Last week I was fortunate to attend the RIBA Royal Gold Medal Student Critique with the Gold Medal winner Peter Zumthor. Listening to him review the work of the winning students reminded me of just how inspired I am by his approach to architecture, which for me is most notably defined by his mastery of atmosphere created within beautifully made buildings. It is this ability to heighten emotive response to space through craft that reminded me of the Ancient Greek term Techne and made me question its existence within his Thermal Baths project in Vals, a piece of architecture so strong in my mind that the experience is still with me 5 years after visiting them.
Techne in Mythical times
Techne is an ancient Greek term that describes the holistic unification of both the mental process of design and the physical process of making, as performed by one person. It is the art of making, where thinking and doing were unified in one thought process.
It comes from a time when humankind existed in a deeply mythological world, whose very existence was legitimatised through the practice of sacrifice and ritual to appease the Gods and secure safe passage through life. Our understanding of the world around us was based upon our primordial experience of nature, where daily phenomenon such as a thundering sky, a bolt of lightening, the destruction of fire, or water falling from the heavens were considered deeply spiritual and divine. As a result, the twin concepts of the microcosm (earth) and the macrocosm (heavens) were tightly bound together, the fate of the former completely at the mercy of the latter. Attempts to understand these phenomena were conducted through re-enactment in the form of ritual, sacrifice, poetry, dance, and eventually, architecture. Techne described a process of giving life to the ‘well made thing’, and because this thing would live longer than a mortal being, these things were viewed as immortal, akin to that of the worshipped Gods. This can be seen in the syntactic fabric of the Ancient Greek language where ‘Tiktein’ is to give birth, ‘Tektein’ is to build, and ‘Techne’ is to let appear. The artisans were clearly considered very highly in society. When Hephaestus, the patron of craftsmen, taught men the knowledge of craft, he was not teaching them the process of assembly, as we understand it today, but was instead teaching them a way of seeing and understanding the world around them. This process of understanding through making relied heavily upon a philosophical connection between the physical body and the intellectual mind.
To the Ancient Greeks, it was Techne and the knowledge of making things that emancipated humankind from the mythical past and steered a path towards intellectual advancement. Understanding through logic began with the designation of the very space associated with the spiritual act of ritual; it was this act of designation, the ‘concreteisation’ of the place associated with worship that linked spiritual symbolism to the process of making. To vastly simplify, understanding started with ritual and sacrifice to appease the gods and secure safe passage through life. Ritual then became a Place. That Place then became a Temple through Techne and the process of making. Temple then became Polis through pilgrimage. Polis then became Civilization through philosophy and finally Civilization became industrialised and mechanised.
The Advance of Empirical Understanding
As we develop through the millennia, knowledge based upon spiritual emotion and belief, as described above, was gradually replaced by knowledge based upon rational and empirical observation. The work of Copernicus and Newton during the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century remodelled the view of the universe. The world around us is seen as a clockwork machine; definable, quantifiable and predictable. Emotion is cast out into the realm of complexity, and the entire world view is remodelled.
Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Flagellation’, painted in 1458, demonstrates this perfectly via a composition of scenes where the everyday takes priority over the highly spiritual. Within architecture, Jacques – Nicolas Durand, and his 1802 thesis Précis des leçons d’architecture, makes reference to the notion that architecture had to follow rational and immutable rules. Durand believed in the irrelevance of any transcendental justification, claiming that architecture is prosaic and should be ruled by logic, not symbolism. Durand completely rejected emotion and symbolism in favour of rational and immutable laws.
Of course this approach was fundamentally rejected by the Romantics of the time. Gottfried Semper believed that through craft, ‘making’ could be reconnected with ‘meaning’, while John Ruskin suggested that the ‘thinker’ should make and the ‘maker’ should think. Together they promoted a reconnection between thought and action that draws many parallels to this long lost Ancient Greek notion of Techne.
