The Tectonics of Flimsiness

Celebrating the Insubstantial



Photo of Timothy Brown AIA NCARB CSI

Timothy Brown AIA NCARB CSI

Associate Professor

Clemson University



Architecture has traditionally celebrated the joining of two building components or materials. Joinery serves as a key site for architectural expression, and for ornamentation, whether joyously elaborate or obsessively minimal. Quiet or loud, the way architects design the joint is so often how they sign their work. The idea that the highest expression of architectural intent is most available in the detail prevails across time and across building cultures. However, the joinery that allows multi-layered building enclosure systems to perform is typically buried deep within complex assemblies, unseen and unsung. Flashing, contrary to most all of our thinking about the dignity of materials, is usually the flimsiest, most insubstantial material in a building. If architectonics provide a collective sense of how we are to understand the meanings of buildings through their materiality, then how are we to come to terms with the flimsy, the insubstantial? What would a tectonics of flashing look like? This paper explores the possibility for an emergent tectonics developed around this critical but flimsy component.


The deep history of architecture is one of mass and weight. The more recent history of architecture includes mass and weight but also surface, lightness, and especially transparency. But even

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The joining of different building elements is a moment of intense interest for architects. Bringing together disparate surfaces and materials poses technical challenges but also serves, in the resolution of

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With a few notable exceptions, the history of architecture can be written through a history of facades. Space, structure, use-program, construction methods may all offer ways of understanding buildings, but

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In contemporary enclosure assemblies, foundation to parapet, flashing is materially insignificant but essential to the wall’s performance. Its primary role is to prevent bulk water from entering the interior of

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A May 2008 visit to Zaha Hadid’s Nordpark Railway Stations in Innsbruck Austria that came just after the opening of the four stations but before the double-curved glass cladding had

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Architects have detailed connections in ways that served to express fundamental ideas about why we make buildings and how we make buildings. The narratives enfolding a building’s making can often

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Future Work

The question of future work in light of a paper that sees to provoke an opening in this eons old battle with matter and its organization is one that can

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My deepest thanks to John Rogers FAIA who first taught me about the detail.

Rights and Permissions

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Cadwell, Michael, Strange Details, MIT Press, 2007.

Ford, Edward, Five House, Ten Details, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.

Ford, Edward, The Details of Modern Architecture, MIT Press, 1998.

Froidvaux, Yves-Marie, Techniques de l’Architecture Ancienne, Mardaga, 1986.

Zumthor, Peter, Thinking Architecture, Birkhauser, 2006.

Facade Tectonics Institute n.d. “About”, accessed 06.15.2019,