Transdiciplinary Tectonics in Transition


The evolution of traditional building materials has brought about progressive changes in architectural culture through built forms, tectonics, and fabrication techniques, thus spurring the controversy of traditionality or locality throughout history. The debate over the relationship of styles, in general, and traditionality is not a new phenomenon specific to contemporary architecture. As Moshen Mostafavi noted in the introduction of his book ‘Surface Architecture’, the discussion on the question of building material and traditional style, epitomized by such texts as Heinrich Hübsch’s In What Style Shall We Build?, had already begun in the nineteenth century. The material change and its subsequent architectural reform have generated the discussion over production and representation since architecture’s becoming the correlation between its processes of construction and its appearance.

It is a widely accepted theory that both the Doric and the Ionic order have originated in wood construction. As the wood-jointing details and the resulting carpentry forms were replaced by stone masonry, the original wood structure gradually lost its structural tectonics while maintaining the conventional forms. Although the patterns or configurations of the details originated in the techniques of wood fabrication, when used as a basis for “orders” the conventional petrified forms became mere decoration or repetitive symbolic objet, having been dissociated from their original use and having no intrinsic relationship to the use of the stone masonry forms.


From late 19th century to early 20th century, the steel industry reshaped the architectural field bringing about radical changes in building materials. The social norm of building construction method was to replace the old stone masonry with cast iron or wrought iron while retaining the formal characteristics to satisfy the public consensus to inherit the tradition of the precedents. The pandemic of classical orders or decoration made of iron or steel had flourished until the peak of eclecticism and Beaux-arts architecture. However, in the postwar era, modernist tenets such as ‘truth to material’ and ‘inside out’ have gradually driven out the unquestioning simulacrum of conventional building forms.

Compared to western culture, Korea has experienced a rapid transition from wood carpentry to concrete & steel construction in the early 20th century, which almost wiped out the traditional building forms throughout all building typologies. As a reaction to preserve or restore traditional architecture, there were ambiguous revival movements led by the politicians and conservative architects. The original wooden structure was converted to concrete casting regardless of the tectonic assembly. A classic precedent of the case is the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gwanghwamun, the wooden structure ‘gongpo’ of which was rebuilt in concrete with a layer of painted ornament.

There is a significant difference between the transition of Greek orders and that of Gwanghwamun in that, setting aside the inferior details and finish, the transition of Gwanghwamun merely copied the original form without progressive evolution of tectonics considering different material assembly. The decorative coat of paint over concrete structure was a pseudo-expressionistic approach representing the traditional ornaments, originally crafted by the wooden assembly. ‘Truth to material’ became outdated and the simulacrum has replaced the reality in those postmodern moments. This dilemmatic phenomenon, where superficially identical form itself does not testify the succession of tradition, has given rise to the insightful debate on the notion of traditionality.

What defines the traditional architecture then? Does the traditionality require formal identity or rather coherent principles for the use of materials or the physical function of the structural assembly? Does the tradition continually evolve while maintaining the essence of local condition? The ‘Noyane’, hidden roof widely used in Japan both at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, provides a significant viewpoint for the argument. Japanese Buddhist architecture and most Shinto architecture, imported from China and Korea together with Buddhism around the 6th century, have evolved through several structural adaptations. One of the most significant adaptations was ‘Noyane’, invented to provide a steeper incline of roof to adjust to the humid local climate in Japan. Roofs in Japan had to have a steeper incline to shed the rainwater because the local climate is more moist than in either China or Korea. The solution was to construct a hidden roof raised above a ceiling, which had non-structural rafters as aesthetic elements. The innovative transition of roof assembly from traditional roof to the non-conventional ‘hidden roof’ in Japan provides a thought-provoking turning point for the traditionality in contemporary architecture.

We could extend the agenda of traditionality from the novel case of Japanese ‘hidden roof’ to the two different interpretations on the origin of styles by Gottfied Semper(1803~1876) and Alois Riegl(1858~1905) as the notion of tradition and styles are consequentially interrelated. In the book ‘The Function of Style’, Farshid Moussavi provides an intriguing analysis of the two different perspectives of the 19th century’s renowned theorists, which may provide an insightful keynote for the open reinterpretation of tradition and its formative elements.

According to Moussavi, Semper argued that the fundamental ideas behind particular styles originated in artistic themes which had been derived from the techniques of fabrication. He structured his comparative analysis of style according to the techniques of fabrication that were associated with different materials. In the case of Japanese ‘hidden roof’, though the non-conventional tectonics of the ‘hidden roof’’ is adopting new fabrication techniques with different material assembly and contexts, the original visual memory of the traditional roof structure was retained with a combination of roof elements: a true roof above, a second roof beneath, and the non-structural aesthetic rafters.



Unlike Semper, Alois Riegl argued the origins of style resided in the artistic impulse, or ‘Kunstwollen’. Style was therefore subject to changes in the Kunstwollen. In opposition to Semper’s theory that style was derived from material techniques, Riegl proposed that “all art history manifests itself as a struggle with the material. Not the tool or technique has precedence in this struggle, but the creative artistic thought, which wishes to widen its field of creation and intensify its formative powers.” From the standpoint of Alois Riegl, the Japanese ‘hidden roof’ could be interpreted as a progressive style invented from a struggle between the imported conventions, traditional building material, and the new local environment. The dialectic understanding of Semper and Riegl’s analysis of the styles would provide the legitimate argument for the directionality of future-oriented tradition and styles.

This research aims to investigate the potential application of the Japanese ‘hidden roof’ in steel construction of the Korean traditional architecture. The innovative conversion process of heavy timber into light frame construction in the case of ‘hidden roof’ would provide future possibilities for the application of prefab/modular steel construction technique that can be used in the traditional building form. The space frame condition of the inside of ‘hidden roof’ can be analyzed to be further optimized by mass-customization technology adapting to versatile parameters of local conditions. The non-structural, decorative rafters in the ‘hidden roof’ also imply the potential use of originally structural elements as structural/non-structural ornaments, formulating semiotics in the contemporary architecture. In parallel with learning from the Japanese ‘hidden roof’, this research also investigates the primary principles of Korean traditional building forms to formulate a hypothesis of transdisciplinary tectonics in transition from the past to the future.