Saturday, 16 August 2014

In praise of pretence

My last post on porous glass prompted me to look at other explorations of emergent exotic materials. While the hygroscopic buffering plaster of my previous post emerged from the high-powered research at the Fraunhofer Institute, a much bigger body of experimental work is going on all the time, in what might be called the 'materiality' studios of architecture and design schools.

As readers of this blog would know, I am little bit obsessed with the way that the knowledge base of architecture grows. And that on the whole, I am highly critical of the way that the culture of architecture gets in the way of both growth and the appropriately rigorous application of architectural knowledge. So this idea – that experimentation with materials occurs in a setting which owes as much to the art historicist tradition as to that of modern empirical science – is a bit of a philosophical challenge for me.
I don't want to pick on the work of one person unfairly, but this post on archdaily highlights the issues:

'Merging Bamboo; Concrete for the Emerging World' sounds wonderful.  The article is by Hannah Ahlblad, a recent graduate of Wellesley College, reporting on her work in a semester-long emergent materials elective taught by Professor John E. Fern├índez, Director of MIT’s Building Technology Program. In view of what I am going to say next, it is important to note the author credit; this person is describing her own work, it isn't some sort of editorial mash-up. I also note that she may be deliberately writing for what she receives is a populist medium, and that her actual academic report may be a lot more rigorous.

Moving from the easy enough observation that bamboo is a prevalent and versatile construction material in the developing world, Ahlbad identifies the gap in prestige as a building material compared to imported steel and concrete. It is a simple but important thesis. She cites prominent architects , like Steven Holl and Kengo Kuma undertaking beautiful experiments with bamboo in contemporary form, without pushing their creative approaches into mainstream construction. One would expect then, her own work to explicitly address that issue.

The bottom line is that she doesn’t.  At least based on her own article, she appears to move glibly and uncritically into exactly the same mode of producing two or three prototypes at the scale of minor urban sculptures – or more appropriately compared to those artistic bus stops by famous architects in an Austrian village. It photographs well, but it is hard to imagine how it will generalise to address the problems she herself identifies.

That said, I ask myself whether that is the exact point?  If I have trouble imagining novel and radical solutions, so do most people, including the material scientists and those engaged in engineering research.  Maybe it has always been the role of artists, to be naive but enthusiastic.  Maybe these academic studios are exactly the setting in which a whole bunch of obsessed enthusiasts can afford to do work that they enjoy, and which by its sheer quantity and momentum keeps pushing the boundaries of what can be imagined.

So what can I say? I could continue to be negative.  And particularly I could argue that this kind of work is intrinsically elitist, its primary purpose to produce an accumulation of photogenic prototypes to support a first world university professor.  But on balance, I think that would be quite unfair. The reality is that by engaging the minds of some of our finest students with these problems, we are contemplating real outcomes any time in the next 40 to 50 years of their professional lives.

Read the original article here.

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