It's no secret that many buildings today are both technologically advanced and tectonically primitive, that despite their long-span, multi-zone, taut-skin gizmos they still look shoddy. If, as a non-architect, you suppose there is some kind of planned obsolescence that is designed into buildings as with cars, you are mistaken. Paradoxically, this is only the appearance of shoddyness--our structures could last longer than the pyramids, they only look as if they might fall down. Kenneth Frampton wrote this book in 1995 to explain the discrepancy to architects. His subtitle is The Poetics of Construction, and that is what his book is about. If you wonder: what poetics? you might think of W.H. Auden's remark, 'when civilization is becoming monotonously the same all the world over...in poetry, at least, there cannot be an "International Style."' Frampton talks about a poetic formal dimension that transcends technology and materials. The tectonic culture of the title is the mastery of the craft of building, and it is easier understood when you can see the drawings and photographs that accompany the text. Frampton is himself a master of (amongst other things) making his point with architectural images you haven't seen before.
Frampton has spent many years studying the tectonic culture of the great practitioners of modernism. Like a Sherlock Holmes of architectural history, he sees the significance of the smallest detail and how it can fit into the larger scheme. He puts this talent to great use in the six chapters where he analyses buildings by Wright, Mies, Auguste Perret, Louis Kahn, Utzon and Scarpa. The work of others is also considered: Foster, Herman Hertzberger, engineers like Boot's-of-Nottingham designer Owen Williams and Pier Luigi Nervi, H.P. Berlage, Aalto, late le Corbusier, there are many more.
He ends with Renzo Piano. He sees Piano's Building Workshop as an exemplary way to practise architecture, and though recently completed projects like the NY Times building are missing (this came out in '95, remember) there's no reason to think Frampton's changed his mind. Nevertheless the book could do with an update, there are omissions that I don't think are intended. I don't miss Frank Gehry, whose work doesn't appear here. His influence is spacial, and though he uses materials well, his own interest is not, I think, tectonic. Incidently Frampton--remembering, probably, that when architects move on there is a tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water--notes that the tectonic culture must be considered as well as other things, like space, and not instead of them.
This large and copiuosly illustrated volume represents a rethinking of the moren architectural tradition and is indespensable in understanding why modern buildings look the way they do. It argues that modern architecture is as much about structure and construction as it is about space and form. The author considers the concious cultivation of the tectonic tradition in architecture as an essential element in the future development of architectural form. In ten chapters it covers: 1) Reflections on the scope of the tectonic 2) Greco-Gothic and Neo-Gothic 3) The tectonic...in the german enlightenment, 1750-1870 4) Frank Lloyd Wright 5) August Perret and Classical Rationalism 6) Mies van der Rohe 7) Louis Khan 8) Jorn Utzon 9) Carlo Scarpa 10) The tectonic Trajectory The chapters on Mies, Khan, Utzon and Scarpa are particularly rewarding.