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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The word tectonic is usually used today in regards to the science of geological processes as opposed to architecture. As an oversimplification, the movement of tectonic plates are responsible for the formation of mountains and volcanoes, as well as the cause of major earthquakes and erosion. It is very rare that we used the word tectonics to describe the built environment unless you are a member of the profession.  However, the word tectonics actually comes from the Greek word tektonikos, meaning “pertaining to building” which is derived from tekton meaning carpenter or builder. Tekton is derived from the Sanscrit word, taksan, which refers to carpentry or the use of an axe. Taksan comes from the proto-indo-european root tek, which simply means to make. Tekton went on to be used to describe all sorts of craftsmen, literal and figurative. A person could be a tektones sofoὶ, meaning a craftsman of wisdom, which was usually used to described poets and philosophers. It is by this means that we reach the word architect, which comes from combining tekton with the prefix, archi. 

When used in the architectural sense, the word tectonics is usually used to describe the form of a building, and the designer’s use of elements such as walls, roofs, and floors to create the general design of the structure. When the word tectonics is used, it is usually referring to how these elements are assembled or constructed. For example, the tectonics of a Frank Gehry building are much different than the tectonics of a more rectilinear building. The use of the word tectonic in architectural discourse is best summed up by Kenneth Frampton, a professor of architecture at Columbia University:

“When a structural concept has found its implementation through construction the visual result will affect it through certain expressive qualities which clearly have something to do with the play of forces and corresponding arrangement of parts in the building yet cannot be described in terms of construction and structure alone. For these qualities which are expressive of a relation of form to force, the term tectonic should be reserved.”

From this excerpt we get the sense that although tectonics is used to discuss structure, it is not limited to the question of how it’s made. Instead, it can be used to describe the expressive nature of the structure, and it’s role in space making. The intentional exposition of structural elements as a form of expression can also be called Architectonics. Architectonics is a related term, which can share the same meaning as mentioned above, but can also describe the act of purposefully exposing mechanical, and electrical systems in a design as a means of expression, as seen at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Although the latter term seems to be a formulation of architectural jargon, the two terms have existed separately for centuries. Architectonic shares the same greek root, but the prefix, archi is defined as the presence of a master builder, someone who transcends the mere need for shelter to develop an artful craft of construction.


Oxford University Press, "Oxford English Dictionary." Last modified 2012. Accessed November 17, 2012 http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/view/Entry/198488?redirectedFrom=Tectonic#eid

Online Etymology Dictionary, "Tectonic". Last Modified 2012. Accessed November 18th, 2012. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=tectonic

Oxford University Press, "Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture". Last modified 2012. Accessed November 17th, 2012. http://www.oxfordreference.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/view/10.1093/acref/9780198606789.001.0001/acref-9780198606789-e-4637?rskey=J2QYBm&result=43121&q=

Columbia University, Course Description, "Studies in Tectonic Culture", Fall 2001. Accessed November 19th, 2012. http://www.probelog.com/texts/Frampton_tectonic.pdf

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