I left the first Meaning in Materials talk at the RA feeling vaguely troubled. Entitled Material Concerns: A New Dilemma or Age-old Question, it involved four speakers forensically examining some of the intellectual questions surrounding our use of materials today, and left me a little lost.
Adrian Forty asked, What is it that architects are supposed to do with materials? He then divided the answers into two opposing camps. Firstly, to allow materials to speak, to draw attention to them. Secondly, to make one forget the material so that other qualities (space, symbolism) can come forward.
A fascinating range of references were used in the presentations that followed. Katie Lloyd Thomas argued that the role of the written specification in architectural practice reflects and reinforces the contemporary relationship to materials, primarily described in terms of behaviours and parameters. Her history of the specification was highly enlightening.
As well as procurement and contracts, the engineering of materials – distinct from manufacture through human labour – has influenced our semiotic reading of materials, something the artist Martin Westwood felt had been insufficiently acknowledged. He went to the moon (via Foster & Partners’ designs) to prove the point.
Tom Coward defined our way of life as living in an augmented reality and suggested the future of materials, and architectural practice, will inevitably be transformed by this condition. He speculated on how this relates to traditional questions of morality and ethics, and the future of design itself.
Architects in practice, who are familiar with materials as composite engineered products, feel burdened with the legacy of modernism’s “truth to materials” and post-modernism’s shallow surface treatments.
Perhaps we are struggling to find a meaningful engagement suited to the present, as this excellent event highlighted. But the direction of the future? I, for one, am still puzzling after an answer.
This article first appeared on bdonline on 13 October 2014