The Architectural Theories of Steven Groak


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The critical observations made by Groák is not intended to detract from the significance of construction as practice, but rather to add value to the concept thereof and secure it within the holistic discourse of architecture and construction as a single idea. Allowing reflective thinking, abstract reasoning, purposive behaviour, and bridging between impulse and rationality.

Today the design processes are fundamental for the understanding of architectural projects, and the realisation thereof- the built form. A possible stable or common ground, to all constructed projects remains in the act of construction, (Vandenbulcke and others, 2011).

The concept of implying that architecture is construction, that they are one and the same, offers an opportunity and a means of inquiry into the nature of architectural design. A sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the use of construction, working methods in design, and the products of this process can change the way critical issues in architectural theory are perceived, such as space, production, evaluation, and the position of the architect in the building process.

Steven Groák re-examines from first principles ways of thinking about building and buildings, with regard to developments in building technology and the interrelationship of these sciences with architectural criticism. The theme of a holistic approach to the concept of building is used as fundamental point of departure for the authors discourse. The flows of energy and matter that influence buildings are examined in relation to cause and effect, in contrast to traditional building appraisal which has tended to be based on concepts of static and steady states. Groák’s discourse authoritatively states that building, architecture and the result thereof is a much more complex notion than described by many other publications and writings.

The in depth view of building is attributed to the 1938 publication, Principles of Modern Building. Robert Fitzmaurice's pioneering publication was written at a time when the science of building had begun to impinge on the traditional and slow to change sphere of the architect and builder. The clear statements regarding building elements such as walls, partitions and chimneys, established a new ground for scrutiny.

Using Fitzmaurice's book as a point of departure, the Idea of Building considers a radical new approach to the understanding of the principles of modern building, with buildings and the building industry placed within the current social and economic context. Where Fitzmaurice's approach is additive, Groák uses a holistic, integrative model, placing the idea of construction within its social context. This approach has set a contextual framework for further publication and primers by different authors on all aspects of the process of building.

Construction as fundamental concept of design is taught separately, without strong explicit interactions between the two, with the student expected to bring coherence in the two fields by him- or herself. This method of teaching results in architectural students rapidly becoming conservative in matters of building technology, and a reluctance to try new products or methods is fostered. This then ultimately culminates in the preference of superficial form over structural integrity. One of the main difficulties of construction as field of study, is that traditionally, all branches of architectural knowledge not encompassed by design, theory and history, are lumped together under the catch-all of "technology." This collection of knowledge has little hierarchical differentiation between them, thus the neglect of technical matters could be the fault of the strict separation between the designer and the technologist within the construction process. By recognizing technology to be one of the prime motivators in architectural design this may be rectified.

Groák’s concept of building is derived from systems theory, although none of the source literature features in an otherwise broad range of references. It is surprising then, in view of the holistic-systems approach employed, the omission of the key texts in this field, which initially laid out many of the ideas used in order to formulate this specific discourse. The chapter 'A Logic of Systems', Angyal's Foundations for a Science of Personalities (Angyal, 1941), states the crucial distinction: ‘In aggregates it is significant that the parts are added; in a system it is significant that the parts are arranged'; and in a system the members are, from the holistic viewpoint, not significantly connected with each other except with reference to the whole.' Further leading theoretical texts such as Von Bertalanffy's General System Theory (1956) and Emery's collection Systems Thinking (1969) could have been used to route the discourse within a strong theoretical argument, and an understanding of these theories have relevance to all who are involved in building design, and provides a coherent model that brings together art and science, idea and technique, the material and the immaterial.

Giving form to a work, consciously or unconsciously, is like leaping into a void, writes Eladio Dieste, (Dieste, 1992). This is why it is more accurate to speak of an art of building than of a science of building. But we are constantly reminded when creating buildings that there is no art without science, therefor a much more rational effort is required when using architecture to create form. The need to theoretically understand architecture as a whole has resulted in a fundamental idea being lost: architecture is also construction. A work has not been well-conceived unless thought has been given to how it will be constructed. Dieste states that the methods of construction have in themselves extraordinary inspirational and expressive value, (Dieste, 1992). Individual structural type is intimately linked to certain building methods, thus allowing these methods to be read in the finished product. Dieste further states that it is not enough to resolve functional problems and give them spatial form. He argues that we must build those spaces so that their expression will be conditioned by the methods and materials that were used to construct them. Spatial conception, form, and materials must constitute a whole; they must be unified in the architectural creative process, (Dieste, 1992).

In order to achieve this idea of architecture as a ‘whole’, and for the ‘whole’ to be built we must understand our materials and their possibilities, as Groák emphasizes. Materials possess many more qualities than merely that of texture and presentation. The risk of reducing material to such shallow ideas is greater today than ever before.

Tom F. Peters states that theory in construction, should not be understood as structural mechanics, for within the limits of the activity of building, statics is a method of calculation and dimensioning rather than a theory, (Peters, 1986). Theory in construction should be understood as an intellectual discipline, not merely as a collection of solutions, methods or a catalogue of current building practice. This is also argued by Groak in stating that when viewed as a discipline, the field of construction includes such areas as systems theory, geometry and problems of scale as expressed in theory of perception and aesthetics; a discipline related to logic which involves far more than matters of taste or fashion, (Groák, 1992).

Technical thought is similar in most respects to design thought, but it stands in opposition to both rational and scientific thought[1]. In technical thought both detail and system are of equal interest. In fact, a detail can, on occasion, present a more interesting problem than a system. The, or a technical thought aims to create a functioning object, thereby its main theoretical relevance to architectural design. It is in the understanding of this specific concept that the value of technical thought and design processes lies, allowing a synthetic mode of thought common to many fields. By putting construction theory within the context and proportion of architecture, the complexity of technical comprehension and relation of material is enhanced intently to the architect's main concern: design.

Peter Zumthor’s work is representative of this argument, as his designs encompasses the exploration of synergies between the abstract paper work and the concrete constructive realities. The intricate connection between design process and completed work is highlighted through the inclusion of abstraction, the materiality and the reality of the design. The exploration of materials, their behaviours, and their internal characteristics, allows the creation of an immediate and physical relation, rather than only implying an intellectual meaning. By considering the building as an organism that develops according to its internal law, its behaviour, its way of being, one can establish the conditions for assemblage of materials and identify precisely how they constructively behave within the architectural state. Vandenbulcke and others argues that Zumthor’s control over the building is absolute: the constructive details as well as the spatial aspects are “closed” to external influences or contradictions, which transform the buildings into autonomous, eternal structures, (Vandenbulcke and others, 2011).

In other words, aside from the role which construction plays in providing individual technical solutions to problems of insulation, material behaviour and structural integrity, it becomes a complex, multi-level approach to design, a complement to formal, spatial and functional design concerns, with its own distinct bias. This synthetic, rather than analytic "design attitude" to construction is applicable to the full range of problems from the consideration of systems and morphology to details of thermal and moisture insulation - from concept to implementation.

Thus when implying this discourse, construction as theory and built form, it is not merely a tedious, linear, deterministic ‘oppressor’ which allows one correct answer to a problem, but rather, constructions problems and the implementation of construction theory are just as subject to personal and cultural preferences as are design questions. Once more, they are design questions, allowing the opportunity for unique resolutions and innovative design.

[1] The two modes of thought also have different goals: scientific and humanistic thought have knowledge or insight as their goal.

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