Little Texas Tabernacle: The Tectonics of Timber (Part 1)

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little texas tabernacle

Introduction

Tectonic expression is one of the primary sources of meaning in postmodern architecture (Nesbitt 45-46).

Tectonic, as used in architecture, means relating to construction. A building’s tectonic is its constructive aspect, its “poetics of construction (Nesbitt 516).” Theorists tend to emphasize the structural system of a building when referring to its tectonics.

The tectonic nature of timber post and beam buildings is of especial interest to architectural historians and theorists. This type of construction is linked with the origins of building in ancient cultures.

This essay will interpret an under-recognized vernacular building type – the rural Christian tabernacle  – as a form of tectonic expression. The Little Texas Tabernacle located in Macon County, Alabama will be used to illustrate this essay’s points.

Tectonics in Postmodern Theory of Architecture    

Tectonics as a theme in the theory of architecture comes mainly from Kenneth Frampton’s writings. Frampton traces the concept back to the idea of the “primitive hut” in 18th and 19th century theory.

Probably the most famous of these “primitive huts” is that depicted in Marc-Antoine (Abbe) Laugier’s Essay on Architecture (1755).  Laugier called for an architecture stripped free of superfluous elements, using his imagined indigenous “hut” as a model.

Illustration of the Primitive Hut from Laugier’s Essay on Architecture

Illustration of the Primitive Hut from Laugier’s Essay on Architecture

A century later, German architect Gottfried Semper, in The Four Elements of Architecture (1851), also theorized the virtues of the indigenous “primitive hut.” Where Laugier looked at the notion of “hut” through the lens of mythology, Semper used the lens of anthropology, the exemplar a Caribbean hut in the Great Exposition of 1851.

Caribbean hut referenced in Semper’s The Four Elements of Architecture

Caribbean hut referenced in Semper’s The Four Elements of Architecture

Kenneth Frampton used Semper’s theory as the basis for the influential 1990 essay, “Rappel a L’ordre [call to order], the Case for the Tectonic.” This essay is part of Frampton’s reinterpretation of modern architecture “through the lens of techne (Frampton 525).”

Frampton traced the etymology of the term “tectonic” to the Sanskrit term taksan, referring to using an ax and carpentry, implying a connection with (wood) frame construction.

Of particular importance in tectonic construction, states Frampton, are the joints where the frame elements are connected. He quotes Frascari that:

“The joint, that is the fertile detail, is the place where both the construction and the construing of architecture takes place.”  Marco Frascari, “The Tell-the-Tale Detail”

This indicates a special link between tectonics and heavy timber construction. Timber column and beam construction was widely used in early American architecture including vernacular buildings. In rural areas without access to sophisticated sawmills, these structures were often made of hewn members, made by hand from native trees.

Hewing timbers (Source: http://handhewn.net/)

Hewing timbers (Source: http://handhewn.net/)

The Little Texas Methodist Tabernacle in Macon County, Alabama is an example of such a building.

Next: The Methodist Tabernacle in Alabama

 

Sources Cited:

Frampton, Kenneth. “Rappel a L’ordre, the Case for the Tectonic.” In: Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965 – 1995, Ed. Kate Nesbitt. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

Nesbitt, Kate. Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965 – 1995. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

 

© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

 

 

3 thoughts on “Little Texas Tabernacle: The Tectonics of Timber (Part 1)

    • Jose,

      Thanks for the comments. Your Wagner House photos are great – looks like hewn lumber – Dade County pine? The investment of labor in making lumber by hand is so impressive. The intense S. Fl. sun has done a great job of weathering this building!

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