The Tectonic Imagination | The Plan
  1. Home
  2. Magazine 2023
  3. The Plan 149
  4. The Tectonic Imagination

The Tectonic Imagination

Höweler + Yoon

The Tectonic Imagination
By Höweler + Yoon -

Architectural design operates on the world at a distance from its medium, the constructed building. Architects work through representations. Builders and specialized tradespeople work on buildings directly. This distancing of design from implementation has structured architectural discourse as well as practice, impacting disciplinary and pedagogical frameworks, as well as the legal parameters for architectural practice. Surveying the state of design and construction, their connections and co-dependencies, a few key trends that are shaping both fields: impact of digital tools and workflows through building information models, a global network of procurement and material flows, a new consciousness about embodied energy, fair labor practices and an expanded understanding of the built environment as critical factor in the future of climate. 

Collier Memorial, Höweler + Yoon, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2015 © Iwan Baan, courtesy Höweler + Yoon

The worlds of design and construction have evolved in parallel but separate tracks, responding to forces in the industry including globalization, risk and reward. Contemporary design practices have expanded the limits of design to take on a more varied field of practice including design-build through digital fabrication (e.g. Matter Practice), computational design studios (e.g. Certain Measures), large scale planning and engagement practices (e.g. Interboro), interdisciplinary practices productively engaging the scales of landscape and ecology (e.g. Scape), as well as research practices that look to alternative sources of materials (e.g. HANNAH), circular construction practices (e.g. Felix Heisel), and analytical and forensic practices (e.g. Forensic Architecture).1 All these diverse design practices have taken on digital tools and workflows to produce design iterations, to collaborate across platforms, to communicate and coordinate design intent with
collaborators and builders. 

Contemporary construction practices vary widely from scale and type to region and geography. With practice evolving to take on a global scope, designers are working across geographic and cultural contexts, resulting in workflows and design documentation that need to communicate across linguistic barriers. The boundary crossing of design practices is mirrored in the flows of materials and products, with a global procurement sourcing that spans the globe. The Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art was planned to celebrate the long history of glass production in Ohio, and the architects, Tokyo-based SANAA employed glass as a primary material in the architecture of the museum. The large glass lites specified for the design were too large to be fabricated in the U.S., so the glass was fabricated in Austria, curved and laminated in China and shipped to Ohio for installation. The chain of procurement and fabrication for the Toledo glass highlights the paradoxes of the global supply chain and points to the increased awareness of the embodied energy in building materials and the factoring of transportation energy has created a new emphasis on local sourcing of materials and products.

Collier Memorial, Höweler + Yoon, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2015. © John Horner, courtesy Höweler + Yoon

We use the term “tectonic imagination” to highlight the processes, interdependencies and feedback loops that govern the relationships between design and execution in contemporary architecture. Specifically, how design processes anticipate and incorporate fabrication and construction methods into all phases of architectural design, such that the processes of design and construction productively inform each other. The spanning of concept to construction seeks to make explicit the continuities between initial design conceptualizations and the final constructed outcomes. A tectonic imagination initiates a design process with an eye to implementation. This is not an unbounded imagination, but rather a directed and informed imagination. The term tectonics implies a structured understanding of forms and forces that act on architecture and an intent to make those logics legible in their final form. The tectonic imagination conceptualizes architecture within the continuum of past practices and disciplinary knowledge, as well as material and technical possibilities of the present.

Despite Modernism’s emphasis on the capacity for new material systems like steel reinforced concrete to produce a new language of architecture, the recent history of architecture is full of examples of design indifferent to materiality. Postmodernism produced numerous examples of graphic façades with no material expression, or a graphic expression with no material qualities (e.g. the Portland Building by Michael Graves). Peter Eisenman famously theorized a design process of abstraction and defamiliarization which he referred to as “cardboard architecture”. For Eisenman, an emphasis on form and plasticity was a way of thinking abstractly about form, disengaged from the specifics of materials and construction (e.g. House II).

Chalet Ashen Cabin, Hannah, Ithaca, NY, USA, 2019 © Andy Chen, courtesy HANNAH

Contemporary design workflows with digital tools reinforce an abstract approach to design by modeling geometry as lines and surfaces to which material properties are later attached as texture maps. Thickness and mass are also largely missing from modeling programs such as Rhino, so design workflows tend to rely on 2D formal modeling as shorthand, with thickness and textures added later. Digital tools and software platforms have unleashed powerful trends in computational techniques that often find a lag between their initial explorations and representations and their eventual applications in built work. The point here is that representational tools do impact what is being represented. The medium of representation affects the message. 

