Intensive and Extensive differences

by Christina Doumpioti, 05 December 2011

In their book ‘Atlas of Novel Tectonics’ the architects Reiser and Umemoto, point out the necessity of a new perception of a matter and energy relationship, one where the architecture plays a significant role in becoming the mediator between the environment and material expression. They argue for an architecture that is not literally animate, but an architecture that ‘its substance, its scale, its transitions and measurement will be marked by the dilations and contractions of the energy field.’ The primacy of architecture consequently becomes not the ‘myth and interpretation’ but the ‘material and formal specificity’.

By enhancing the primacy of materiality therefore, architecture needs to answer questions of form, functionality and performance not as an ‘illustration or allegory’ or as a visual effect but more as an effect to the spatial perception and experience having both physiological implications as well as psychological ones.

This approach is eventually shifting the primary question of architectural design from what it means to what it does, and how it affects spatial, structural, performative and/ or perceptual qualities.

Since very recently architecture had the tendency of eliminating the material agent as something technical, leaving the ground for conceptual architecture to evolve uninterrupted from the technicalities that it would necessitate. However, in today’s architectural discourse, materials, material attributes and material behaviours have started to gain an essential role in the generation of architectural projects. Although it can be claimed that architecture as a material practice has always been in correlation with material attributes, it is only recently that architects are looking into the potentials that materiality can have on the architectural outcome. Materials are taking a role beyond that of cladding of an already digitally preconceived form.

Another argument that R+U raise is that ‘the new model’ of architecture ‘ must be understood as an interplay between intensive and extensive differences’. Intensive differences can be conceived as gradients, properties of matter that are indivisible, such as weight, elasticity, pressure, heat, density, colour’, while extensive are the properties that can be measured, and to which geometry plays ‘a sovereign role’. The architects conclude that ‘allowing the interplay’ of both intensive and extensive relationships to operate within the architectural domain is important for ‘reconceiving tectonics’. This idea entails the ‘shift of geometry as an abstract regulator’ to ‘the notion that matter and material behaviour must be implicated in geometry itself’.

In this context, materiality comes in tandem with the energies and forces that activate them and tune them. Their manifestation hence is not stemming from relationships between matter and external pressures, lighting conditions, temperature differentials, and wind patterns. The position, organisation and overall role of materials in the making of a building, an artifact or landscape are in correlation with the contextual environment. Materials have their own tendencies and self-organising behaviours as it has already been proven by models and structures made by pioneers such as Otto, Gaudi and Isler among others.

Moreover, today we are presented with a vast variety of materials each one possessing different mechanical attributes, which can be further expanded through fabrication processes. Materials hence can be processed to acquire multiple functionalities, (i.e self-healing concrete, translucent concrete, reinforced concrete) and tailored to locally change their mechanical properties (i.e flexibility, strength, toughness). Material behaviour has also been expanded in the form of dynamic materials such as thermotropic materials that change their optical properties in response to temperature, ferrofluid materials that self-organise in response to magnetic fields, or shape-changing materials that respond to heat or electricity.

The turn to material expression in architecture eventually necessitates the acquirement of a deeper knowledge on material performance and behaviour. In this context, sg2012 is putting forward the question of how material properties can inform architecture and it does so not by mere speculation but through the engagement with materials (traditional materials, dynamic materials, varying material organisation), through the utilisation of different fabrication techniques and in relation to the energies that activate them.

One question that arises is how can the research into new material qualities be incorporated in architectural practice? Which are the new layers of knowledge that need to be investigated in order to expand the micro-scale attributes of materials to the bigger scale of building construction? How can material behaviour and geometrical rules be related to one another without the latter transcending the former and which are the new qualities that we—as architects, designers or engineers- are pursuing in order to inform our built environment?

Christina Doumpioti is PhD Candidate at the Royal College of Art. Her research is focused on passive adaptation and dynamic response of architectural interfaces through the utilisation of composite and responsive materials. She is currently Technical Studies lecturer and tutor at the Architecture Association and Studio Tutor at the University of Brighton. She studied architecture at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and is a registered architect in Greece. She earned her MArch with Distinction in Emergent Technologies and Design, and followed this with a postgraduate course on Computing and Design at UEL. Prior to her academic employment, Christina worked as an architectural assistant and computational consultant at Arup Associates.