Issues of Materiality
Essay for RUMBLE Magazine: Johan Bettum, Michael Hensel, Kivi Sotamaa
Matter is the informational substructure of architecture. Both conceptionally and practically the processing of this information is a question of surfaces. As current material and processing technologies undergo radical development, critical attention to architecture as a structural and material medium for filtering information and producing effects for individual and collective experience is acutely relevant to a transformative mode for thinking and practising architecture.
Both individual and collective experience can be addressed as trajectories in time and space on which architecture can intervene. The form of intervention is materially conditioned. At the same time, architecture, through its organisation of matter on different scales, produces effects that unfold within the time-space complex. Such materially conditioned sets of architectural effects are not reducible to be perceived statically.
The resistance of matter to constitute a singular and static datum for human experience produces a multitude and divergent set of realities. Architecture has the power to structure and organise matter and thereby synthesise the resultant diverging realities. Through materially conditioning flows of information, it channels the information and directs its exchange both in relationship to the individual and the collective. But architecture cannot exert hard control and produce the predictable. Our experience of architecture far exceeds a mathematically conditioned, axial description of the world. It is also exceeds the numerically binary and simulated computerised equivalent of its Cartesian description. On the other hand, the dynamics of collective and cultural exchange takes architecture’s contribution as a single instant among many, defying yet again any pretension architecture could have at a predictable and fixed status. The materially informed role of architecture in cultural production is multiple and unpredictable in that it is partly predicated on the perceiving subject who again is absorbed and made relative in the culturally collective.
In processing the flows of information across its material substructure, architecture is faced with a profound destabilisation of its physical foundation. Material data are multiplied and rendered contingent as a function of temporal and contextual fluxes. Architecture is left with no fixed material datum as reference, neither literally nor in terms of perceivable fact.
The materially conditioned particularity of architecture presents a vast and to a large degree unexplored resource for architectural design and construction. Architecture’s greatest challenge is its most immediate and yet unpredictable medium, its material substructure, and the culturally conditioned perception of this. It is in this passage from the materially conditioned to the culturally productive that architecture must continue to explore its limits and potentials.
Thresholds are usually considered as hard material boundary conditions. A different way of understanding thresholds are as transitions. This implies that materiality is understood as having dimensions in both space and time. Architecture in its materiality becomes an active medium that processes change and engages perception, rather than a passive setting void of inhabitation and interaction.
Thresholds as transitions both absorb and mediate difference. They become condensed spaces wherein material and immaterial conditions change from one state to another. In essence thresholds form the architectural movement between those conditions which are separated and divided. In so doing the threshold is the space of synthesis and establishes a primary relational composite between space and the Bergsonian notion of duration. Duration is the composite of time - a lasting that is both perceived past and the ceaseless process of becoming. Duration stands in contrast to a sequential unfolding of time where one instance follows another. It implies a transition where before and after pull at once in opposite directions, a double movement without lapse into reductive singularity or compromise. The synthesis of duration constitutes a paradox: it enables multiples to mix and perform as one while retaining their respective and individual characteristics.
Within a materially defined envelope, interstitial spaces serve as sites for the differential sequestration of flows across the section of the envelope. The materiality of architecture conditions the filtering of these flows. For instance, the organization of surfaces within an envelope, such as in a laminate, and the orderly patterned distribution of their finely divided respective substructure, exemplified by the material composition of advanced composites, can be designed towards a specific processing of these flows, such as the filtering of light. A smooth and highly differentiated filtering of light across a given surface can be referred to as modulated transparency.
A composite laminate is made from veneered surfaces where each surface is made from two or more elements that act together but retain their distinct characteristics in the composite mixture. The three-dimensionality of each surface element as well as the laminated product is essential for understanding the processing capability of the composite laminate. The surface depth and its capacity for temporally filtering flows through the sectional material composition determine the flux. In the case of filtering light, the variables in question are the degree of transparency in the matrix material and the type, distribution and compositional density of the reinforcement, fillers and/or additives in the matrix. While polymer composite matrices (PMS) with glass- or carbon fiber reinforcement is the most likely type for current architectural applications, both metal and ceramic composites (MMC and CMC) are possible future material candidates.