Similarly, speculative projects and representations of projects often precede implementation and application by years or even decades. Le Corbusier’s discursive drawings for the Maison Dom-ino of 1914 took decades to implement and decades more to become industry standards. Mies van der Rohe’s charcoal renderings of the Friedrichstrasse skyscraper of 1922 anticipated for 30 years the first all glass curtain wall installations. His bronze curtain wall on the Seagram Building was revolutionary when first installed, inspired a host of imitations, and became the default condition of postwar modernism. Similarly, Greg Lynn’s early speculations on folding in architecture (1993) took years to arrive at a moment where those ideas were partially realized by Greg Lynn with the Korean Presbyterian Church in Queens (1995), and perhaps more clearly articulated by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao (1997). Today, the use of digital modeling tools and specialty steel fabrication has made possible a host of complex forms and structures that would have been inconceivable 25 years ago (e.g. Zaha Hadid’s King Abdullah Financial District Metro Station).

Attitudes about design often find their formation in architecture schools so questions about material and technical approaches to design are bound up in questions of pedagogy. When Walter Gropius reformed the curriculum at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1938, he famously dispensed with the teaching of architectural history. Why would students need courses in history, if they were busy reinventing architecture from scratch? Significantly, Gropius intended to have industrial systems and construction technologies replace history as a source for design. 

Padiglione in mattoni Castaway Brick Pavilion, Kennedy & Violich Architecture, vista dall’esterno, render Courtesy Kennedy & Violich Architecture

Today, the teaching of building technologies is one of many components of an already congested architecture curriculum. The integration of building technologies in the design process is a requirement of architecture curriculums, but it is often treated as a question of compliance, and building technology courses are often understood only as a support. How to move the questions of building integration and building science from the periphery towards the center of design education? With so many urgent questions confronting design and society today, the questions of what to teach and in what sequence are of critical importance. Issues of climate change, social justice and equity are all understood as urgent topics from designers to incorporate into the pedagogy and the design projects. 

Louis Kahn wrote poetically about the way representations impact reality in the way we draw. Kahn describes the act of drawing as a process of constructing, sequencing lines as if assembling foundations, columns and joints. “If we were to train ourselves to draw as we build, from the bottom up, stopping our pencils at the joints of pouring or erecting, ornament would evolve out of our love for the perfection of construction, and we would develop new methods of construction”. His emphasis on the rehearsal of building through the tactility of drawing seems more important than ever, especially given the fluid and frictionless space of the digital modeling environment. 

Beyond schools of architecture, it is important to consider how design representations function to convey design intent, whether it is a rendering, a 3D model, a construction document, or an as-built set of drawings. The architectural drawings become instruments of service with specific responsibility and authority. The set of construction documents becomes contracts, so the dimensions and notations take on new importance. Drawings cease to be representations of design and intent and become receipts for what has been bid, agreed to and bought. Construction drawings by the various disciplines represent scopes of work and coordinated and agreed upon pathways for building systems. Render ScrapCrete, Certain Measures, 2019, courtesy Certain Measures


Contract documents are significant for what they exclude as well as what they include. Architectural drawings and specifications define the scope of the contract for construction, the “what”, but stop short of telling the builder specifics about the means and methods, the “how”, to build a project. According to AIA contracts in the North American context, the means and methods of construction are expressly the responsibility of the builder, while the architect is responsible for the design intent. This delimitation of roles and responsibilities is designed to limit the risk to the architect and empower the builder in making decisions about sequencing, trades and processes that are within their expertise. 

Nader Tehrani describes the current bifurcation of design from construction. “It is one of today’s ironies that design contracts, e.g. in the USA, specify that the architect is responsible for design intent, while the contractor is responsible for – and ultimately in charge of – the means and methods of construction. This legal detail sets up an adversarial relationship between these protagonists, divorcing the architect from the very techniques that help determine budget, scope and implementation, while also distancing the contractor from the conceptual, theoretical, and organizational underpinnings of a design intent; in one simple act, it neuters the architect as a builder while lobotomizing the builder as a thinker”. For Tehrani, as well as many other designers working today, the intimate understanding of material and construction systems offers a means of reclaiming agency in a field where design is often understood as peripheral to the business of building. 

A preliminary survey of the state of design and construction highlights several of the forces that are re-shaping these fields in significant ways. Changing processes informed by advances in software and digital fabrication are tending towards greater integration of design models and fabrication models, while the management of risk maintains the culture of compartmentalization of design from construction. Meanwhile, globalized supply chains are sourcing products and materials from around the world in an integrated web of shipping and logistics that has been revealed to be vulnerable to disruptions as illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Attitudes about climate change and social justice, and the role of the built environment in perpetuating unjust conditions, are changing rapidly, demanding that we reassess the role of architecture, its fundamental definitions and assumptions. 

