
opinion, they are easier to rub smooth as soon as they have been made, and while they
are still warm. . . .
In my concern for brevity I should not neglect to mention that whatever has been
said about bricks applies equally to pantiles and plaintiles on the roof, and to earthenware
piping, in short to any pottery or earthenware work.
So much for stone; we must now deal with lime. . . .
The lime most highly praised by ancient architects is produced from extremely hard
and compact stone, preferably white: it is thought suitable for many types of work and
is particularly solid when used in vaulting. Their next preference is for lime made from
stone which is porous, but neither light nor crumbly; this they consider the best for
plastering, being easier to fashion and imparting a more splendid finish to the work.
In Gaul I have seen that architects use lime extracted solely from dark, round, hard
stones found in riverbeds, which give the impression of being flint; nonetheless this
lime has certainly shown itself strong and very lasting in both stone and brick buildings.
. . .
Any quarried stone will make better lime than that gathered from the ground; a
shady, damp quarry will contain better stone than a dry one; and lime from white stone,
rather than dark, will be easier to plaster. . . .
There is another type of lime called gypsum; this is also made by roasting stone,
although they say that in Cyprus and Thebes gypsum may be dug from the very surface
of the ground, ready roasted by the sun. However, stone that produces gypsum is quite
different from that which produces lime, since it is very soft and friable, with the exception
of that quarried in Syria, which is extremely hard. Further, stone for gypsum needs to
be roasted for no more than twenty hours, whereas that for lime needs at least sixty.
I have observed that there are four types of gypsum to be found in Italy: two translucent
and two opaque. Of the two that are translucent, one resembles lumps of alum, or
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 113
rather alabaster: this is called “squameola,” as it consists of very slender scales attached
and pressed together like thin layers; the other is also scaly, but more closely resembles
dark salt than alum. Both of the opaque varieties resemble dense chalk, although one
is whitish and very pale, and the other a pallid color tinged with red. The latter two are
denser than the former, and of these the reddish one grips better. Of the first two, the
purer one makes more lustrous stucco for cornices and figurines. A type of gypsum is
to be found near Rimini that is so compacted that it gives the impression of being
marble or alabaster: I have had this sawn into slabs that make excellent facing. I
should not forget to mention that all forms of gypsum must be pounded with wooden
mallets and crushed into powder; this should be piled up and stored in a dry place, but
once brought out, it ought to be mixed with water immediately and put to use without
Lime is the opposite: it does not need to be crushed, but may be soaked while still
in lumps; indeed it should be allowed to soften in water for a good while before being
mixed, especially if intended for plastering, so that any lumps not baked thoroughly
enough by the fire will dissolve. If it is used too soon, before it has been properly steeped
and softened, it may still contain some small half-roasted stones, which might with time
begin to rot, soon developing blisters which disfigure the finish. It should be added here
that lime ought not to be soaked by a single dousing, but ought to be dampened gradually
with several sprinklings, until it is evenly saturated. It should then be left on its own, mixed
with nothing else, in a damp, shady place with nothing but a layer of sand to protect it,
until the process of time has fermented it into a more fluid paste. It is certain that this
lengthy fermentation greatly improves the lime. We have ourselves seen lime that has
been recently discovered in an old deserted cave, left for more than five hundred years,
as numerous indications make abundantly clear, which stayed damp and viscous, and so
mature that it was far softer than honey or the marrow in bones. Surely there is nothing
else to be found more suitable for whatever purpose. Lime prepared in this way requires
twice the sand as when mixed freshly slaked.
In this respect, then, lime and gypsum are different, though in other ways they
are similar. . . .
Since in order to build, not only lime is needed but also sand, we must now deal with the
There are three kinds of sand: that which comes from pits, that from rivers, and
that from the sea. The best is from pits. This comes in several varieties: black, white, red,
carbuncular, and gravelly.
. . .
Of all these types of pit sand the carbuncular is the favorite, although I notice that
red sand was not the last choice for public buildings in Rome. White sand is the worst
type of pit sand. Gravelly sand makes a very suitable infill for foundations. Next, in order
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 114
of preference, comes fine, gravelly sand, especially if the grains are sharp and quite free
of soil, as is the variety found in great abundance in the territory of the Vilumbrians.
After that comes sand extracted from riverbeds, once the top layer has been removed.
The most useful river sand comes from streams, and of these the best is provided by
mountain streams with steep gradients. Sand extracted from the sea is considered the
worst, although any that is black or vitreous is not entirely unacceptable.
. . .
There are many differences among the various types of sand. Sea sand is difficult
to dry: saltiness makes it soluble, so that it is always prone to take up moisture and dissolve;
it is therefore unsuitable and unreliable for bearing weights. River sand is damper than
pit sand and therefore easier to mold and more suitable for plastering. Pit sand, being
fatter, holds together much better, although it tends to crack and therefore is more suitable
for vaulting than for plastering.
But the best sand of any kind will be one that crackles when rubbed or crushed in
the hand, and when gathered in a clean garment leaves no stain, nor residue of soil. On
the other hand, a sand smooth in texture, without any harshness, and of a color and
smell like those of a clayey soil will not be good, nor will any variety which when stirred in
water leaves it turbid and muddy, nor will one that is covered by grass as soon as it is
spread on the ground. It will be no good if, once procured, it is left in the open for a long
time exposed to the sun, the moon, and the frost: this leaves it earthlike and rotten, and
therefore quite capable of producing shrubs and wild fig trees, but with little strength for
holding buildings together. . . .
. . . To conclude, then, not every place will have the same supply of stone, sand, and
so on, since the quality and quantity of natural resources vary from place to place.
And so use should be made of whatever is available, and care must be taken to
ensure, first, that only the most manageable and convenient materials are procured, and
second, that in the process of construction all the right materials are used in the right
Having procured the materials mentioned above—that is, timber, stone, lime, and
sand—it remains now to deal with the method and manner of construction.
The whole method of construction is summed up and accomplished in one principle: the
ordered and skilful composition of various materials, be they squared stones, aggregate,
timber, or whatever, to form a solid and, as far as possible, integral and unified structure.
A structure may be said to be integral and unified when the parts it contains are not to
be separated or displaced, but their every line joins and matches.
We need to consider, therefore, which are the primary parts of the structure, their
order, and the lines of which they are composed. It is not difficult to discover the parts
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 115
that make up the structure: clearly they are the top and bottom, the right and left, the
front and back, and all that lies in between; but not everyone will comprehend their specific
characteristics and why each is different.
The construction of a building does not entail just setting stone on stone,
and aggregate on aggregate, as the ignorant may imagine; for, because the parts
are different, so too the materials and methods of construction vary quite radically.
The foundations need to be treated one way, the girdle and cornices another, and the
corners and lips of openings yet another, while the outer skins of a wall must be treated
differently from the infill of the middle. We must now inquire what is appropriate in each
In this we shall follow, as we mentioned above, the same order as those who are
to undertake the work with their own hands; we shall begin, therefore, with the foundations.
The foundations, unless I am mistaken, are not part of the structure itself; rather they
constitute a base on which the structure proper is to be raised and built. For if an area
could be found that was thoroughly solid and secure—of stone, for example, as may be
found often around Veioi—there would be no need to lay down foundations before raising
the structure itself. . . .
A foundation—that is to say, “a going to the bottom” —and a trench will be necessary
wherever a pit must be dug to reach solid ground, as is the case almost everywhere.
. . .
The ancients used to say, “Dig until you reach solid ground, and God be with you.”
