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A useful critical lens through which to view architecture and art.

The term techne originated in Greek antiquity and signifies making useful objects in an artful way – a blend of art and craft. Ancient Greeks didn’t have different terms for these, as in most indigenous cultures, art objects had a useful – often religious – purpose.

Martin Heidegger, using the etymological poetics the philosopher is known for, pondered the meaning of techne while questioning the meaning of the term “technology” (guess what its etymological root is?). Heidegger inferred the essence of techne to be “revealing.”

In the case of pre-industrial technology (handicraft), an object reveals its immersion in nature and society.

Techne: Handmade Brick

Techne: Handmade Brick

Conversely, in the case of industrial technology (manufacturing), an object reveals its “challenging” of nature. Great quantities of raw materials are forced from the earth and shaped by energy-intensive and polluting machines.

Techne: Steel Manufacturing

Techne: Steel Manufacturing

In both cases – handicraft and manufacturing – human-made objects reveal a certain type of relationship between person and nature, collaborative in the first case, adversarial in the latter.

Decades after Heidegger questioned technology, architectural theorists Christian Norberg-Schulz, Kenneth Frampton, and others associated with architectural phenomenology brought Heidegger’s philosophy into the theory of architecture. Techne became associated with a building’s character – particularly its materials and construction methods, as expressed in the building’s form.

In following years, Frampton, Juhani Pallasmaa and others developed this line of thinking within a theory of critical regionalism.

Maintaining the essence of Heidegger’s argument, they use the perceptually rich techne of vernacular, indigenous and classical architecture as the basis for their claim that a crisis of placelessness plagues the present built environment, caused by a disconnection between buildings and their regional context. This disconnection is caused by the effect of modern technology on building construction (and, on the making of building materials).

While championing certain aspects of architectural modernism – truth in materials and structure; the open plan – critical regionalists call for a new materiality in architecture – perceptually richer, regionally rooted materials and methods.

Critical Regionalism: Säynätsalo Town Hall,  Jyvaskyla, Finland by Alvar Aalto (Photo: Zache)

Critical Regionalism: Säynätsalo Town Hall, Jyvaskyla, Finland by Alvar Aalto (Photo: Zache)

The development of this essentially phenomenological claim – from Heidegger to Pallasmaa – follows architectural phenomenology’s central premise that some of the deepest meanings people find in the built environment come from their pre-conscious experience of it through perception, intuition (emotion) and memory (free association).

As a theoretical device, techne is best used to refer to a way of looking at an artifact and its making rather than in reference to the artifact/making itself. Viewed as techne, an object is seen as a signifier of deeper meanings as conveyed in its perceptible properties.

Designers and artists: question the materials and media you’re currently working with:

  • From what raw materials were they made?
  • How were they made – by hand, machine or both? What were the social and environmental impacts of this making?
  • How perceptible are these raw materials and processes of making in the material/medium itself, how do they contribute to its aesthetic value?

What do these materials have to say about the human condition? What can they tell you about our relationship with nature, with how we view the resources of our planet?


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013





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