Collier Memorial, Höweler + Yoon, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2015. © John Horner, courtesy Höweler + Yoon

Recognizing that construction involves risk – risks in cost escalation, unanticipated conditions, the labor market, and workplace disruption – will continue to affect design and construction despite practices designed to minimize and manage risk. The integration and coordination of information technologies within the built environment, the so-called Internet of Things, will continue to transform buildings into smart systems, and installation, maintenance, troubleshooting and operating buildings will increase in complexity. Automation will impact both the design processes in terms of machine learning as well as automated fabrication and construction processes. 

Questions of labor practices, risk and its management, costs of materials, waste streams, procurement and automation, will continue to transform the worlds of design and construction. Three speculative projects illustrate the search for new sources and uses as ways to open up architecture’s dependency on raw materials and its complicity with embodied energy in materials and products. 

Ithaca-based HANNAH designed Ashen Cabin from available logs sourced from deceased trees. Architects Leslie Lok and Sasa Zivkovic’s research takes waste lumber sources and finds new uses. The Emerald Ash Borer is an invasive species that is killing Ash trees in North America and Europe. The robotic band saw allows the “slabbing” of lumber in non-planar units. These bent and curved elements are used to provide cladding around projecting windows or canopies on Ashen Cabin. Rather than fabricating irregular trees into standard dimensions to then frame non-standard architecture, HANNAH uses irregular trees to frame non-standard architecture. 

Collier Memorial, Höweler + Yoon, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2015. © John Horner, courtesy Höweler + Yoon

Sheila Kennedy and her materials research studio Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) Matx 2 have developed an up-cycled brick envelope system, named Castaway, that utilizes geometrically irregular waste bricks. The term “castaway” refers to disused brick stock and represents more than 3.75 trillion BTU’s of embodied energy in a wide range of brick profiles, colors and types. The Castaway system uses machine vision and automation to scan and identify waste bricks to produce what the team terms a “brick alphabet”. The aggregated multi-block units are arranged into larger bundles and then assembled into a wall system with a highly varied depth and texture. KVA Matx are designing a pavilion with a local brick factory to demonstrate this experimental assembly of upcycled waste brick. 

ScrapCrete is a speculative project by Certain Measures that aims towards a zero-waste world by leveraging machine vision to sort and select building elements from waste streams. The design tool scans inventories of waste materials like offcuts of lumber. The ScrapCrete algorithm processes the dimensions of available components in order to form-find new façades designs and geometries based on a data set of available shapes. Early tests with the algorithm arrange boards of irregular sizes to produce curved geometries and projecting windows. In the words of the designers, ScrapCrete “uses big data to tackle big waste”. 

As we emerge from the backlog of post-pandemic construction issues, we are starting to see the outlines of a “new normal”. The disruptions caused by the pandemic, and the supply chain issues that followed have highlighted how globalized the construction industry is, with parts produced overseas based on the assumptions of smooth logistics and the free flow of goods. Greater attention paid to procurement processes means that building materials will need to provide greater levels of documentation about a material’s sourcing, the conditions under which it was made and its provenance on arriving on the job site. Finding alternative sources for materials, either from re-use or non-traditional material streams, will continue to be a source of inspiration for designers.
How then might we rethink the roles of design and construction to address these changing attitudes about procurement and performance, risk, reuse, embodied energy and the laboring bodies that build our buildings? What is the agency of design in the age of global procurement plans and calls to provide buildings free of toxic building products and certifiably produced through fair labor practices? How could architecture reclaim some of its lost agency and reconnect the processes of design, material specification and the construction of architecture? Design that incorporates material and construction logics constitutes what we refer to as a tectonic imagination. It is a way of thinking of design conceptualization through the parameters of implementation and execution.
A careful understanding of how those processes are intertwined and co-dependent is a powerful way to start to reclaim agency in connecting the processes through which architecture is conceived, coordinated, contracted and constructed. 



5.49 €


15.00 €


From 42.00 €
Choose subscription
Keep up with the latest trends in the architecture and design world

© Maggioli SpA • THE PLAN • Via del Pratello 8 • 40122 Bologna, Italy • T +39 051 227634 • P. IVA 02066400405 • ISSN 2499-6602 • E-ISSN 2385-2054
ITC Avant Garde Gothic® is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and which may be registered in certain other jurisdictions.