The ground has many layers, some sandy, some gravelly, others stony, and so on; and
below these, its position ever changing and uncertain, lies a hard, compact layer of earth,
extremely suitable for bearing the weight of buildings. The nature of this layer may itself
vary, there being scarcely any similarities between the various types: some may be hard,
almost impregnable to iron, others thick, some black, others white (the latter are commonly
thought the weakest of all), some composed of clay, others of tufa, and others of a mixture
of gravel and clay. Nothing can be said for certain as to which of these is best, except
that any that resist iron, or scarcely dissolve when immersed in water, can be recom-
mended. . . .
Advice should be sought from those with any knowledge and experience in the
matter, be they local residents or nearby architects: through their acquaintance with
existing buildings or their daily experience in constructing new ones, they will have acquired
a ready understanding of the nature and quality of the local soil. . . .
The design of the foundations must vary therefore according to the site. Some sites
may be up high, others down low, and others in between these, such as slopes, for example;
then again, some may be parched and arid, especially mountain ridges and summits, and
others utterly saturated and damp, such as those which lie on the coast, by a lagoon, or
in a valley. Others may remain neither totally dry nor utterly wet, because they are pos-
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 116
itioned on a slope, which is true for any place where water does not remain still and
stagnant but always runs downhill. . . .
Before you start any excavation, it is advisable to mark out all the corners and
sides of the area, to the correct size and in the right place several times, with great care.
. . .
In setting out the foundations, it should be noted that the base of the wall and
the plinth (which are also considered part of the foundations) must be somewhat wider
than the proposed wall. . . .
On some occasions, either to reduce costs or to avoid an insecure stretch of ground
along the way, it may be better not to construct a solid work along a single, continuous
trench, but to leave spaces between, as though only making foundations for pillars
or columns; arches are then constructed from one pillar to the next, and the rest of
the wall is raised on top. Here we must follow the same principle mentioned elsewhere,
but the greater the intended load, the wider and firmer should be the foundations and
footings. . . .
Once the foundations are laid, the walls may follow directly. . . .
The difference between the footings and the wall proper is this: the footings are supported
by both sides of the trench and may be one mass of rubble alone, whereas the wall is
composed of many parts, as I shall now explain. The main parts of the wall are these: the
lower, that is to say the section immediately above the infill of the foundations (this we
may possibly call the podium, or platform); the middle, which encompasses and encases
the wall (known as the apron); and the upper, the collar around the top of the wall (called
Among the other important, perhaps even more important, parts of the wall
are the corners and inherent or additional elements such as piers, columns, and any-
thing else that acts as a column and supports the trusses and roof arches. These all
come under the description of bones. So too the lips on either side of openings, which
share the characteristics of both corner and column. Also included in the bones are
the coverings to the openings, that is, the beams, whether straight or arched: for I
call an arch nothing but a curved beam, and what is a beam but a column laid cross-
ways? The zone stretching between these primary parts is referred to appropriately as
Throughout the wall there should be something common to all the above-
mentioned parts; by this I mean the infill and the twin skins or shells on either side, one
to keep the wind and the sun out, the other to protect the area within. The design of
both infill and shell will vary according to the method of construction.
These are the kinds of construction: ordinary, reticulated, and irregular. . . .
Ordinary construction involves using stones (standard or, preferably, large-size)
that have been cut square, and bonding these in a regular fashion along vertical and
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 117
horizontal lines; there can be no method of construction stronger or more steadfast than
Reticulated construction involves using standard or, preferably, small-sized stones
that have been cut square; these are laid not flat, but at an angle with their faces set
flush and vertically aligned.
In irregular stonework, irregular stones are laid with each side, as far as its shape
will allow, fitting closely into the sides of adjoining stones. This is the method of bonding
used in the construction of flint roads.
However, the method of construction to be used will depend on the situation. For
the facing of a plinth, for example, we will use nothing but extremely large, hard stone,
cut square. Since the structure must be as solid and firm as possible, as we said earlier,
then surely this part of the wall requires greater strength and stability than any other. In
fact, if at all possible, it should consist of a single stone, or at least of only so many as
may give it the soundness and durability closest to that of a single one. The question of
how to handle and transport these huge stones is related principally to ornament, and
will be dealt with in the appropriate place.
Build your wall, advises Cato, of solid stone and good mortar to at least one foot
above the ground. As for the rest of the wall, you may even use unbaked bricks, if you so
wish. The reason for this is obvious: this part of the wall is liable to be eroded by rain
dripping from the roof. But if we inspect the buildings of the ancients, we will notice that
not only in this country but everywhere else, the bases of well-constructed buildings are
made of hard stone. . . .
It is advisable therefore, when laying stones, especially where the wall needs to be
most robust, to ensure that only the strongest side, which will deteriorate the least, is
exposed to the onslaught of the elements. It is best not to set the stones on their sides
with the grain standing upright, as the weather will cause them to deteriorate in this
position; rather, lay them flat, so that pressure from the load above will prevent them from
splitting. Whichever side was hidden facing inward when the stone was in the quarry
should now be exposed to the open; it will be richer in natural juices and stronger. But in
any quarried stone the most resistant surface will be the one that has been cut not along
the grain of the stone but transversely across it.
Moreover, the corners throughout the building need to be exceptionally strong,
and so must be solidly constructed. In fact, unless I am mistaken, each corner represents
half of the building, in that damage to one of the corners will inevitably entail the
destruction of two of the sides. And a closer inspection will undoubtedly reveal that in
almost every building where deterioration has set in, a structural weakness in one of the
corners will have been responsible. Therefore it was sound practice that the ancients should
have made their walls considerably thicker at the corner than elsewhere, and would add
pilasters to reinforce the corners in colonnaded porticoes.
The reason why the corners need to be so strong is not only to enable them to
support the roof—indeed, that is the task of the columns rather than the corners—but
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 118
mainly to help them keep the walls in position and prevent them from leaning away from
the vertical in either direction. The cornerstones should be extremely hard and long,
therefore, so that they extend into the adjoining wall like the elbow joint of an arm, and
they should be wide enough relative to the depth of the wall to avoid the need for any
infill. The bones within the wall and around the openings should be treated in the same
way as the corners, and strengthened according to the size of the load they may have to
bear. It is most important that there be a system of claws—that is, stones projecting into
each side in alternate courses—as a kind of armrest that supports the remaining paneling.
The paneling consists of two components, which, as we mentioned above, are
common to the whole wall: the skin and the infill. There are two types of skin, the inner
and the outer. If the outer skin is made of hard stone, the durability of the building will
be improved. I do not care how you prefer to construct the rest of the paneling—whether
it be of reticulated or irregular stonework—so long as you protect it from the fierce hostility
of the sun, the vexing winds, the fire and frost, by a layer of stone having great natural
resistance to assault, pressure, and injury. . . .
In my opinion, one of the most important rules to be followed is that once it has
been started, a wall should be built level and uniform round the whole structure, so that
one side should not have large stones and the other small ones. For it is said that any
imposed weight will put pressure on the structure, and the drying mortar have less grip,
inevitably leading to cracks in the wall.
Yet I have no objections to your using soft stone for the inner skin and all of the
wall facing. But whatever kind of stone is used, the skin inside and outside alike must be
raised vertically and in line. It must follow the outline of the area exactly, without bulging
out or caving in anywhere, or wavering at all: it should be straight and properly constructed
If during construction you apply the first layer of plaster to the wall while it is still
fresh, whatever you add subsequently by way of rendering or stucco work will prove
There are two types of infill: one consisting of aggregate piled in to fill the gap
between the two skins, the other simply consisting of common but rough stone, providing
a structural center rather than just acting as infill. Both types seem to have been invented
for the sake of economy, in that small, common stone of any kind is all that is required
for this part of the wall. For if there were a ready supply of large, square-cut stone available,
surely nobody would be willing to use small stone chips.
