Tectonics in Building Culture: Stone, workshop, Irland

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“Playing with the Freedom and the Rules.

The summer workshops are about an attitude and way of working. And about discovery in a playful, easy manner. Games are about balancing between rules and freedom: the rules of a puzzle as opposed to the freedom of a box of building blocks. The game of stacking blocks means having the freedom and possibility of discovering the rules of stacking and gravity. In the process, one discovers the inherent logic of the material and how to deal with it. Playing with a puzzle involves ordering and categorising the different pieces of the puzzle. It involves searching for ways to maintain an overview and form an impression of the final result. In plauing puzzles the art is to find creative freedom within the strict rules of the game.

You can, for example, stack bricks quickly or make mock-ups to explore possibilities through a process of trial and error. A stone is so big you can pick it up in one hand and put it in place. The physical action determines the grain of the unit from which the wall is composed. If you think and work on the basis of the material’s possibilities, without any preconceived idea about the final picture, ideas and solutions emerge that you cannot design in advance. Only by trying again and again can you learn to think on the basis of the material and can you acquire insight into the possibilities and develop an intuition for the richness of the final result.

Quarzite stones are heavy; one running metre of wall contains five tons of stone. Stacking stones quickly to test what can be done is impossible. Instead, you have to work in a restrained way and use a minimum of power. An awareness of the bodily movement is essential here. Every stone has its own limitations and qualities. Corner stones are big and square, facing stones have a nice surface for the outer side of the wall, bonding stones are heavy and form the “right” upper side of the wall. The centring stones are relatively small and variously shaped. Laying out and ordering all the stones creates an overview, like spreading out the findings of an archeological dig for review. A dry-stone mason knows precisely which stones there area and forms a mental map of them in his head. He knows when he has to place each stone in the wall. The routine of stacking is about patient thorough observation and about appropriating the stones.

The most essential difference between a brick and a stone is the uniformity of the brick as opposed to the variety of the quarzite stones. All bricks are the same. Therein lies the power of the material. You can position a brick in many ways, and many textures and patterns are therefore possible. Every quarzite stone is a unique speciman and can be positioned in just one good way.

But in both cases the best stack results when both the unforeseen events and the limitations of the material are taken as starting points.

In stacking, you inevitably encounter the question of tectonics. Vitruvius described tectonics as the balanced reconciliation in the wall of venustas (form/beauty), utilitas (function) and firmitas (material (construction).

The brickwork wall is a facade covering and is seldom used any more as a bearing structure. With brick it’s about discovering a bond that results in the desired texture, about composing with the stones. The structural aspect is important in stacking, but the pattern of stacking is essentially an architectural choice rooted in beauty, or venustas. The search is for a stacking pattern that convinces in terms of structure, appearance and texture. If the structure and the expression of the stack relate to each other, the effect is a fascinating appearance that can be read again and again in different ways. In terms of the tectonic expression of a wall, firmitas supports venustas.

The material is more resilient in dry-stone walling. A pile of variedly stones must be turned into a wall. The exercise is about discovering which stone belongs where in the wall - just like a sculptur who knows that the sculpture is contained within his block of granite and all he has to do is chisel away everything that doesn’t form part of the sculpture. With dry-stone walling the romance of making is contained within the wall. Two-thirds of the time is spent on the centring stones - the stones that fill the gaps in the middle of the wall and lend the wall the required stability. This work is invisible in the resulting wall but it determines the strength of the wall. With dry-stone walling the strucutre (firmitas) prevails over the form (venustas). Beauty always results from the structure, the precise stacking of the stones.

Ultimately, the projects are the result of two opposite lines of thought. With dry-stone walling it is about rendering an idea or concept in materials, about a place and perhaps also a function or objective. For this, all the material must be categorised. Stacking bricks is about conceptualising a material, about eliciting insights and thoughts in the process of making, and reflecting on the physical qualities of the material that can be experinced directly. Discovering the system of stacking is the key here.”