The contemporary notion that what is called “research” should be an important component of every architectural practice is one that deserves further interrogation. If we think of research as something done by scholars, academics, and social scientists then what takes place in most architecture offices is most often little more than public relations or simply the instrumental steps in the creation of a design for a building. It is often the case that architecture offices are developing new ideas of building production (like BIM, digital fabrication, 3D printing, etc.) but even these tend to be aimed at specific design projects with clients and therefore not concerned with general professional or goals of the discipline. There is one area however where architects are doing primary research: the development of materials and how they impact design and are themselves changed through creative form making. In issue number seven of the architecture fanzine P.E.A.R. (Paper for Emerging Architectural Research), which comes from a London group of academics, architects, and the Royal Academy of Arts, they call this type of practice “material research” and investigate new models in its evolution. Architects, Adrian Forty argues in his P.E.A.R. essay, have always cared about construction materials, even as he quotes William Morris, who wrote that architects were falsifying their use and meaning—making one thing seem to be another.
This is true, Forty goes on, even if they “make a show of not caring, as Peter Eisenman famously did with his ‘house series.’” In fact, Forty’s concise yet thorough essay makes the point that there is no such thing as a “pure” material—all are the result of mixing human labor with substance “whether naturally-occurring or synthetic.” But his principle point and an important one for contemporary practice is that today digital fabrication has nearly eliminated human labor from the work of processing materials while making infinite variation possible. Architects now, he contends, can more fully concentrate on “what materials are used for—upon the end results.”
The leading edge in architecture ten to 15 years ago were those architects creating primarily in the digital field and staying there, as they were unable to build what they could imagine on the computer. But the students of these mostly academic practitioners have taken their ideas and are now slowly applying them to new and old materials to create a dizzyingly array of spaces, installations, and built forms. Some of these young architects have left the design studio and opened fabrication shops (most with their own CNC milling machines) where, applying the skills they learned in school, they work directly on and with materials. These practices are doing some of the most interesting work in the architectural field. Further, some of these workshops are in fact hybrid studio/machine shops, and thus are able to dig deep into the meaning and use of materials to create new forms and ideas for installation proposals and/or buildings when approached by other architects.
We are, it seems, only at the beginning of this design phenomena and for this reason The Architect’s Newspaper began three years ago its Facades+ conferences where we highlight the leading edge of new research and technological advancement in the field. The material that is most often considered in the Facades+ seminars is glass and its use in curtain walls. In fact, glass, both through industrial and professional research, is perhaps the single most developed material in the building world in the last 20 years, which may explain its ubiquity both in corporate and small scale design in every climatic condition from desert to alpine conditions. The recent Facades+ conference in Los Angeles featured James Carpenter, whose creative glass research, as a consultant to SOM, for the curtain wall of 7 World Trade Center in New York makes him one of the leading practitioners and glass researchers in the field. We will be reporting on Carpenter’s lecture in our next issue, along with other highlights from the conference and beyond.