And herein lies the difference between the paneling and the bones: with the former,
the skins are filled with stone chippings and any rubble that is available—a quick task
involving little more than shoveling; with the latter, irregular stones are never or only very
seldom included, but ordinary-bond stonework is used to bind together the whole thickness
of the wall.
I would prefer, for the sake of durability, to have each course of the whole wall
composed entirely of squared stone; but however you decide to fill the gap between the
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 119
two skins, as much care as possible should be taken to ensure that the courses on either
side are bonded together and level. It is important also to include a number of ordinary
stones, not too far apart, spanning across the wall, from the inside of one skin to the outside
of the other; connecting both skins to prevent the two outer surfaces that frame the work
from bulging out when the infill is poured in. . . .
A number of courses of large stone should be included to act as bonds, and
tie outer shell to inner, and bone to bone, just like those we mentioned that were to
be inserted every five feet. There are other bonds—and these of great importance—
which stretch the whole length of the wall and are intended to hold in the corners
and support the work. The latter are less frequent, and I cannot recall having seen more
than two or, occasionally, three in a single wall. Their main seat and place is to act as a
cornice to clasp the top of the wall with a ledge of strong stones. The next rung runs
immediately over the openings. Equally, they made sure that the podium at the bottom
did not lack a decent cornice. Where the more common bonds, those every five feet, are
more frequent, thinner stones are not amiss. But with the second type, known as cornices,
because they are less frequent and the role they play more prominent, it is best to make
the stones correspondingly stronger and thicker. But with either category, in general the
longest, thickest, and strongest stone is required. The smaller bonds should be set square
and flush with the rest of the wall; but the others should project from the façade like
cornices. And their extremely long and wide stones should be set exactly level, and
well connected between courses, so that those above cover the ones below like a pave-
ment. This is how the stones should be laid: each fresh stone should be laid to fit
tightly and neatly on those below, its center resting immediately above their joint and its
surface spread evenly over the two. Although this pattern of laying stones should be
practiced throughout the work, it is even more important that it is followed in bonds of
this kind. . . .
When constructing the cornice, none of the rules for bonds that we have so far
mentioned should be overlooked, since it, too, binds the wall tightly together: only the
firmest stone should be included, the blocks should be extremely long and wide, the joints
continuous and well formed, and each course laid perfectly level and square as required.
Its position demands that the cornice be treated with a great deal of care and attention,
in that it binds the work together at a point where it is most likely to give way, and in
addition acts as a roof to the wall below. Hence the saying: For walls of unbaked brick
make a cornice of baked brick; this will cover and protect them from the damage of rain
dripping from rooftops and eaves. For this reason ensure that every sort of wall is made
with a firm cornice, serving as a covering, to prevent damage by rain. . . .
Enough about the wall; I come now to the roof. . . .
Some roofs are exposed to the sky and others not; of these some may be composed of
straight lines, others of curved ones, and others of a mixture of the two. A further dis-
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 120
tinction, which is appropriate here, is that a roof may be built either of timber or of stone.
We shall begin our discussion by establishing exactly which features are common to the
design of all roofs. They are the bones, muscles, infill paneling, skin, and crust, and can
be recognized in any roof just as in any wall. . . .
To begin with timber roofs composed of straight lines. In order to support the roof
it is necessary to lay strong beams spanning from wall to wall. And, as we have just
mentioned, there is no doubt that beams are columns laid crossways. Where bones should
be, there is a beam. But, if finance permitted it, would not anyone prefer to make the
work as strong as possible, of solid bone, so to speak, by making the columns continuous
and linking all the beams together? We must take costs into account, however, and reckon
anything that can be dispensed with without impairing the structural stability of the
work superfluous. Therefore spaces are left between the beams, then cross-beams are
added, and from these span the lathing and anything else similar. Each of these can
quite acceptably be considered ligaments. To these are added planks, or wider boards,
which surely take the place of infill paneling.Equally, the pavement or the tiling undeniably
serves as the outside skin, whereas the ceiling above our heads serves as the inside one.
. . .
The beam must be perfectly intact and sound, quite free of any defect, especially
midway along its length. If you position your ear at one end, and the other end is struck
several ringing blows that sound dull and flat, this is a sure indication that the inside is
diseased. Any beam containing knots should be rejected, especially if the knots are
frequent or clustered together. The part closest to the marrow should be planed and laid
upwards, whereas the lower surface of the beam should be stripped of bark or planed as
little as possible. But any side with any defect running across it should be set on top. If
any side has a crack running right down its length, it should not be left as one of the vertical
surfaces, but be made the top or better the bottom. If you need to bore through a beam
or perhaps to make notches in it, spare the central part of its length, and do not harm the
lower surface. . . .
If, however, the trees are too small to make a complete beam out of a single trunk,
join several together into a composite beam, in such a manner that they acquire the
inherent strength of an arch, that is, so that the load will not compress the upper line of
the composite beam nor stretch the lower line, which should act like a cord, to hold the
trunks in tension, their opposing faces notched into one another. . . .
I shall now turn to the covering of the roof. If I judge correctly, surely the most
ancient function of the whole building was to provide a shelter from the burning sun and
the storms raging down from heaven. And it is not the wall, nor the area, nor any other
part that is responsible for maintaining this service for you, but primarily, as must be
obvious, the outer membrane of the roof; yet, despite all the determination and skill that
man has invested in his attempt to strengthen and reinforce it against the assaults of
the weather, he has scarcely succeeded in protecting it as much as necessity demands.
Nor do I imagine that this would be easy, faced as it is with the unremitting barrage not
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 121
only of rain but also of ice and heat, and, most harmful of all, wind. Could anyone possibly
hold out against enemies so relentless and so fierce for any great length of time? As a
result, some decay straightaway, others crumble, others weigh down the wall, others split
and fall apart, and others are washed away, so that no metal, however invincible it might
otherwise prove against the ravages of the weather, could here possibly endure so
continuous an onslaught. . . .
Nevertheless, of all the techniques man has tried, his wit and energy have yet to
discover anything more suitable than earthenware tiles. Frost will cause paviors’ work
to roughen, split, and settle; lead melts under the heat of the sun; copper, if laid in heavy
plates, is costly, and if thin, may be damaged by the wind, and worn and eaten away by
verdigris. . . .
There are two kinds of tile: one is flat, measuring a foot in width by a cubit in length,
with a rough ridge on either side a ninth of the width; the other is curved like the greaves
that protect the legs; both are wider where they receive the flowing rain and narrower
where they throw it off. But flat tiles are better, in that they can be joined in line and
perfectly level without dipping on one side, and without any valleys, ridges, gaps, or
anything to obstruct the rain as it runs off. If the surface of the roof covers a vast expanse,
larger tiles will be required; otherwise the channels will be insufficient and the rivulets of
rainwater will overflow. To prevent gales from dislodging the tiles, I would recommend
that, particularly in public works, they be set firm in a bed of lime. In private ones, though,
it will be sufficient simply to reinforce the guttering against the wind, in that it is easier
to repair broken tiles, if they are not bedded.
There is another very suitable type of roof covering. With wooden roofs, instead
of boarding, earthenware panels are fixed with gypsum to the transverse lathing; on
top of these are laid plain-tiles held in position with lime. This produces a work with great
resistance to fire, and one that is extremely convenient for the inhabitants; it will be even
cheaper if, instead of panels, Greek reeds are laid and held down with lime.