Architectural surfaces, even as border definitions, constitute in this manner a non-homogeneous and three-dimensional medium that actively process or relate differential informational flows to the perceiving subject. The activity of architectural surfaces can be likened to that of an organic integument. The tri-laminar unit membrane, free surfaces and live lamellae in organic cellular structures account for movements across the brush border and adequately process diffusion processes to sustain life functions. Likewise, the smooth-surfaced endoplasmic reticulum is in fact a three-dimensional lattice with vesicles and tubules protruding from the surface ‘datum’.
To transit, to pass, is the input in a differential function for perceiving in time and space. The perception of architecture, at whatever scale, is a set of diffusion processes through and across material, differential barriers. These material processes are returned as material effects to be registered by the senses. In sum architecture performs as a differentiated and differentially perceived filter.
Architecture circumscribes the multiple while processing the singular. It never allows the former to be reduced to the latter. It puts composite conditions into the world. Through the heterogeneous nature of composites we recognise given and designed regimes of difference. Only through these regimes of difference do we encounter the process of identity formation. The collective imparts the particular; it is a question of concurrently differentiating and comprehending totalities or composite conditions.
The affirmation of one in the other is synthetic whereby the synergy of two or more elements is different to and more than their simple summation. To synthesise is to organise according to this principle of assembling and facilitating exchange while maintaining difference and respective characteristics at one and the same time. It is a movement where one is one and many at once. Synthesis and resultant synergetic effects between multiple material conditions grant a rich differential performance of a structural mixture.
This can be evidenced in composite constructions in which different materials act in unison and respond to specific local requirements in a manner that any of the single elements could not do alone. The local structural capacity is produced by varying the type, amount and/or organisation of the material elements in the composite, in particular with respect to the reinforcement in the matrix. These design variables ultimately involve determining material composition on scales down to meso- and micro-levels. While economic parameters presently exclude the latter, involving the specification of the molecular make-up of material elements, from architecture, the meso-level designates the type of reinforcement, for instance woven fibre mats, and the three-dimensional composition and general lay-up of the reinforcement. On a macro-level designing with composite materials includes determining the appropriate form and geometry of the constructional elements and configuring their overall assembly. Hybrid construction methods include employing two or more fibre materials within a single matrix, each adding to the performance of the composite.
This general level of flexibility with composite materials allows for performance specific design. Moving between and co-ordinating variables at different material scales incorporate a degree of variability with respect to how the architectural design meets with contingency unparalleled in design and construction with conventional building materials. This is one example of how a composite condition involves varying differential gradients that occur in the design process, in the material composition itself, as well as in the performance envelope of the architectural element. The increased capability to meet with and process at one and the same time multiple and varying conditions that are externally triggered, is characteristic of composite systems.
Contrary to heralding architecture’s complete liberation from its material substrate, a proposition typically encountered in the architectural discourse related to the electronic media, an architecture of composite conditions can at best be understood and based on material limitations and resistances. As with the highly ordered and complex cytoplasmic organization of plasma cells in a cellular envelope, an architectural surface is a graded, permeable structure that can act as a selective barrier. If it is differentiated, the surface performs special functions in relationship to motile forces and informational flows that is exerted upon it.
Furthermore, the complex organization of simple cellular organisms provide example of how the performative in architecture could be seen in conjunction with its formal components, first of all geometry and structure. The function of a cell is intimately connected to the structure of its surfaces and their geometry. The latter typically contains a number of folds that enable processes of exchange with the immediate environment and transformations in the life of the cell itself. One can, for instance, find elaborate systems of surface invagination that facilitate such processes partly through the increased surface area that the folds produce.
