Friday 28 February 2014

Metaphysics of materials

The metaphysics of materials
Can our attachments to (and dislike of) materials in the built environment be measured by their positions along the scales of these eight values?
Developed from Adrian Forty's Concrete and Culture

We attach values to everything we engage with around us.  This includes materials in the built environment.  For some reason, perhaps because the built environment is associated with a sense of permanence or because of function, people's collective values associated with materials on buildings are different from those of materials on other objects such as cars or appliances etc.

Also there is a sense of place or belonging which has evolved with building materials because of the long association of these materials in the building industry.  Glass, brick, stone, timber, render etc  are common place and have developed a recognisable presence in the building industry over a very long period.  This is backed by the economics which underlie their place in the building industry:  To establish their presence has been a long and expensive process and to alter this might prove equally expensive.

This might be one reason why we do not see much carbon fibre or GRP in the built environment, or where GRP is used, the material innovation is often hidden to look like stone for example, so not to provoke questions of it's acceptance as a new material in the built environment.  As noted in the pervious post, and in relation to Adrian's earlier book Objects of Desire, changes in the use of materials in the built environment might result from pressures in the building industry (including economic, technical, production, material resources, logistical etc.) as well as aesthetic / intellectual developments from designers.  Changes (usually) have to be understood and accepted by the public.

Adrian Forty's latest book Concrete and Culture looks at the metaphysics of concrete as a building material and ways in which it has been able to reinvent itself as a desirable material in different ways.  These transformations have allowed it to shake off associations of concrete being a 'disliked' building material.  At a UCL lecture to support this work, Adrian sets out eight sets of values to describe how materials in the built environment can be reinvented to gain acceptance with the public.  An adaptation of this is shown in the diagram above.

Adrian's work is a historical account of concrete structures in existence, but could this set of values be used as a design tool by architects to help inform how we handle all materials and choices made in projects currently in design?

The choice of materials and their place in building design does not need to be a completely subjective process.  Concrete and Culture helps to unravel the black art behind the metaphysics of materials and offers strategies for working with this subject in a more objective way, in design practice.

Taking this a step further, could it be used to help establish values for new materials to ease their path to acceptance in the built environment?  Could values be attributed to new materials which are recognisable to the public, reinforce an identity and help to overcome any resistance to change which they might otherwise encounter.

This subject highlights the issue that materials in the built environment need PR management, and it is the correct and conscious handling of this which makes any material which sets out to challenge the established rules, a success or failure.

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