HKU 2013 | Groovy Tectonics

7 min read

‘Groovy Tectonics’ (HKU | March I studio | Fall 2013) was led by Tom Verebes with Paul Wintour as the Teaching Assistant. With curvature as the central theme, the studio initially researched a set of mathematical concepts and tools, for their potential to breed innovative architectural spatialities. From simple spatial principles, generated computationally as abstract, yet controllable geometric constructs, students migrated from abstraction towards increasingly concrete architectural implications of the initial inter-disciplinary relations between mathematics and space.

When we study forms, the organic ones in particular, nowhere do we find permanence, repose or termination.

 (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Form and Transformation, 1806)

Studio Synopsis

At the intersection of mathematics, and our current capacity to computationally generate, control and unleash spatial complexities, lies the basis of architectural innovation to be pursued in this MArch studio.

Curvature, as a central theme of the studio, had repeatedly come under attack throughout the twentieth century. Despite the attempts of modernist, post-modernist and neo-traditionalist theorists alike, to dismiss the Tectonics of Curvature as mere distraction from timeless pursuits, and, to relegate the persistent preoccupations of the avant-garde as deviant Expressionist immorality, obsessions with style and personal gesture, and simplistic formalism, this studio remains committed to Deep Formalism.

We will engage with, and possibly innovate upon, the twentieth century notion of Tectonics – the relationship of spatial surfaces and elements, to materiality, structure and various contingencies of performance. Students will pursue the development of novel spatial repertoires, through the close relation of form and performance, as the outcome of forces, rather than solely from the wilful hand of the designer. The studio’s position on tectonics targets concrete associations of topographically charged architectural space with constraints of movement, structural problems and opportunities. We will migrate from introductory exercises on abstract mathematical ‘spaces’ towards tectonic formulations with immediate relevance to the topographic and infrastructured landscapes of Hong Kong, through the design of a series of small scale structures on The Peak.


When scrutinized within a longer historical perspective, today’s proliferation of spatial curvilinearity in architecture is not a new tendency, and nor is it dismissible as mere fashion nor flippancy. In fact, the regime of planarity and linearity, along with their presumed association to the discourses of functionality and spatial reduction, had been facilitated throughout the latter nineteenth and twentieth century by the modern project of repetitive standardisation.

Curvature has an immediate relationship with the body and with the human hand. Traditional calligraphy, practiced in many diverse cultures worldwide, is imbued with affect, and is the outcome of gesture and emotion conflated in relative speeds and intensities. The representation of landscape, in both Chinese and Western art, and in particular, architecture’s setting into topography and landscape in Chinese painting foreshadows the Picturesque European landscape, and hence contrasted to the French Formal Gardens. The ancients, it may reassure sceptics, were innately, yet less consciously and conspicuously, equally intrigued by curvature, as ubiquitous architectural culture remains so today.

Leonardo da Vincci’s drawings of water flows and hair, and Bernini’s Il Rapto de Prospertina, in which stone is sculpted into the illusion of soft and voluptuous curves of the human figure, are evidence of our historical fascination with curvature, so deeply connected to human culture and our spatial cognition. Whilst the fine arts lend a crutch to make sense of architecture’s ‘burden of linearity’ (Ingraham, 1988), the styles which had battled early Modernism, including Jugenstijl, the Arts & Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, Moderne, Art Deco, Secession, Glasgow Style, among other classifications, and the unfortunate category of Expressionism in twentieth century architecture, map a deviant trajectory from the widely accepted architectural histories of the twentieth century. Ornamentation is no longer a crime. Otherness is, today, sought out, just as difference is celebrated. We will engage with these troublesome legacies, with the persistence of ancient knowledge and, with commitment to experimenting with the design tools of the present.

Calculus, the ancient study of geometric change through integration and differentiation, enters the toolbox of the contemporary design studio through computational software. Here lies a fertile design research arena, which is indeed, still quite nascent. It is widely understood how mathematics forms the analytic and synthetic basis of structural engineering, which has for centuries, acknowledged how the flow of structural load often follows oblique and diagonal paths rather than orthogonal trajectories with perpendicular junctions of elements. Gothic structures exemplify this kind of articulation of the flow of dead load.

Today’s persistent interest in curvature finds historical connections to the scenographic expression of voluptuous unfolding baroque spaces and surfaces. Through the tradition of material computation, from Gaudí’s catenary chain tension models, to Frei Otto’s minimal path structures, Hans Eisler’s shell structures, amongst many others, we learn how material processes organize forces and matter in fields. Transport and Civil engineering matierialise variations in infrastructural speeds, articulated through degrees of curvature. In looking closely, again, at the associative logic of structures, infrastructures and topographies, we will continue to interrogate the question, ‘why tectonics are square and topology is groovy’ (Lynn, 1996).

Planet Earth, along with its natural processes, systems and material formations, render our understanding of architecture to be a life-like artifice, merely, part and parcel of the world’s natural ecologies and systems, in which the planet’s flora, fauna, geology, the dynamics of the atmosphere etc. all have immensely complex properties. The Earth, it turns out, is not flat.

Now I think that Form, properly so called, may be considered as a function or exponent of Growth or of Force, inherent or impressed; and that one of the steps to admiring it or understanding it must be a comprehension of the laws of formation and of the forces to be resisted; that all forms are thus either indicative of lines of energy, or pressure, or motion, variously impressed or resisted, and are therefore exquisitely abstract and precise.

(John Ruskin, 1906)

Final Project

Thirty years ago, the UIA and HKIA held an international competition in 1982-83, for a private leisure clubhouse on The Peak, receiving over 500 entries. Zaha Hadid’s competition winning entry to the Peak Competition propelled the launch of her career, while focusing global attention towards Hong Kong 15 years before The Handover in 1997. The facilities which have been built on The Peak, as it stands 15 years since the Handover, is limited to private leisure, F&B, and commercial spaces, having limited public facilities, amidst a tremendous public civic and social resource of the Country Park.

The brief for the final comprehensive project of this semester’s studio, is a series of 3-5 pavilion prototypes on, above and within The Peak, as well as linked to, and extending, existing infrastructural networks from the coastline of Hong Kong Island to The Peak. Each design team shall specify the make-up of a diverse range of programmes for their proposal, including public leisure, entertainment, sport and recreation, and, of course, tourism. The site for the studio project is at once The Peak, and also one of a continuous experience of Hong Kong from its coastline to the island’s summit. The scale of the proposal is at once an intimate architecture (a series of pavilions) as well as addressing the vastness of the metropolis (skylines, mobile urban experiences, etc.).

The studio will pursue Groovy Tectonics, through design methods which emphasise an associative logic towards the organisation and intensity of movement and programmes related to topography. The issues and contingencies include programming earlier spatial and structural models within a topographical approach to urbanism, interconnected from coast to summit. Bringing forward the tools, concepts and preliminary results, the brief calls for a series of public, civic and tourist programmes in a series of pavilions.


Electromagnetic Fields by Harmony Wong &  Crystal You, 2013
Sine curve by Wei Xu & Junhui Luo, 2013
Minimal Surfaces by Kwok Hoi Lam Helen & Wong Yok Fai Arnold, 2013
Catenary by Chow Ka Wong Felix & Fung Pak Ming Jason, 2013

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