Tiles that are to be fixed with lime, especially those for public works, should not be
used until they have been exposed to the frost and sun for at least two years; if a weak
one is laid in position, it cannot be removed without a great deal of effort. . . .
I now come to deal with the pavement, since it shares the same characteristics as
the roof. Some are exposed to the sky, some are built of composite beams, and others
not. But in each case the surface onto which they are laid must be solid and exact in its
A surface exposed to the sky should have a fall of at least two inches in every
ten feet. It should be so designed that the water running off is either collected in cisterns
or drawn off into drains. If the water cannot be emptied into the sea or a river, find suit-
able places to dig wells deep enough to reach running water, then fill up the holes
with pebbles. If even this is not possible, the final advice is to make a generous pit, throw
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 122
in some coal, then fill it up with sand. This will absorb and remove any superfluous
If the area consists of piled-up earth, it must be leveled off accurately and covered
with a layer of rubble rammed into place. But if the surface has a composite timber base,
then further boarding should be laid crossways, rammed down, and covered with rubble
to a depth of one foot. Some think that a layer of broom or fern should be laid as a base
to prevent damage to the timber from its coming into contact with any lime. If the rubble
is new, mix it three parts to one with lime; if old, five to two. Once it has been laid, it must
be consolidated by being continually beaten with beetles. A pulp consisting of crushed
tiles mixed three to one with sand is then laid over this to a depth of six inches. Finally,
arrangements of marble or herringbone tiles or mosaic should be laid on top, in line and
level. The work will be better protected if a layer of tiles bonded with lime, soaked in oil,
is set between the hardcore and the dough. . . .
Pavements rejoice in being laid in damp and humid conditions, and remain stronger
and more intact in the shade and the damp. They are most vulnerable to infirm soil,
and also to being dried out too quickly. Just as the earth in the fields, which hardens
with continual rain, likewise pavements, if they are kept saturated, will be welded
together into a single, complete solid. Wherever rain drips from the drainpipes of the
roof onto the pavement, the crust must be made of sound and very solid stone, to prevent
the continual malice, so to speak, of the falling drops from wearing away and impairing
With pavements laid on top of framed wooden floors, care must be taken to ensure
that the bones that provide the support are robust enough and that they all have the
same strength. Otherwise, if any point in a wall or beam is stronger than the rest, there
the pavement will split and be damaged. The strength and vitality of timber does not
always remain constant, but varies with the conditions: timber will soften in the damp,
but it will regain its rigidity and strength in the dry; and so, clearly, if any of the weaker
parts strain and subside under the weight, the pavement will split. But enough on this
There is, however, one pertinent consideration that I would not wish to pass over.
The digging of the foundations and their infilling, the raising of the wall and the laying
of the covering, should all be conducted at different times of the year and under different
climatic conditions. The best moment to dig foundations is at the time of the Dog Star
or during autumn itself, when the ground is dry and there is no water to flow into
the trenches to impede the work. It is not at all unsuitable to fill in the foundations at
the beginning of spring, especially if they are deep, as the earth will stand by and
give them sufficient protection from the heat of the summer. The beginning of winter,
however, is by far the best time to fill them in, except in polar regions and other cold
places, where they will immediately freeze rather than set. The wall also dislikes excessive
heat, biting cold, sudden frost, and, above all, northerly winds. The vault prefers an even
and temperate climate, until the work has gained sufficient strength and has hardened.
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 123
The most opportune time to set the outer shell is at the rising of the Pleiades, and, in
general, any period when Auster is blowing strong and full of moisture, because if the
surface to which you apply the skin or rendering is not thoroughly damp, it will not adhere,
but will peel, tear, and come away everywhere, leaving the work disfigured and full
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 124
4. Leon Battista Alberti, as quoted
in David M. Levin, Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1993), 64.
RReefflleeccttiivvee TTeexxtt JUHANI PALLASMAA, EXCERPTS FROM THE EYES OF THE SKIN.
First Published in 1996
RETINAL ARCHITECTURE AND THE LOSS OF PLASTICITY
It is evident that the architecture of traditional cultures is also essentially connected with
the tacit wisdom of the body, instead of being visually and conceptually dominated.
Construction in traditional cultures is guided by the body in the same way that a bird
shapes its nest by movements of its body. Indigenous clay and mud architectures in various
parts of the world seem to be born of the muscular and haptic senses more than the eye.
We can even identify the transition of indigenous construction from the haptic realm
into the control of vision as a loss of plasticity and intimacy, and of the sense of total
fusion characteristic in the settings of indigenous cultures.
The dominance of the sense of vision pointed out in philosophical thought is equally
evident in the development of Western architecture. Greek architecture, with its elaborate
systems of optical corrections, was already ultimately refined for the pleasure of the eye.
However, the privileging of sight does not necessarily imply a rejection of the other senses,
as the haptic sensibility, materiality and authoritative weight of Greek architecture prove;
the eye invites and stimulates muscular and tactile sensations. The sense of sight may
incorporate, and even reinforce, other sense modalities; the unconscious tactile ingredient
in vision is particularly important and strongly present in historical architecture, but badly
neglected in the architecture of our time.
Western architectural theory since Leon Battista Alberti has been primarily engaged
with questions of visual perception, harmony and proportion. Alberti’s statement that
“painting is nothing but the intersection of the visual pyramid following a given distance,
a fixed centre and a certain lighting” outlines the perspectival paradigm which also became
the instrument of architectural thinking.4 Again, it has to be emphasised that the conscious
focusing on the mechanics of vision did not automatically result in the decisive and
deliberate rejection of other senses before our own era of the omnipresent visual image.
The eye conquers its hegemonic role in architectural practice, both consciously and
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 125
unconsciously, only gradually with the emergence of the idea of a bodiless observer. The
observer becomes detached from an incarnate relation with the environment through
the suppression of the other senses, in particular by means of technological extensions
of the eye, and the proliferation of images. As Marx W. Wartofsky argues, “the human
vision is itself an artifact, produced by other artifacts, namely pictures.”5
The dominant sense of vision figures strongly in the writings of the modernists.
Statements by Le Corbusier—such as: “I exist in life only if I can see”;6 “I am and I remain
an impenitent visual—everything is in the visual”;7 “One needs to see clearly in order to
understand”;8 “. . . I urge you to open your eyes. Do you open your eyes? Are you trained to open your eyes? Do you know how to open your eyes, do you open them often, always,
well?”;9 “Man looks at the creation of architecture with his eyes, which are 5 feet 6 inches
from the ground”;10 and, “Architecture is a plastic thing. I mean by ‘plastic’ what is seen
and measured by the eyes”11—make the privileging of the eye in early modernist theory
very clear. Further declarations by Walter Gropius—“He [the designer] has to adapt
knowledge of the scientific facts of optics and thus obtain a theoretical ground that will
guide the hand giving shape, and create an objective basis”12—and by Laszlo Moholy-
Nagy—“The hygiene of the optical, the health of the visible is slowly filtering through”13—
confirm the central role of vision in modernist thought.
Le Corbusier’s famous credo, “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent
play of masses brought together in light,”14 unquestionably defines an architecture of
the eye. Le Corbusier, however, was a great artistic talent with a moulding hand, and a
tremendous sense of materiality, plasticity and gravity, all of which prevented his
architecture from turning into sensory reductivism. Regardless of Le Corbusier’s Cartesian
ocularcentric exclamations, the hand had a similar fetishistic role in his work as the eye.
A vigorous element of tactility is present in Le Corbusier’s sketches and paintings, and
this haptic sensibility is incorporated into his regard for architecture. However, the reductive
bias becomes devastating in his urbanistic projects.
