The Stuff of Architecture
31st October 2016
The word Stuff is both a noun and a verb – the stuff that is material and matter, and the action of stuffing to fill and form objects. Are the objects that have been designed on a flat digital screen insensitive to the materials that are used to fill/stuff these digital ideas in becoming actual objects in real space? Enormous amounts of objects are designed on computer screens which in order to become actual objects in the world – take matter and stuff it inside the designs, often irrespective of what the form or the material can do or requires.
In digital software there are samples of materials shown as surface texture which can be digitally and virtually wrapped around designed objects and architecture on the screen to give the designer an idea of how the thing he/she is designing will appear once manufactured in a given material. Well, the appearance of a material or surface of a material does not say much about how the object/building in that chosen material will behave when it is built. So, the designer has to think about both the properties of the material chosen to use and whether they can function in a building and what it will look like. It seems to me some things/objects produced lean more towards the requirement and fulfillment of the experience of the screen than the requirement of the physical object to be used in real space.
Let me explain – On visiting Zaha Hadid extension at the Serpentine gallery in London when it first opened, while sitting in the restaurant eating my over expensive and disappointing salad, the swooping organic architecture over and around me seemed to have one foot still firmly in the computer and digital space, and was not totally occupying the space I was in, this was evidenced in the clunky way the pillars met the ground, a gap appearing between pillar and floor breaking up the continuous flow and it was definitely not swooping..! A feature perhaps less relevant on the screen, but while I sat by this pillar staring at the floor I was so very disappointed by the lack of thought given to how this column met the ground, and considering how chairs and tables where pushed so close to the pillars, I’m sure others would come into contact with this connecting point and have similar thoughts. The digital form, the surface affect had overridden the material, the substance, and the matter – revealing a gap between design and production.
Have a good look at a new building and decide for yourself how much of it was designed in the ‘real’ and how much on the computer screen.
Many years ago buildings evolved and changed while they were being built, as the materials being used dictated how they would be applied, builders and architects working closely solving problems as they went along in working out the best way to proceed. There was a time when builder and architect were the same profession. You can see such decision making in old churches where an extra pillar and less symmetrical structure reveals this kind of organic approach – evidence of decisions being made as the building went up, accommodating new demands as they arose. Obviously the technology we have available today means we can predict future problems and through various advanced digital software can calculate the strength of structures and materials. However the relationship between architects/designers and builders could have gone too far the other way, to a point that builders have little or no investment in the buildings they are constructing, caring very little about the vision of the whole building and from my experience cutting corners with detail. I’m not talking about lack of standards, but a lack of uniformed vision and concern for the whole, connecting one material, object, architectural feature and process with another fluidly, with a vision that relates to the original design but goes beyond the screen to the real, evolving as it grows in actual space.
I often look at buildings going up in London – they seem to have landed like space ships, as if they could take off as quickly as they docked. They do not grow out of the ground, but are constructed and hover in space (which is interesting in itself!), frames and structures go up and lastly sections of cladding added to the outside to create surfaces, that can ‘look like’ brick, solid stone, ceramics and so on, and yet this illusion is only sometimes millimeters thick rather than the actual building material thickness! – I’m sure a good strategy to build things quickly and more economically. You may say what is the difference; it looks the same – but look carefully. For example, a slab of clad replica brick constructed like a jigsaw in a factory away from the building site appears very different to a brick wall built ‘with’ actual bricks on site, from the bottom upwards by a bricklayer. The first is a form stuffed with bricks and the second is built brick. The brick in the second behaves like brick traditionally does, each brick responsive to the cement and brick layer below and on top, and as the builder constructs the wall this way he/she is making decisions in response to the material the brick is made of and materials in proximity, whereas the first set of bricks, made in a factory as large cladded sections was probably constructed horizontally, rather than vertically and glued together with resin rather than mortar. These large slabs of brick formations are then attached and hung to the building facades, looking all the same, each a replica of the other panel of bricks, the cement between the bricks un compressed by the lack of weight from the layer of bricks being placed on top.
So, if you look carefully at such buildings – there is a brick wall, but not one that sits on the ground but floats in the space defined by the digital environment rather than the physical one. One is probably no better than the other – just different. So, when you encounter contemporary urban architecture explore the brickwork and the way the material has been put together, as it will reveal a lot about the journey of design to realization, and the tools that have been used.