Resilient processing includes the ability of a material structural system to absorb and negotiate the stress of motile forces that is exerted upon the system. Most architectural constructions are designed to transfer such stress directly to the ground via the shortest possible route. This type of structure renders the system relatively inflexible in relationship to conditions other than those it is expected to meet based on a consideration of the average and normative predictability. This typically yields little freedom in terms of designing its form, and the major strategy for increasing the structural capacity is to increase the general mass. It is rare to find architects employing the kind of synergy that can be had from the careful correlation of structure and form as exemplified by the use of folds to stiffen ship hulls made of composite laminates in marine design. The latter demonstrates the internal capacity of a structural system to negotiate bending and shear forces through the local articulation of the material components. The capacity to internally displace the stress is achieved by the differential treatment of material and surface composition and performed within the surface envelope through the relation between these differentiated localities and minor temporary deformations of the local geometries.
Emergent surface capacities in composite conditions, as discussed above, are also exemplified by modulated transparency. In this case the differential filtering of light, possible with advanced composite materials as well as differentially treated glass, such as etched glass, produces effects that radically displace the conventional role of ‘ground’ in the surface. The interaction between light and the outer surface of a façade normally produces a vertical perceptional datum akin to pictorial ground. With modulated transparency this datum is multiplied and rendered variable as a function of the interaction between light intensity, material composition and surface depth. The emergence of multiple surfaces within the envelope is both literal and virtual. Sufficient degrees of translucency can literally expose deep surface lamella. At the same time, the temporally conditioned and differential filtering of light can render a virtual, deep ground that also serves to dismantle the façade as a singular vertical datum.
Resilient processes do not only result from advanced material technologies; they also have a potential for activating new material capacities in the production of architectural effects. In so doing resilient processes engage perception in a dynamics of relational exchange with the material substructure of architecture beyond that described by the conventional and oppositional dichotomies like structure and ornament, and time and space.
Material particularities filter and condition the flows through surface envelopes. The production of architectural effects triggered by the filtering of these flows is a question of relations. Material agglomeration, fine structure and geometric articulation contribute to defining the particular. But the particular emerges only when differentiated with respect to other, similar and neighbouring local conditions. The particular is qualified through relations. By closely engaging with the material variables in a design process, effects resulting from the articulated material particularities can be optimised towards producing a rich and highly nuanced space.
The relations between highly articulated material elements and systems trigger the potential of co-ordinated, flexible and goal specific material performance. The articulation is expressed in the types of material constituents, the design of their interface within the material envelope, differential scales, structural and functional types. Multiple and distinct material conditions co-existing in a composite establish a differential gradient. At the same time the matrix, which forms the binding interface between all other elements embedded in it, produce a single and coherent material system. The internal differential gradient, resulting from local material articulations, allow internal difference to be summed up in a smooth material mixture consisting of infinitesimal amounts of change. In turn the sum of heterogeneous material structure produce an excess of material effects. The excess of material effects enables rich combinations of individual perception and experience. The movement from small to large and individual to collective through assemblies, groupings, and clusters within the material envelope engender a perceptual field that turn particularities into engines of difference.
Composite conditions and resilient processing do not result in a homogeneous perceptional field. This is not the world of white noise and total fusion nor is it the world of fragmentation, it is rather the world of designing composites into boundless and smooth relations. While the status of subjective experience is questionable in relationship to the collective, highly articulated subjectivity comes to the fore as the result of differential material processes. Individual shifts in perspectival points of view are not the same as a singular and prioritised perspectival experience or paradigm.
At the other end of the spectrum, architecture’s contribution to the social and political has frequently been measured against a singularly defined collective experience of reality. Architecture’s contrived attempt at making itself universal has almost obliterated its attention to the immense and tangible flux of matter in the world. The precisely conditioned materiality of composite conditions can now be strategized to induce non-singular collective experiences. And while it largely remains to be investigated how resilient processes are instrumentalised in the design process, it is likely that successful strategies will include: the instrumental deployment of directed plurality, the significant redundancy in and between systems, the oscillation between convergence and divergence of systems and particularities, choreographed processes of chance, and targeted optimisation of synergetic functions through channelling and bundling flows.