The Nature of Tectonic Architecture and Structural Design

Adrian Carter, Poul Henning Kirkegaard, Roger Tyrrell

Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingArticle in proceedingResearchpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


“A desire for well-being must be fundamental to all architecture if we are to achieve harmony between the spaces we create and the activities to be undertaken in them. This is quite simple and reasonable. It requires an ability to create harmony from all the de-mands made by the undertaking, an ability to persuade them to grow together to form a new whole – as in nature; nature know of no compromise, it accepts all difficulties, not as difficulties but merely as new factors which with no sign of conflict evolve into a whole.” Jørn Utzon

Since the very beginning of human civilisation, nature has provided our most profound source of understanding and reference to the world. The earliest civilisations found both literal and metaphoric inspiration and significance in the natural world around them. Certainly nature, that is the human body and the biological and physical world, were the original fertile sources of the development of our own technology and culture. However with the advent of Euclidean geometry and widespread understanding of mathematics, the works of man began to take on an abstract character and significance in their own right, in opposition to nature, leading to the apotheosis of the machine itself as the source of reference early in the 20th century. However, with our more recent understanding of the actual complexity of mathematics, as expressed in chaos theory and fractals, increasing understanding of complex natural systems, and the evolution of computer technology into a web of neural networks, our perception of the world has progressed from a purely mechanistic perspective towards a more organic understanding of existence, and once more, both literal and metaphoric references to nature are gaining pre-eminence.
Historically, literal and metaphoric evocations of nature have played a significant role in the conception and appreciation of architecture. The most primitive of man-made structures, evoked an ancient understanding of the cosmos, recreated at human scale, as evidenced for example by the evolution of simple dome structures amongst many ancient cultures. While the earliest antecedents of classical architecture of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece evolved through interpretation of nature, most clearly evident in the analogy between classical columns and the forms of reeds and trees. In the hypostyle hall of the temple of El-Karnak, the analogy to reeds is reflected not only in the form of the 122 columns, but also in their close proximity to each other; it being fundamental to Egyptian culture to recreate the essence of the natural world, which was considered to be a gift of the gods. In contrast to the Egyptian arrangement of columns, within a walled structure, the later Greek temples consist of a sanctuary surrounded by columns that thereby articulated the exterior space and established the importance of the external appearance of architecture. Through many centuries the Greeks refined their architecture, striving for perfection in the articulation of the individual building parts; that came to be known as the orders of architecture, which were defined as stylobate, base, shaft, capital, architrave, frieze, cornice and pediment, that each in their own way metaphorically expressed nature and simultaneously represented a specific structural purpose.
With reference particularly to the exemplary nature inspired tectonic architecture of Jørn Utzon and the writings particularly of Kenneth Frampton, this paper will argue that the direct inspiration of nature and the increasing use of advanced parametric digital design tools that replicate virtually instantaneously evolutionary processes results in structures that are not only elegant tectonically and in terms of economy of means, but also aesthetically pleasing, profoundly satisfying experientially and often culturally significant.
This paper has argued the implicit value of rediscovering the potential held by understanding and re-interpreting natural forms and systems within contemporary and future architectural discourse. It is clear that Colin St. John Wilson’s paradigm of ‘the Other Tradition’ as exemplified by Aalto, was further developed by Utzon, most significantly in the Sydney Opera House and has through the work of other outstanding architects and engineers continued to evolve and inform contemporary architecture. In the apparent cultural vacuum that modernism has left, such an approach appears as a credible, humane and potentially poetic paradigm that is at its core truly sustainable.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStructures and Architecture : Concepts, Applications and Challenges
EditorsPaulo Cruz
Number of pages8
Place of PublicationLeiden
PublisherCRC Press
Publication dateJul 2013
ISBN (Print)978-0-415-66195-9
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-4822-2461-0
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2013
Event2nd International Conference on Structures and Architecture - Guimarãs, Portugal
Duration: 24 Jul 201326 Jul 2013


Conference2nd International Conference on Structures and Architecture


  • Alvar Aalto, Architecture, Tectonic, Structural Design, Jørn Utzon


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