In Mies van der Rohe’s architecture a frontal perspectival perception predominates,
but his unique sense of order, structure, weight, detail and craft decisively enriches the
visual paradigm. Moreover, an architectural work is great precisely because of the oppo-
sitional and contradictory intentions and allusions it succeeds in fusing together. A tension
between conscious intentions and unconscious drives is necessary for a work in order to
open up the emotional participation of the observer. “In every case one must achieve a
simultaneous solution of opposites,” as Alvar Aalto wrote.15 The verbal statements of
artists and architects should not usually be taken at their face value, as they often merely
represent a conscious surface rationalisation, or defence, that may well be in sharp
contradiction with the deeper unconscious intentions giving the work its very life force.
With equal clarity, the visual paradigm is the prevailing condition in city planning,
from the idealised town plans of the Renaissance to the Functionalist principles of zoning
and planning that reflect the “hygiene of the optical.” In particular, the contemporary city
is increasingly the city of the eye, detached from the body by rapid motorised movement,
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
5. As quoted in Martin Jay,
Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 5.
6. Le Corbusier, Precisions (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991),
7. Pierre-Alain Crosset, “Eyes
Which See,” Casabella, 531–532 (1987): 115.
8. Le Corbusier, Precisions, 231. 9. Ibid., 227.
10. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (London: Architectural Press, 1959),
11. Ibid., 191.
12. Walter Gropius, Architektur (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1956),
13. As quoted in Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 96.
14. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 31.
15. Alvar Aalto, “Taide ja Tekniikka”
[Art and Technology], in Alvar Aalto: Luonnoksia [Sketches], eds. Alvar Aalto and Göran
Schildt (Helsinki: Otava, 1972),
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 126
or through the overall aerial grasp from an airplane. The processes of planning have
favoured the idealising and disembodied Cartesian eye of control and detachment; city
plans are highly idealised and schematised visions seen through le regard surplombant
(the look from above), as defined by Jean Starobinski,16 or through “the mind’s eye” of
Until recently, architectural theory and criticism have been almost exclusively
engaged with the mechanisms of vision and visual expression. The perception and
experience of architectural form has most frequently been analysed through the gestalt
laws of visual perception. Educational philosophy has likewise understood architecture
primarily in terms of vision, emphasising the construction of three-dimensional visual
images in space.
AN ARCHITECTURE OF VISUAL IMAGES
The ocular bias has never been more apparent in the art of architecture than in the past
30 years, as a type of architecture, aimed at a striking and memorable visual image, has
predominated. Instead of an existentially grounded plastic and spatial experience,
architecture has adopted the psychological strategy of advertising and instant persuasion;
buildings have turned into image products detached from existential depth and sincerity.
David Harvey relates “the loss of temporality and the search for instantaneous
impact” in contemporary expression to the loss of experiential depth.17 Fredric Jameson
uses the notion of “contrived depthlessness” to describe the contemporary cultural con-
dition and “its fixation with appearances, surfaces and instant impacts that have no
sustaining power over time.”18
As a consequence of the current deluge of images, architecture of our time often
appears as mere retinal art of the eye, thus completing an epistemological cycle that
began in Greek thought and architecture. But the change goes beyond mere visual
dominance; instead of being a situational bodily encounter, architecture has become an
art of the printed image fixed by the hurried eye of the camera. In our culture of pictures,
the gaze itself flattens into a picture and loses its plasticity. Instead of experiencing our
being in the world, we behold it from outside as spectators of images projected on the
surface of the retina. David Michael Levin uses the term “frontal ontology” to describe
the prevailing frontal, fixated and focused vision.19
Susan Sontag has made perceptive remarks on the role of the photographed image
in our perception of the world. She writes, for instance, of a “mentality which looks at the
world as a set of potential photographs,”20 and argues that “the reality has come to seem
more and more what we are shown by camera,”21 and that “the omnipresence of pho-
tographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. By furnishing this already
crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world
is more available than it really is.”22
As buildings lose their plasticity, and their connection with the language and
wisdom of the body, they become isolated in the cool and distant realm of vision. With
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
16. As quoted in Jay, Downcast Eyes, 19.
17. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1990),
18. Fredric Jameson, as quoted in
19. Levin, Modernity, 203. 20. Sontag, On Photography, 7. 21. Ibid., 16.
22. Ibid., 24.
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 127
the loss of tactility, measures and details crafted for the human body—and particularly
for the hand—architectural structures become repulsively flat, sharp-edged, immaterial
and unreal. The detachment of construction from the realities of matter and craft further
turns architecture into stage sets for the eye, into a scenography devoid of the authenticity
of matter and construction. The sense of “aura,” the authority of presence, that Walter
Benjamin regards as a necessary quality for an authentic piece of art, has been lost. These
products of instrumentalised technology conceal their processes of construction, appear-
ing as ghostlike apparitions. The increasing use of reflective glass in architecture reinforces
the dreamlike sense of unreality and alienation. The contradictory opaque transparency
of these buildings reflects the gaze back unaffected and unmoved; we are unable to see
or imagine life behind these walls. The architectural mirror, that returns our gaze and
doubles the world, is an enigmatic and frightening device.
MATERIALITY AND TIME
The flatness of today’s standard construction is strengthened by a weakened sense of
materiality. Natural materials—stone, brick and wood—allow our vision to penetrate their
surfaces and enable us to become convinced of the veracity of matter. Natural materials
express their age and history, as well as the story of their origins and their history of human
use. All matter exists in the continuum of time; the patina of wear adds the enriching
experience of time to the materials of construction. But the machine-made materials of
today—scaleless sheets of glass, enamelledmetals and synthetic plastics—tend to present
their unyielding surfaces to the eye without conveying their material essence or age.
Buildings of this technological age usually deliberately aim at ageless perfection, and they
do not incorporate the dimension of time, or the unavoidable and mentally significant
processes of aging. This fear of the traces of wear and age is related to our fear of death.
Transparency and sensations of weightlessness and flotation are central themes
in modern art and architecture. In recent decades, a new architectural imagery has
emerged, which employs reflection, gradations of transparency, overlay and juxtaposition
to create a sense of spatial thickness, as well as subtle and changing sensations of
movement and light. This new sensibility promises an architecture that can turn the relative
immateriality and weightlessness of recent technological construction into a positive
experience of space, place and meaning.
The weakening of the experience of time in today’s environments has devastating
mental effects. In the words of the American therapist Gotthard Booth, “nothing gives
man fuller satisfaction than participation in processes that supersede the span of individual
life.”23 We have a mental need to grasp that we are rooted in the continuity of time,
and in the man-made world it is the task of architecture to facilitate this experience.
Architecture domesticates limitless space and enables us to inhabit it, but it should likewise
domesticate endless time and enable us to inhabit the continuum of time.
The current over-emphasis on the intellectual and conceptual dimensions of
architecture contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual and embodied
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
23. From a conversation with
Professor Keijo Petäjä in the
early 1980s; the source is
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 128
essence. Contemporary architecture posing as the avant-garde, is more often engaged
with the architectural discourse itself and mapping the possible marginal territories of the
art than responding to human existential questions. This reductive focus gives rise to a
sense of architectural autism, an internalised and autonomous discourse that is not
grounded in our shared existential reality.
Beyond architecture, contemporary culture at large drifts towards a distancing, a
kind of chilling de-sensualisation and de-eroticisation of the human relation to reality.
Painting and sculpture also seem to be losing their sensuality; instead of inviting a sensory
intimacy, contemporary works of art frequently signal a distancing rejection of sensuous
curiosity and pleasure. These works of art speak to the intellect and to the conceptualising
capacities instead of addressing the senses and the undifferentiated embodied responses.