Unfortunately though, they did little to slow the advancing mechanization of culture. By the time of the Twentieth Century, the process of ‘making’ had become so rationalized by the ‘Fordism’ of the production line that almost all connection to the human hand had been lost. Now, Modernist architects sought to find expression through the abstraction of the structure. Ideas became generated through the form of the building, as opposed to the ‘making’ and ‘meaning’ of that form. Style would take precedence over truth, aesthetics would take precedence over content, and the process of design became prioritized over the process of construction. Technology became the standard by which all other standards are assessed.
For me, my reading of Zumthor’s work is based upon 2 things. Firstly, it is the experience of all human senses within the atmosphere of a designated space, and secondly it is the art of construction that forms the container of that space. In his 2005 book ‘Thinking Architecture’, Zumthor talks passionately about the subconscious moments that occur as a result of considered architectural details, and refers specifically to the experiences of architecture that happen when you are not actually thinking about it. For example, the tactile feeling of a door handle in the palm of your hand that evokes memories of the back of a spoon, the sound of footsteps upon gravel, the smell of polished furniture or the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase. Zumthor calls these moments ‘reservoirs of architectural atmospheres’.
The Thermal Baths in Vals needs no introduction. My question is; is it a sense of Techne that makes this building so amazing? Can a visit to the Thermal Baths hint at a modern day sense of Techne? Well, it certainly is the case that this is a building that can only be truly understood through experiencing it. Participation, like Techne, would seem to be essential. So 5 years ago I visited, and amazingly the ‘feeling’ of those spaces is still with me today. Yes, the brief was for a public bathing facility and so naturally it demanded a programme of physical immersion, but I believe Zumthor has gone far beyond the minimum standards set by the brief. The brief is not the reason this building is so amazing. So what is?
Is it the controlled use of light everywhere that emphasise comprehension of the space through physical sense? By reducing sight to a minimum (and therefore understanding through the mind) all other senses are exaggerated. Hearing, smell, touch and taste are all heightened.
Is it the layout of the plan, deliberately organised to further these senses by influencing anticipation? It is true that upon entry (via a subterranean passage) you can hear water running over stone, echoing laughter and voices, but you can not see them. You can smell and taste the minerals in the air. Considered pockets of natural light deliberately lead you through the experience of the space.
Finally, is it the constant fundamental dialogue and connection with the construction of the building via its materiality? In the background is the ever present Gneiss stone sparkling in the light because of its high mica content. It is nearly all superstructure and its tectonic language is true to its location. In the foreground is the beautiful detailing of the brass handrails or the deep red of the cherry wood lacquered doors to the changing cubicles.
I think it is all of these things, and more, however I also think that true Techne is not and cannot be evident within the Thermal Baths.
For true Techne to exist, we would need to go back 2,500 years to a point in history where there existed a profound symbolism associated with the well-made thing. This can only come from a deeply rooted cultural belief that the craft of making is spiritually connected to comprehension of the world around us. The process of ‘giving birth’ to the well-made thing involved a fundamental connection between the thoughts of the mind and the actions of the body. Architecture in our secular and industrial modern age has lost this connection, and, along with it, Techne.
However, for me, Zumthor’s work does contain a residual trace of Techne because of his ability to create well crafted beautiful buildings with powerful emotive experiences contained within those buildings. Buildings that invite comprehension through senses of the body as well as the mind. But surely it can’t be that simple, can it? How does he do it? Clearly he contains a recognised talent for articulating his vision, but how does this vision get translated from the picture in his mind into reality on the ground? I think this is where the magic happens. Perhaps for Zumthor it is partly achieved through a dogmatic design process involving lots of model making. I would like to think that architectural models connect the mind of the designer with the hand of the maker, and as such act as a conduit for translating emotion into craft.
For me anyway, I think it is this residue of Techne that makes the Thermal Baths so special. By concentrating on the parts as well as the whole, Zumthor has shown me that it is possible to create an experience that is greater than just the prosaic sum of its constituent parts. The Thermal Baths at Vals is more than just bricks and stone, it is more than just water, changing rooms and shower blocks. But to truly understand what that ‘more’ is, you have to experience it. It is only through reconnecting physical experience with intellectual thoughts that you can truly understand.
And this is the sense of Techne to which I am alluding. Happy bathing!