Tectonic Architecture

“Tectonic” as an adjective or “tectonics” as a noun refers to the large-scale structure of Earth’s crust and lithosphere. Outside of geology, the word tectonic may refer to a building or construction. The concept arrived in geological sciences prior to “plate tectonics”, mainly with application to  mountain building. The word is derived from Greek tektonikos or tekton, a builder or carpenter. Tectonic has been co-opted to indicate a rapid or global shift in, for example, policy.

According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, in English the occurrence of “tectonic” peaked about 1986. (This could be an artifact of the indexing process. Ngram Viewer operates on the corpus of terms collected by Google’s algorithms and at the time of this writing the corpus is updated to only 2008. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting pattern.)

“Architect” is a compound word from Greek arkhitektōn (chief builder). The connection is clear: architect and tectonic refer to the same underlying concept, that of structure or construction.

Now there is a phrase “tectonic architecture” that describes tectonics in architecture. Here is how Robert Mauldin described the concept in his 1986 master’s thesis at MIT.

Tectonics in architecture is defined as “the science or art of construction, both in relation to use and artistic design.” It refers not just to the “activity of making the materially requisite construction that answers certain needs, but rather to the activity that raises this construction to an art form.”

Tectonics in architecture emphasizes the constructional craft implicit in architectural design. Kenneth Frampton’s book Studies in Tectonic Culture is sub-titled The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture. Thus the link between the constructed and natural environments.

In architecture and construction we often emulate both structure and materials as they are in the geological world.

Bridge over the Pee Dee River, NC.
Bridge over the Pee Dee River, NC. 1/250 sec at f/2.2. ISO 25, 4.15 mm, iPhone 6s Plus back camera

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