The ceaseless bombardment of unrelated imagery leads only to a gradual emptying of
images of their emotional content. Images are converted into endless commodities
manufactured to postpone boredom; humans in turn are commodified, consuming
themselves nonchalantly without having the courage or even the possibility of confronting
their very existential reality. We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.
I do not wish to express a conservative view of contemporary art in the tone of
Hans Sedlmayr’s thought-provoking but disturbing book Art in Crisis.24 I merely suggest that a distinct change has occurred in our sensory and perceptual experience of the world,
one that is reflected by art and architecture. If we desire architecture to have an
emancipating or healing role, instead of reinforcing the erosion of existential meaning,
we must reflect on the multitude of secret ways in which the art of architecture is tied to
the cultural and mental reality of its time. We should also be aware of the ways in which
the feasibility of architecture is being threatened or marginalised by current political,
cultural, economic, cognitive, and perceptual developments. Architecture has become
an endangered art form.
THE REJECTION OF ALBERTI’S WINDOW
The eye itself has not, of course, remained in the monocular, fixed construction defined
by Renaissance theories of perspective. The hegemonic eye has conquered new ground
for visual perception and expression. The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter
Bruegel, for instance, already invite a participatory eye to travel across the scenes of
multiple events. The 17th-century Dutch paintings of bourgeois life present casual scenes
and objects of everyday use which expand beyond the boundaries of Albertian window.
Baroque paintings open up vision with hazy edges, soft focus and multiple perspectives,
presenting a distinct, tactile invitation and enticing the body to travel through the illusory
An essential line in the evolution of modernity has been the liberation of the eye
from the Cartesian perspectival epistemology. The paintings of Joseph Mallord William
Turner continue the elimination of the picture frame and the vantage point begun in the
Baroque era; the Impressionists abandon the boundary line, balanced framing and
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
24. Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre (London: Hollis & Carter, 1957).
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 129
perspectival depth; Paul Cézanne aspires “to make visible how the world touches us”;25
Cubists abandon the single focal point, reactivate peripheral vision and reinforce haptic
experience, whereas the colour field painters reject illusory depth in order to reinforce
the presence of the painting itself as an iconic artifact and an autonomous reality. Land
artists fuse the reality of the work with the reality of the lived world, and finally, artists
such as Richard Serra directly address the body as well as our experiences of horizontality
and verticality, materiality, gravity and weight.
The same countercurrent against the hegemony of the perspectival eye has taken
place in modern architecture regardless of the culturally privileged position of vision. The
kinesthetic and textural architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the muscular and tactile
buildings of Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn’s architecture of geometry and gravitas are
particularly significant examples of this.
A NEW VISION AND SENSORY BALANCE
Perhaps, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power, it is precisely the
unfocused vision of our time that is again capable of opening up new realms of vision
and thought. The loss of focus brought about by the stream of images may emancipate
the eye from its patriarchal domination and give rise to a participatory and empathetic
gaze. The technological extensions of the senses have until now reinforced the primacy
of vision, but the new technologies may also help “the body . . . to dethrone the disin-
terested gaze of the disincarnated Cartesian spectator.”26
Martin Jay remarks: “In opposition to the lucid, linear, solid, fixed, planimetric, closed
form of the Renaissance . . . the baroque was painterly, recessional, soft-focused, multiple,
and open.”27 He also argues that the “baroque visual experience has a strongly tactile or
haptic quality, which prevents it from turning into the absolute ocularcentrism of its
Cartesian perspectivalist rival.”28
The haptic experience seems to be penetrating the ocular regime again through
the tactile presence of modern visual imagery. In a music video, for instance, or the layered
contemporary urban transparency, we cannot halt the flow of images for analytic
observation; instead we have to appreciate it as an enhanced haptic sensation, rather
like a swimmer senses the flow of water against his/her skin.
In his thorough and thought-provoking book The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation, David Michael Levin differentiates between two modes of vision: “the assertoric gaze” and “the aletheic gaze.”29 In his view, the assertoric gaze is
narrow, dogmatic, intolerant, rigid, fixed, inflexible, exclusionary and unmoved, whereas
the aletheic gaze, associated with the hermeneutic theory of truth, tends to see from
a multiplicity of standpoints and perspectives, and is multiple, pluralistic, democratic,
contextual, inclusionary, horizontal and caring.30 As suggested by Levin, there are signs
that a new mode of looking is emerging.
Although the new technologies have strengthened the hegemony of vision, they
may also help to re-balance the realms of the senses. In Walter Ong’s view, “with telephone,
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
25. Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
“Cezanne’s Doubt,” in Sense and Non-Sense (Evanston: Northwestern University Press,
26. Jay, in Hal Foster, Vision and Visuality (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 18.
27. Ibid., 16.
28. Ibid., 17.
29. David M. Levin, The Opening of Vision—Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation (New York: Routledge, 1988), 440.
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 130
radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, electronic technology has brought us
into the age of ‘secondary orality.’ This new orality has striking resemblances to the old
in its participatory mystique, its fostering of communal sense, its concentration on the
“We in the Western world are beginning to discover our neglected senses. This
growing awareness represents something of an overdue insurgency against the painful
deprivation of sensory experience we have suffered in our technologised world,” writes
the anthropologist Ashley Montagu.32 This new awareness is forcefully projected by
numerous architects around the world today who are attempting to re-sensualise
architecture through a strengthened sense of materiality and hapticity, texture and weight,
density of space and materialised light.
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
31. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen & Co., 1982), 136.
32. Ashley Montagu, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, 3rd Ed. (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1986),
XIII. First published in 1971.
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 131
33. Jonathan Hill, Actions of Architecture: Architects and Creative Users (London: Routledge, 2003), 2.
PPhhiilloossoopphhiiccaall TTeexxtt JONATHAN HILL, EXCERPTS FROM IMMATERIAL ARCHITECTURE.
First Published in 2006
The view from my first home extended across fields for three miles to the north. In the
distance was a row of electricity pylons. Against the familiar grey sky the grey pylons
were invisible. Very occasionally, when light chanced on steel, the pylons would briefly
flicker and then disappear. Physically unchanging, the pylons were as seasonal as the
For many an architect or writer, ideas and concerns evolve over time, from project
to project. Strategies, forms and materials that first appear in one design develop
and mutate in another. Characters, narratives and events that first appear in one book
grow and change in another. In Actions of Architecture: Architects and Creative Users I write:
The word architecture has a number of meanings. For example, it is a subject,
practice, and a certain type of object and space, typically the building in the city.
. . . I consider each of these definitions but focus on another: architecture is a certain
type of object and space used. Within the term “use” I include the full range of ways
in which buildings and cities are experienced, such as habit, distraction and
Architecture is expected to be solid, stable and reassuring—physically, socially and
psychologically. Bound to each other, the architectural and the material are considered
inseparable. But Immaterial Architecture states that the immaterial is as important to architecture as the material and has as long a history. . . .
There are many ways to understand immaterial architecture. As an idea, a formless
phenomenon, a technological development towards lightness, a tabula rasa of a capitalist economy, a gradual loss of architecture’s moral weight and certitude or a programmatic
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 132
focus on actions rather than forms. I recognize each of these models but concentrate on
another. Focusing on immaterial architecture as the perceived absence of matter more
than the actual absence of matter,34 I devise new means to explore old concerns: the
creativity of the architect and the user. The user decides whether architecture is immaterial.
But the architect, or any other architectural producer, creates material conditions in which
that decision can be made. . . .
