Constructing Architecture

Alun Jones, ‘Constructing Architecture’, in: Blueprint (London, UK: December 2005)





In his 1981 essay ‘Gottfried Semper and the problem of Style’ (Architectural Design, 51) Joseph Rykwert concludes “It is Semper’s great insight into the way in which the artist and the craftsman relate what they think to what they do […] which seems to me invaluable and urgent. Conceived at the moment when thinking and doing were to be disastrously divorced, it may well contain a hint for their new reconciliation.”

Rykwert’s comment can now be seen as uncannily prophetic: there is no better example of the reclamation of architecture as the art of building than the ‘Swiss School’ of the last decade or so, and at its heart, the ETH in Zurich, an institution designed and once run by Semper. Andrea Deplazes is now the Dean of the ETH and teaches what in the UK would be called ‘technology’. However, on reading this book you quickly realise that, in line with the etymology of technology astechneor art, he is talking about culture and how this finds its form through architecture. 

This book calls itself a manual, and is structured as such. Its origins are course notes from the ETH and it takes its lead from Semper. It is subdivided into five chapters, the first three of which deal progressively with materials, elements and structures. Each chapter is subdivided into a series of essays that deal with the conceptual ideas associated with a material, element, structure etc., then segues into a technical description of how this material, element, structure, etc. is used.

Example is the vehicle for this book: a stair by Herzog & de Meuron, a parapet detail by Gigon/Guyer, the windows in Le Corbusier’s Mother’s House, give a deeper contextual meaning to the ideas being discussed, which, in association with the beautiful drawings and photographs, complete ones understanding. This ground-work is then supplemented by chapter five, on components, which reproduces a series of 1:20 detail drawings of building envelope sections which have typically been referred to earlier in the book.

The sections on materials and elements suffer in some areas from a lack of depth of cultural interpretation, and the constant return to Semper is slightly monothematic; however, this is a minor complaint and is quickly forgiven when one reaches chapter four, on building, which is truly marvellous.

Ten well-known projects by contemporary Swiss architects are described and illustrated in detail, from their conceptual basis and formal realisation, through the mode of construction and material selection, to their detail resolution. This chapter is a joy to read; it is unpretentious yet poetic, and gets to the core of thinking about doing architecture. Projects which one thinks one knows are re-presented in a truly revealing way, in a way in which thinking takes shape as you design a building yourself. 

Deplazes writes beautifully; his essays are the highlight of the book. He has the capacity to invoke Heidegger whilst talking about cold bridging, which is not easy to do. His description of his own project for a school in Vella is deeply inspiring, and his demolition of Jean Nouvel is worth the purchase price alone. If you think architecture is about the future you won’t like this book; for every body else, it is a breath of fresh air. 

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