Architects rarely have the opportunity to directly deal with the physical objects of their designs. While others – creators, artists and designers – work directly with materials, architects do so abstractly. They represent them and decide on how they are to be used, but they do not process and build them themselves. However, all the perceptible qualities that architects try to convey in their designs ultimately depend on their manifestation in built form. The design can underline these material properties, but it also sets limits. No matter how much architects try to abstract in their designs and distance themselves from concrete questions about materials, it is ultimately these that represent the architectural idea. A sensitive understanding of materials therefore always conveys more than just the implementation of design ideas through the means of the builder. It enables both new interpretations of the relationships of the parts to the whole and the creation of new overall relationships, organisational connections and phenomenological effects.
An understanding of materials is part of the design. The choice of material has an immense influence on the feasibility and functionality of a design. It is the properties of a material that decide for which area of application it is ultimately suitable. It is not for no reason that building materials come from a wide range of materials.
A sensitive approach to materials at different scales, from architectural detail to urban design, is therefore always able to convey a contemporary understanding of our built environment in terms of its components and their interconnection.
Design versus choice of materials?
In the discourse of architecture, questions about the role of materials were often linked to questions about the relationship of the overall form to the tectonics. Should the use of materials be subordinated to an overriding formal idea or follow a «nature» inherent in the materials? Especially in times of great technological advances and rapid material developments, this role is questioned. We find ourselves in such a time today.
But instead of engaging in fruitless arguments and committing to one of the camps, this article argues for an alternative approach to the relationship between architecture and materials. By directly experiencing and looking at materials and their properties, designers can gain new insights into their formal, functional, conceptual and expressive potentials. The direct confrontation with materials points the way to their targeted use, in the best case also to novel functions and design possibilities. The guiding principle is the unique combination of the potential of the material and the intention of the design. In this way, the architectural discourse can be led beyond the outdated opposition between form and tectonic structure as well as beyond fashionable trends based on the latest material development. Observation, speculation and experimentation as an approach can make designers, planners or architects aware of their intentions in dealing with materials and in this way promote the design of their drafts. Such an approach can expand the boundaries of how an idea can be built, and it can give a whole new twist to the discussion of material issues.
A distinction between the theory and practice of materials is no longer meaningful, if it ever was. The investigation of the properties of a material leads to questions about the operative logic of dealing with them. Rolling, drawing or pressing, for example, applied to a material such as steel, emphasises its malleability and at the same time represents a fundamental material process. Both material and process in this case are scale-free and can therefore be applied from detail to comprehensive profile systems to the whole building and beyond, and translated into individualised design.
For material studies to gain greater significance in architecture beyond individual experimentation, a collective approach is necessary. Universities should take seriously their role as pioneers and disseminators of material studies and should provide sufficient research projects. Material studies have always been an integral part of architectural training since the days of early modernism Johannes Itten, for example, established a compulsory basic course at the Bauhaus in which all students had to experiment with materials and demonstrate their properties. At the time, this approach shaped the way a whole generation of architects dealt with materials.
There are currently many efforts to reintegrate material studies into architectural education. For example, the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University has a unique materials collection. The so-called «Materials Collection» is not just a catalogue of products, but an active and continuously updated collection of material and material applications. It also documents material experiments and research projects of students and teaching staff at the university. In this way, future generations of students can refer back to the previous experiments.
The database of the collection is organised in such a way as to promote an understanding of materials that goes far beyond the conventional classification into families of materials. Thus, for example, material is catalogued in the context of its properties, not only in relation to given applications. This allows users of the database to discover, for example, a material for a building fa ade that is normally used to reduce the reflection of computer screens. Other institutions outside universities have also recognised the need for comprehensive material catalogues for designers. These include the New York-based Material ConneXion (a source of new and innovative materials for architects, artists and designers), the in Paris-based materiO’ and the Swiss database «Material-Archiv», to name but a few.
New material collections for new design
Today’s design ambitions are based on the desire for more spatial complexity, a more subtle experience of architecture and increasingly tailored design solutions. The search for material innovations is not only for the next fashionable façade, but also for the urgently needed materials that express the design ambitions of the 21st century. It is hardly surprising that the solutions developed 50 years ago, for example, are no longer adequate for today’s world. The range of materials available to designers today is also very limited due to outdated classification systems and the lack of integrated research. The direct engagement of architects with materials through observation, speculation and experimentation with the help of new material collections and databases, briefly outlined here, offers a promising alternative to enable and determine the design of tomorrow.
Dr. Thomas Schröpfer is Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. His book publications have been translated into several languages and include: Dense + Green Cities: Architecture as Urban Ecosystem (2020); Dense + Green: Innovative building Types for Sustainable Urban Architecture (2016); Ecological Urban Architecture (2012) and Material Design: Informing Architecture by Materiality (2011). He has received numerous renowned national and international prizes and awards, such as The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies Award, The German Design Award and The President’s Design Award, Singapore’s highest honour for designers and design of all disciplines.