Immaterial Architecture advocates an architecture that fuses the immaterial and the material, and considers its consequences, challenging preconceptions about
architecture, its practice, purpose, matter and use . . . so that they are in conjunction not
opposition. . . .
Western discourse depends on the binary opposition of terms—one superior, the other
inferior—that are assumed to be separate and distinct, one “external to the other,”35 such as immaterial philosophy and material architecture. But such terms are in fact inter-
dependent and inseparable, undermining dualistic discourse. Architecture is built into
philosophy, whether in spatial metaphors such as interior and exterior or in references to
philosophical discourse as a sound edifice built on solid foundations. But to protect its
status philosophy must conceal its dependence on architecture. Philosophy “attempts to
subordinate architecture precisely because it is so indebted to it. Philosophical discourse
is only able to preserve the image of architecture with which it organizes and describes
itself by veiling its indebtedness to that image,” writes Wigley.36
Hidden within one another, the terms material and immaterial blur and slip,
questioning other terms such as intellectual and manual, form and formless, real and
virtual. One familiar meaning of the immaterial refers to the realm of ideas. Few people
today agree with Plato that matter is modelled on ideal forms, but associating the
immaterial with the intellectual is common. Countering Plato’s coupling of ideas and
forms the immaterial is sometimes associated with the formless, from which some
of its fascination derives. But the formless is not absence of order, it is order that is
My concern is not the immaterial alone or the immaterial in opposition to the
material. Instead, I advocate an architecture that embraces the immaterial and the
material. Since the eighteenth century ideas have more often been grounded in experience
and interpretations have more often been personal. The immaterial architecture I propose
is less the absence of matter than the perceived absence of matter.38 Whether architecture
is immaterial is dependent on perception, which involves creative interpretation, fictions
rather than facts. Gregory writes that “visual and other perception is intelligent decision-
taking from limited sensory evidence. The essential point is that sensory signals are not
adequate for direct or certain perceptions, so intelligent guesswork is needed for seeing
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
34. In this book I mostly use the
understanding of matter as a
material rather than matter as
energy, which is discussed in
“Chapter 2: Hunting the
35. Jaques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorti (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press,
36. Mark Wigley, The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 14.
37. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966) 104.
38. Explored especially in “Index
of Immaterial Architectures.”
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 133
objects.”39 Consequently, permeated by memory, “perceptions are hypotheses. This is sug-
gested by the fact that retinal images are open to an infinity of interpretations.”40 Binding
immaterial architecture to perception focuses attention on the “capacity to just perceive
one perceiving”41 and the relations between architectural objects, spaces and users.
Pallasmaa writes that “Instead of mere vision . . . architecture involves realms of
sensory experience which interact and fuse into each other.”42 The appreciation of
immaterial architecture is especially complex, and a challenge to the familiar experience
of architecture.43 The richness of the user’s experience of any building depends on
awareness of all the senses, but immaterial architecture may trigger a sense more often
associated with the immaterial, such as smell, and question one more often associated
with the material, such as touch. The experience of immaterial architecture is based
on contradictory sensations, and is appropriate to an active and creative engagement
with architecture. The complexity of the whole experience depends upon the user’s
interpretation of what is present and absent. To experience the full character of the
juxtaposition requires, therefore, an understanding of the conflict, whether pleasurable
or not, and speculation on an imagined space or object.44
The statement “All that is solid melts into air” encapsulates the force of a capitalist society
that, in expanding cycles of destruction, production and consumption, undermines all that
is assumed to be solid, such as the home.45 But in undermining the safety of the home,
a capitalist society feeds desire for a home that is evermore safe. Sibley argues that while
the apparent stability of the home may provide gratification it can also, simultaneously,
create anxiety because the security and spatial purification the home offers can never
be fully achieved. Often the consequence is an increasingly intense need for stability not
an awareness of its limits: “Generally, anxieties are expressed in the desire to erect and
maintain spatial and temporal boundaries. Strong boundary consciousness can be
interpreted as a desire to be in control and to exclude the unfamiliar because the unfamiliar
is a source of unease rather than something to be celebrated.”46 Referring to Sigmund
Freud’s 1919 essay on the uncanny, Sibley adds that “this striving for the safe, the familiar
or heimlich fails to remove a sense of unease. I would argue that it makes it worse.”47
However, Freud offers another meaning of heimlich: “Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know about it.”48 Striving for the familiar is ineffective because the
home can never be safe enough and the heimlich is not what it seems. Heynen writes:
It is not without reason that dwelling is the key metaphor that Freud uses in his
reflection on the uncanny. According to Freud, the most uncanny experience occurs
in environment that is more familiar to us, for the experience of the uncanny has
to do with the intertwining of heimlich (what is of the house, but also what is hidden)
and unheimlich (what is not of the house, what is therefore in a strange way
unconcealed yet concealed).49
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
39. Richard Gregory, Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 5.
40. Ibid., 10.
41. Richard Andrews and Chris
Bruce, “1992 Interview with
James Turrell,” in James Turrell: Sensing Space, eds. Richard Andrews and Chris Bruce
(Seattle: University of
Washington Henry Art Gallery,
42. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (London: Academy Editions, 1996), 29.
43. Use can be a reaction to habit,
result from the knowledge
learned through habit, or be
based on habit, on a conscious
and evolving deviation from
44. For a discussion of the
juxtaposition of the senses,
refer to “Index of Immaterial
Architecture: Nordic Light” and
45. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,
“Manifesto of the Communist
Party,” in Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Ed., ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton &
Co., 1978), 476.
46. David Sibley, “Comfort Anxiety
and Space,” in Architecture— the Subject is Matter, ed. Jonathan Hill (London:
Routledge, 2001), 108.
47. Ibid., 115.
48. Sigmund Freud, “The
‘Uncanny’,” in The Standard Edition, trans. Alix Strachey (New York: Vintage, 1999),
233. First published in 1919.
This is a quotation from a
dictionary, Daniel Sanders,
Wörtenbuch der Deutschen Sprache, 1860.
49. Hilde Heynen, Architecture and Modernity: A Critique (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999),
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 134
The uncanny is experienced when something familiar is repressed but returns as unex-
pected and unfamiliar.50 One is at home but out of place.
Sibley does not reject all attempts to construct a stable order. Instead he argues
for the merits of both defined boundaries and spatial porosity. As an example he considers
the child’s experience of the home. He writes that the:
negative view of strongly classified environments fails to take account of evidence
from research in group therapy that children (and adults) need firm boundaries in
order to develop a secure sense of self. If members of a family “live in each other’s
laps,” in a boundary-less, weakly classified home, or they are “enmeshed” as Salvador
Minuchin put it, there is a danger that children, in particular, will not develop a sense
When it is identified with the formless, the immaterial is associated with all that appears
to threaten society, architecture and the home, whether insidious disorder inside or lurking
danger outside. But the threat of the immaterial is imagined as much as it is real. The
desire for an architecture that is safe and secure can never be fulfilled. Instead, it may
increase anxiety and further desire for an architecture that is evermore safe. Replacing a
static and material architecture with one that is fluid and immaterial is no solution,
however. Instead, compatibility between the spaces of a home and the habits of its
occupants is desirable. A tightly structured group of people occupying a loose spatial
configuration will create tension and anxiety, as will the opposite. However, matching
users to spatial configurations fails to take account of changing users and changing
needs.52 Instead, a home must have the potential to be both spatially tight and loose. To
accommodate evolving conceptions of the individual and society architecture must
engage the material and the immaterial, the static and the fluid, the solid and the porous.
An architecture that is immaterial and spatially porous, as well as solid and stable where
necessary, will not change established habits. Rather it may offer those habits greater
The practice of architects is expected to be as solid and reassuring as their buildings.
