Construction as Language


If architects accept that physical architecture can carry meaning beyond its objective existence, we also must accept that the act of construction invests these intangible meanings into the built environment. If architecture is to suggest anything beyond its own reality, it must do so using its construction as a point of departure.

What is the role of the detail in construing meaning in the built environment? This thesis examines the architectural detail beyond its role to construct and investigates its ability to fuse abstract meanings with standard construction materials and practices. It attempts to rectify the schism between architecture as concept, and architecture as building.

My research vehicle takes the form of a tectonic re-encoding of the Brutalist Student Union typology at the University of Auckland. A series of interventions in and around the Student Union building seeks to develop a new space for students while also rediscovering and reinfusing the theoretical underpinnings of a Brutalist Student Union typology back into the campus. My reasons for doing so are simple – in a time of increasing isolation and disenchantment among students, there is a need for a sense of place and union among both students and staff at this University.

Steel, concrete, timber - this is how the Student Union objectively exits. To reflect, to challenge, to find one’s place and offer respite – this is subjectively how the Student Union is experienced. In this context, the detail is a language through which these subjective meanings manifest themselves in the built environment.

My project is a series of interventions in and around the Student Union building that, in developing a new space for students, simultaneously looks to rediscover and reimbue the theoretical underpinnings of a Brutalist Student Union Typology back into the University Campus. My reasons for doing so are simple – In a time of increasing isolation and disenchantment among students, there is a need for a sense of place and union students at the University.

Conceived of as the heart of the student body and University, we can draw an anthropomorphic metaphor, where the complex itself is a manifestation of the whole student body as an individual. The various programmes and contexts of the complex are broken down into individual tectonics, each with the responsibility of reflecting a certain attribute of the student body. The tectonics begin with the old detail, then move into the steel tower, the concrete theatre and the timber study. 

The old detail construes reflection through the employment of the existing steel and concrete combination to strip the Student Union of its context and ability to hold itself. Through the process of suspension, it becomes a nucleus floating in space which, through reflection, the rest of the Student Union can germinate. This tectonic translates 1968 tectonic energy to 2020 tectonic energy.

1 Old Detail
Old Detail

As the reflection becomes critical, a challenge to the status quo is construed through the tower. The tension held within a steel detail interprets the student action of challenging normative assumptions. Tension is experienced through steel joints at the smaller scale, and lines of tension at the larger scale. 

Contextually, this tower reverses compressive structural loads into tensile constructions where hanging, rather than resting, is key – directly in contrast to the resting monoliths that populate the university campus.

1 Steel

Concrete was prescribed to the theatre complex in order to generate ebb and flow moments in an exterior where students can experience grounding and a strong sense of place through its performance of light and shadow. The interior takes precedent from Herzog De Meuron Hamburg Opera House that uses two concrete shells to isolate and control sound.

Concrete 1

In stark contrast to the concrete tectonic, the timber tectonic looks to mentally remove itself from the stress of its surroundings, offering sanctuary and respite to study. This tectonic nourishes and refreshes the mind – key in the creation of successful study spaces. 

Critical to this action is timber. The canopy of Alfred Street transforms into the canopy of the Student Union. These study spaces require that you pass through all layers of the concrete tectonic until you can be excavated from your surroundings via an enclosed elevator. The elevator delivers you to lofty study spaces positioned above the canopy and overlooking Albert Park. These are the quiet zones where you can relax, replenish and study.

Timber 1