Explaining "Stereotomics"....as defined by architects of the past

In architecture, it has been suggested that the term architectonic is used to refer to the relativistic differentiation between the constructional elements in buildings according to their relative stability characteristics (Frampton, 1995). Frampton cites the work of the architect/historian/ethnographer Gottfried Semper, whose studies of building artifacts led him to break away from the Vitruvian triad of utilitas, fermitas and venustas, and to differentiate the elements into categories that fall either into the lightweight tectonics of the frame or the heavy/stable stereotomics of the earthwork.

Greek in origin, the term tectonic derives from the term tekton, signifying carpenter or builder. This in turn stems from the Sanskrit taksan, referring to the craft of carpentry and to the use of the axe. Remnants of a similar term can also be found in Vedic, where it refers again to carpentry. In Greek it appears in Homer, where it alludes to the art of construction in general. The poetic connotation of the term first appears in Sappho where the tekton, the carpenter, assumes the role of the poet. This meaning undergoes further evolution as the term passes from being something specific and physical, such as carpentry, to a more generic notion of making, in the poetic sense.

Semper was to endow the term with similar connotations in his categorical break with the Vitruvian paradigm. Semper announced this rupture with the publication of his Four Elements of Architecture in 1852, wherein a new ethnographic theory of culture divides the primitive hut into four basic elements; (1) earthwork, (2) hearth, (3) framework/roof, and (4) a light-weight enclosing membrane. Semper went on to classify the process of building into two basic procedures; into the tectonics of the frame, in which light-weight, linear components are assembled so as to embody a spatial matrix and the stereotomics of the earthwork, formed out of the repetitious stacking of heavy-weight units.  That this stereotomic nature implies a load-bearing masonry of some kind is indicated by the etymology of stereotomic, breaking down into stereo:stone and tomic:cutting. This tectonic/stereotomic distinction was reinforced in German by the fact that the language differentiates between two classes of wall, between Die Wand, indicating a screen-like woven fabric and Die Mauer signifying a massive fortification.

Architecture lies in the relationship between material and structure, in particular the poetic of constructed form. By poetic, I am referring to, as Kenneth Frampton put it, "the original Greek sense of poetics as an act of making and revealing." Through the dialogue of constructive elements, materials, the making of form and the resolution of structural forces, beauty and meaning arise. ‘Tectonics’ is defined as ‘pertaining to building or construction in general’ especially in reference to architecture. Gottfried Semper went further to use tectonic to define the qualities of making inherent in the constructed act. He broke down types of construction into that of using elements for a framework, such as wood frame construction, and that of using compressive mass to build an enclosure, such as block or stone work. The qualities of these he called ‘tectonics’ and ‘stereotomics,’ respectively. Frampton discusses the ontological consequences of these differences: "framework tends towards the aerial and dematerialization of mass, whereas the mass form is telluric, embedding itself deeper in the earth. One tends toward the light and the other toward dark. These gravitational opposites . . . may be said to symbolize the two cosmological opposites to which they aspire; the sky and the earth." Human existence finds itself at the juncture between these opposites. Semper regarded the joint as "the primordial tectonic element" around which all building defines itself. Then in a sense architecture embodies the fundamental way man perceives his existence.