With regard to immaterial architecture, therefore, architects are understandably cautious.
An architect who persuades a client of the merits of an architecture that is insubstantial
and unpredictable still faces numerous difficulties to see it built, such as building regu-
lations and contractual liability. On a more fundamental note, immaterial architecture
revels in qualities—the subjective, unpredictable, porous and ephemeral—that are con-
trary to the solid, objective and respectable practice expected of a professional.
The stability of architects’ practice is a myth, however. Cousins states that the
discipline of architecture is weak because it involves not just objects but relations between
subjects and objects.54 As the discipline of architecture is weak, so too is the practice of
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
50. The uncanny is a perception
not a property of a space.
51. Sibley, “Comfort Anxiety and
Space,” 116; and Salvador
Minuchin, Families and Family Therapy (London: Tavistock, 1974).
52. One failing of functionalism is
that it assumes that needs do
53. Discussed further in “Index of
54. Mark Cousins, “Building an
Architect,” in Occupying Architecture, ed. Jonathan Hill (London: Routledge, 1998),
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 135
architects. But, weak is not pejorative here. Rather it is the strength to be fluid, flexible and
open to conflicting perceptions and opinions. The practice of architects needs to con-
fidently reflect the nature of the architectural discipline. Architecture must be immaterial
and spatially porous, as well as solid and stable where necessary; and so should the practice
In this book I refer to the architect caught between the immaterial idea and the
material object, the creative artist and the solid professional. In the discourse and practice
of architects, the older meaning of design, as drawing ideas, and the newer meaning of
design, as drawing appliances, are both in evidence, except that ideas are now under-
stood as provisional not universal. Professionalism fits the newer conception of design in
particular, and is less compatible with design as it was first conceived. A profession’s claim
to a monopoly depends upon superior expertise and competence; it is neither expected
nor paid to generate ideas. But the architectural profession is unusual in that it claims to
be innovative. Architects’ claim that only they produce buildings that deserve to be called
architecture uncomfortably fuses the desires of an artist and the needs of a professional.
Other architectural producers, such as artists, are as dependent on the status of immaterial
ideas but may face less pressure to produce solid objects from a solid practice. Immaterial
architecture is an especially poignant and rewarding challenge for architects because it
forcefully confronts what they practice and produce.
In the Renaissance the building was connected to the immaterial through the ideas it
presented, which had much to do with form and little to do with matter. Weston remarks
that later “The Classical view that forms were independent of matter was no longer
tenable, and from the early eighteenth century onwards scientists and engineers began
to devote increasing attention to understanding and quantifying properties of materials.”55
In the nineteenth century the assumption that a particular tectonic language is innate
within each material became familiar in architectural discourse. Semper was particularly
influential in its development: “In the first place, every work of art should reflect in its
appearance, as it were, the material as physical matter . . . In this way we may speak of
a wood style, a brick style, an ashlar style, and so forth.”56 Giving it positive value and an
active role, Semper undermines the long philosophical tradition that disregards matter.
Influenced by Semper, Loos states that “Every material possesses its own language of
forms, and none may lay claim for itself to the forms of another material.”57 However,
Loos’ discourse on the relations between materials and forms is reductive in comparison
to that of Semper, who stresses the transfer of an idea from one material to another,
with some modification to both, to the point that “men in times of high artistic devel-
opment also masked the material of the mask”.58 Alois Riegl notes that “Wheras Semper did suggest that material and technique play a role in the genesis of art forms, the
Semperians jumped to the conclusion that all art forms were always the direct product
of materials and techniques.”59 Modernism encapsulates this simplification in the phrase
DIALECTICAL READINGS IN ARCHITECTURE: TECTONICS
55. Richard Weston, Materials, Form and Architecture (London: Laurence King,
56. Gottfried Semper, “On
Architectural Styles,” in The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave and
University Press, 1989), 269.
First published in 1851.
57. Adolf Loos, “The Principle of
Cladding,” in Spoken into the Void, trans. Jane O. Newman and John H. Smith
(Cambridge: MIT Press,
58. Gottfried Semper, Der Stil in den Technischen und Tektonischen Künsten oder Praktische Ästhetik (Frankfurt: Verlag, 1860), 257.
59. Alois Riegl, Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament, trans. Evelyn Kain (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1992), 4.
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 136
“truth to materials.” Here the material speaks and the architect responds, as in Louis Kahn’s
remark—both comical and thoughtful—that “When you are designing in brick, you must
ask brick what it wants or what it can do.”60 Rather than coupling tectonics to materials,
I argue for the interdependence of the subject, method and matter of architecture. What
then are the subject, method and matter of an architectural book?
In Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, montage is the subject, method and matter.61
Unfinished at the time of his death, Benjamin initially intended to construct The Arcades Project from the juxtaposition of fragmentary quotations from the nineteenth century. His second 1935 draft is an example of ambiguous montage.62 With a grid of holes
punched through its pages front and back, Chora L Works: Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman explores the idea that the absence of material is not necessarily the same as the absence of meaning.63 The presence of holes is formed by the absence of paper.
Each hole marks the absence of a section of the text but not an absence in meaning
because the reader can either identify the missing word or select a new one. In “The Death
of the Author” Roland Barthes recognizes that the journey from author to text to reader
is never seamless or direct. Questioning the authority of the author, he states that reading
can be a creative activity that constructs a text anew, and argues for a writer aware of
the creativity of the reader.64 The Arcades Project, Chora L Works and “The Death of the Author” address the creative role of the reader in the formulation of the text through
the creation of gaps, interpretative and literal.65
Like other books this one is made of ink and paper. As my principal concern is the
perception of the material as immaterial, the immaterial is conjured forth not by a lighter
paper or holes cut into its surface but by the ideas of the reader, formulating immaterial
architectures from within and between the images and words juxtaposed on these pages.
The user decides whether architecture is immaterial. But the architect creates conditions
in which that decision can be made. Both are creative.
MATERIAL AND IMMATERIAL
60. Richard S. Wurman, What Will Be Has Always Been: The Words of Louis I. Kahn (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), 152.
61. Matter here is a fragment of
information rather than a
fragment of paper.
62. Walter Benjamin, “Paris,
Capital of the Nineteenth
Century,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott
(New York: Schocken, 1986),
63. Jaques Derrida and Peter
Eisenman, Chora L Works: Jaques Derrida and Peter Eisenman. (New York: Monacelli, 1997).
64. Roland Barthes, “The
Death of the Author,” in
Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill
and Wang, 1977), 142–148.
65. The montage of gaps is
discussed in “Index of
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 137
WWrriittiinngg aanndd DDiissccuussssiioonn QQuueessttiioonnss
1. What was Alberti arguing for and against? What excerpt/quotation best represents
2. What was Pallasmaa arguing for and against? What excerpt/quotation best
3. What was Hill arguing for and against? What excerpt/quotation best represents
1. Regarding concepts of materiality and immateriality, discuss one major difference
regarding Alberti’s, Pallasmaa’s, and Hill’s texts.
2. Regarding concepts of materiality and immateriality, discuss one primary com-
monality regarding Alberti’s, Pallasmaa’s, and Hill’s texts.
1. For each of the texts, discuss a major issue with which you most agree and most
disagree; reflect upon why you hold these views.
Introducing Arch Theory-01-c 7/12/11 13:24 Page 138
What is the role of materiality and immateriality in architecture today? Is mate- riality and immateriality predominantly about the expression of material properties, the transformation of materials, human perception, or value judgments; some combination of these; or something else? In other words, if a fourth text were
added, what would the argument be?