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05.05.2011
Review> Inventing the Future
Yuki Bowman on Material Beyond Materials Conference at SCI-Arc.
High-tech polymers like North Sails' 3Di are commonplace in competative sailing, but are just beginning to take hold in architecture.
Courtesy SCI-Arc/Marcelo Spina

Material Beyond Materials
A Composite Tectonics Conference on Advanced Materials and Digital Manufacturing
Southern California Institute of Architecture

The enduring debate over the deployment of new materials in architecture—for formal experimentation, performance innovation, or both—found a contemporary angle at SCI-Arc’s Material Beyond Materials conference in late March. While the conference drew heavily on the engineering and fabrication industries, offering a refreshing emphasis on real-world applications and case study analyses, the form/function inquiry concluded the conference on a somewhat open-ended note.

Architecture’s anticipated adoption of high-tech composites employed in the sailing, automotive, and aeronautics industries recalls the early-20th century incorporation of industrial steel, whose comparative strength, cost, and weight redefined the terms of architectural space. But the ability to manipulate new composites makes the current conversation about their role in architecture unique. On the one hand, most industrial composites are engineered for a very specific function—take North Sails’ 3Di, an adhesive fiber tape technology being developed for one purpose: racing performance. When applied to an architectural context, however, the strength and plasticity of these materials annul traditional material and tectonic constraints, offering architects and designers seemingly infinite formal freedom.

When confronted with such possibilities, architects can no longer draw on historical precedent to ask brick, à la Louis Kahn, what it “wants” to be. Traditional material and tectonic limits may eventually be supplanted by a new set of design values, completely shifting the architect’s creative decisions and responsibilities.

As always, there is the risk of over-radicalizing the present, as Bill Kreysler’s (of Kreysler & Associates) slide of a primitive straw-clay wall suggested. Composites have likely been around for as long as humans have been making shelter. But the control with which we can now engineer material is revolutionary, even if that control is the result of an imperfect experiment fraught with both success and failure.

The conference’s most approachable presenters conveyed the exhilaration of this risk-taking process. Wolfgang Rieder’s ‘fibreC’ panels (glassfiber-reinforced concrete) resulted from years of iteration and refinement, but his efforts now define the curvilinear skins of Zaha Hadid’s Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion and Boogertman & Partners  Johannesburg’s 2010 World Cup Stadium. Other explorations are coming from Kreysler & Associates, whose acoustic fiberglass reinforced plastic wall panels line San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall designed by SOM. Similarly, 3Form’s architectural division, spearheaded in 2004 by Ruben Suare, one of the conference panelists, was instrumental in developing the translucent wood that clads Diller Scofidio + Renfo’s Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center.

Despite evidence of such advances, there was still a sense of unmet possibility for the dynamic qualities of advanced materials. Here, the discussion turned away from both form and function to address the physics of the environment and the behavior of matter. Michelle Addington, author of Smart Materials and Technologies in Architecture, encouraged further exploration of responsive composites such as electrochromic glass, which changes opacity with the application of voltage. In a similar vein, Achim Menges’ research addressed how wood’s natural reaction to changes in humidity can be exploited to create an animated skin. High-speed video footage of his delicate wood screens makes them appear to breathe.

The conference’s concluding remarks, by Marcelo Spina, Evan Douglis, Greg Lynn, Michelle Addington, and Achim Menges, rearticulated the central concern: to what end should architecture pursue new materials, and how and when will they become a larger part of practice? Most panelists seemed to agree that their application for form-making alone was superficial at worst, and efficient at best. There was disagreement, however, about the value of research efforts focused on existing materials like wood, compared to the benefit of innovating new materials from scratch. Although such skepticism bolstered the future-thinking fervor, it also belied an assumed tension between tradition and novelty, and discounted the possibility that research and control at the molecular scale may reveal unforeseen performance potentials of any material, “natural” or manufactured.  

Despite its diverse perspectives, the conference drew to a close with general agreement on several issues that will continue to arise as new materials develop, such as the need for software that better embeds material properties and fabrication workflow within the design process, and the need to diminish the distance between the architectural profession and the fabrication and manufacturing industries.

Panelists also acknowledged that while small-scale experimentation on new materials and fabrication techniques exists, in order for these innovations to find a use within a larger architectural context they must become culturally relevant beyond their ability to allow architects to, as Greg Lynn said, “realize their renderings.”

Yuki Bowman