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Crafting the façade

Structures in Building Culture

Steel Skeleton (2013)

Introduction

Essays

Almost 150 years ago, the idea of the gardener Joseph Monnier to reinforce cement containers with a steel wireframe marked the birth of a new building technique that universally dominates the process of building worldwide nowadays. With his development, created principally in the realm of horticulture, it became possible to work with bending and tension stresses in a massive material and the roman opus cementitum was transformed into a universal material. Monniers’ concept of reinforcement was clearly borrowed from organic structures, possibly from the combination of veins in a leave that give an enourmous stability to the plant.

Joseph Monnier, patent for metal structues as reinforcements in cement shells, 1867

The veins of reinforced concrete – the light and almost immaterial inner wireframe, which is hidden in a heavy and apparently monolithic building material – came into our minds after having worked in 2012 with wicker, a material that appears similar at first sight. Wicker is a plant material that tends naturally to organic geometries and lends itself easily to weaving techniques. But compared to wicker, steel rods are very resistant to simple weaving.  Once bent, steel remains more or less in shape but retains a certain flexibility. If wicker is a “material without strength” unless it is bent and connected, steel rods are able to span considerable distances. Using an appropriate geometry, even wireframe objects are possible.

Human system of peripheral nerves, Andreas Vesalius, 1543

The challenge to work with steel rods lies in the fact that weaving – in a lilteral sense – is not a secure joining technique. Bending deforms the pure lines of the rods irretrievably. But as soon as the single rods are for instance cut and shaped with hooks that interlink with each other, or connected with a second material, a wire or similar, they become part of a structure. Knotting, linking, even chaining are techniques that allow the creation of  a bigger whole, a wireframe object, created out of slender elements. In this reading, the issue of the workshop was not about creating objects in the first instance, but mainly about connecting. The sculptural beauty of the built artefacts is generated by an inner driving force which we describe as a tectonic approach.

Around the period when Monnier made his innovations with steel reinforcements, Gottfried Semper criticized the minimal material expression in iron constructions, lacking the stability and solidity of massive materials. Still, he identified iron as a universal material, that can be cast, hammered, milled and fashioned into almost any form. (1) He did not foresee how steel would capture the whole building process in a subcutaneous way. On the other hand, Semper defined the knot apart of its technical aspects as one of the oldest technical symbols and devoted the following chapters in “Der Stil” to mesh and to weaving. All the connections used in our workshop, all the bindings and knots, are pure abstractions of rope techniques. Semper would have loved the parallel to ropes, knots and all textile techniques that he classified as one of the four primary arts.

Illustration in: Gottfried Semper, Der Stil, 1860, S. 186

The experiments with steel rods have to be seen in the context of our preceding material experiences. The Intensive Program 2013 is part of a series of workshops from our Erasmus Intensive Programmes over the last six years. While the TECTONIC series (2) was concerned with massive building materials – brick, stone and concrete – within the STRUCTURE series (3) the properties of light-weight materials were explored. The research into the tectonics of massive materials moved towards an exploration on the various aspects of structure, flexibility and bending while the issue of connecting gained major significance. Beyond that, we discovered the vulnerable aspect of the lightweight material that translates into delicate objects, which, as they rust become more integrated into the surrounding landscape. From this perspective, the work with steel rods echoes the spirit of the last workshops in a poetic symmetry.

Urs Meister
Carmen Rist
Institute for Architecture and Planning, University of Liechtenstein

 

Footnotes

  1. in: Damjan Prelovsek, Josef Plecnik, Architectura perennis, Wien 1992
  2. „Tectonics in Building Culture I: BRICKWORK“, Zeddam, NL, 2008; „Tectonics in Building Culture II: TEXTILE BLOCKS“, Letterfrack, IRL, 2009; „Tectonics in Building Culture III: CONCRETUM“, Bornhølm, DK, 2010
  3. „Structures in Building Culture I: TEXTONICAL SHAPES OF WOOD“, Amay, BE, 2011; „Structures in Building Culture II: SKIN AND BONES”, Sztutowo, PL, 2102

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