“As if space itself is invisible, all theory for the production of space is based on an obsessive preoccupation with its opposite: substance and objects, i.e., architecture. Architects could never explain space; Junkspace is our punishment for their mystifications.” Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace, 2001.
Form, Space and Material are perhaps among the most used words in architecture but perhaps the least clarified of all. One would assume that matters like these would be well established by now. In this note I will try to think about the use of the term material in architecture.
Material in architecture usually refer to the ‘raw material’ from which things will be constructed or given form to. This could include a whole range from soil, stone, brick, stone slabs, cast-iron, mild steel, copper, aluminum, silicon, glass, timber, plywood, lime, cement, lime boards, cement boards, ceramic, paint, wallpaper, etc. Usually we refer to or point to things, when we think or mention material, are things listed above in some or the other form.
The assumption behind the idea of term material, as in industrial terminology is that, there is some reserve -usually a field, quarry, forest- from where the raw materials are extracted and processed -either naturally by a team of artisans or artificially in a processing plant. This material then becomes the constitutive element to give form to the ‘intended’ building or part of the building. The basic action involved here is ‘scooping’ from the field, ‘chiseling’ from the bed of rock and ‘cutting’ the forest and ‘piling’ and ‘assembling’ the raw material to put together the building. There is no falsity in this assumption, generally speaking. This is exactly what we know of almost everything on this planet is made by either human or non-human species -anthill, birds’ nest, diamonds, sugar, buildings, toys, electricity, books, etc.
What are we missing in this thought? Couple of things.
1. All these so-called raw materials are already part of a thing called planet earth. This planet as we have seen since 1960s has a spherical form – like most celestial objects. So, the so-called material is already the material of a singular / finite form called earth.
2. How can soil and brick be both material? Even if for a moment we consider the fertile topsoil -needed to make the best bricks- as raw material, it should already be clear that the brick is not simply the raw material but a fully processed form. Not only that the soil is also already something, even though it does not have a ‘clear’ form -namely a red soil, black soil, soft soil, moist soil, dry soil, – which in turn is part of the terrain which only is the uppermost strata or the surface of the earth. We can also ask the same question about the bed of rock and polished marble or the tree and plywood.
[14-10-2020] As Manuel Delanda notes in his conversation with Graham Harman “at the human scale matter is best exemplified by macro-quantities of chemical substances, such as the sulfuric acid contained in this glass jar.
This is the “matter” humans have interacted with for millennia, from flint to bronze, and from soda to potash.” (The Rise of Realism, 2017).
It should already be visible to us that the deeper we try to locate the ‘material’ we will end up finding only more and more objects -some large some small, some with clear form and some with ‘fuzzy’ forms. Forms produce forms. Some forms are visible while others are only felt/ experienced – like the air we breathe, light that lits, gravity that holds.
This may not be of much consequence for architectural thinking. In continental philosophy ‘material’ usually refers to the ‘materialist’ school. The basic hypothesis of this school of thought is that everything is constructed from tiniest invisible particles and all forms are mere mental images. This means that there are no objects in the world just countless atoms / strings with empty space between, that pile up randomly to create the illusion of objects. So me, this laptop, it’s chips and fans, the table, the bench, the ceramic tile, the concrete slab, window, plants, the air in this room, the crows outside and the virus are one large continuum made of the same stuff. But is that what architects mean when they use the term material?
I have a feeling that architects usually refer to material in the opposite sense of the term -“substance and objects”. Usually architects refer to the bricks, marble slab, plywood sheet, steel section, timber sections, aluminum sheets or profiles, glass panes, Reinforced Cement Concrete mix, water, rubble, etc. all specific things. But since the term is so native to architectural vocabulary, I think, it makes it so much easier for architects to align with materialist theories and philosophers, as soon as they encounter them in their life.
On a side note: this is another important concern to keep in mind. In architectural discourse, as in most artistic discourse, there is a pressure to have a ‘philosophy’ of one’s own work. In the Europe as in the United States, architects have turned to philosophy for inspiration and sometimes for clarifications of basic concepts -especially concepts like space and form -something Koolhaas famously proclaimed that remain ‘unexplained’ by architects (Junkspace, 2001).
In the spirit of substances and objects we must speak of the infinity and the slippery nature of all objects. By this present moment in human history, there are as many authors, artists and works as many as the stars in the sky. It would be self-harming to burden oneself to even count, let alone recognize or worst even to know about all the stars. There are equally so many authors and works in each galaxies of the disciplines as well -in philosophy, science and mathematics, arts and even architecture. It is worthwhile to navigate texts from ones own discipline -however fuzzy those boundaries are. The slippery, radiant, imploding nature of the works from each discipline will drift you, shed light or create a ‘wormhole’ and create new encounters to other / new works and authors.
Coming back to the question of ‘material’ in architecture, It is best captured in the perhaps the most famous quote by Louis Kahn “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’” Of course, it is impossible to not notice the supernatural or quasi-religious tone in Kahn’s writings and speeches. But that’s not the point that I am trying to focus on here. The point here is to turn our attention back to the depth of each of the elemental forms -no matter how elemental- that we strangely refer to as ‘material’.
Hoping that we have clarified the question of material in architectural thinking. There remains another important question to be answered. How should we understand buildings, settlements / cities, events, societies, politics and ecology ? I will leave this question to be developed some other time.
At the moment, I will leave it with one more thought to be developed further. One of the axioms of this line of thought suggests that just as each element has depth and surplus, so should each building, each street, each neighborhood and hence even each city. Both elements and the emergent entity affect each other, but never completely. This is made super evident in situations like expansion joints, where a building expands and contracts in certain limits under the changing weather conditions. Or when a large number of buildings deteriorate or are dilapidating in several neighborhoods in the city the experience and the building regulations of the city also transform. But in both cases, that building that expands or deteriorates is that building, and that city will be that city, even though several things have changed in that parcel of land, that building or that city.