Polymorphic Matter: A post-mechanistic material approach
by Manuel Kretzer, 15 March 2013
New visions on architecture and urbanism were often accompanied or driven by radical technological developments, material innovations or dramatic changes in politics, society and economy. Based on their manifestation and visual character they are implicit in various architectural styles, each more or less representative of a certain period over the course of time. Today's society however, and especially the self-expression of the individual, be it in fashion, music or art, is extremely diverse, profound and interminable and therefore difficult to be classified as a single and defined image of our era. Similarly the abundant availability of information, the rapid emergence of new technologies, the great variety of available materials and the inconsistency in combining these to create new spaces for a rapidly growing and evolving population leads to a confusion of architectural styles, which do not manage to reflect recent technological developments.
As a consequence, and in order to perpetuate norms, quantifiable values and consistency, an innumerous amount of databases, catalogues and libraries are emerging, which sometimes seem to oversimplify their content for the sake of comparability. In the field of architecture and design this becomes especially obvious in the attitude towards materials. While material explorers certainly provide a profound database and offer various ways to search and sort materials in relation to specific properties and applications, through portraying materials as flat entities they also further the preference of the surface which results in a usage that reminds more of applying textures in CAD programs than a thorough understanding of materiality. Furthermore material attributes, no matter how homogeneous or solid they might appear, are under no means finite, since they are always built-up from certain mechanisms occurring at atomic or microscopic scales, which in turn are dependent on the intrinsic bonds of its particular chemical elements.
Similar to the prevalent generalization of materiality, spatial design and the arrangement of rooms or even buildings is still very much tied to rules and proportional norms, which are very much based on the concept of an average human in terms of proportion, interest and behavior. This is surprisingly striking since we are actually all different, and it's predominantly our individuality and personality, which defines our identity. This desire for self-expression, to stand out from the masses of similarity, becomes even more evident in regards to young and future generations, who dedicate an immense importance to independence, flexibility, connectivity and customization.
Although throughout the history of architecture there have been several attempts in creating more personalized spaces, like for example the ideas of visionaries like Yona Friedman or Constant Nieuwenhuys, who proposed systems, which would allow for transient occupations and participative modification, architectural design is still a largely dictatorial domain with the architect superimposing his ideas of form, function and aesthetics over the immanent needs and desires of constantly evolving individuals. This even applies to efforts in adaptive architectures, which unfortunately either remain on a purely conceptual level, like for example Cedric Price's Fun Palace, or become spectacular showpieces celebrating gigantic mechanisms and the mastery of well-established technologies. But the main reason why kinetic systems haven't yet established themselves within the private domain is probably as much related to costs as to their huge structural impact - or simply on the fact that people don't see buildings as "machines for living in" (Le Corbusier, 1923).
However, I think there is a possibility to resolve this mechanistic dilemma, namely through the use of smart materials, which allow the unification of physicality and virtuality as tangible representations of information technology in active spaces without mechanical complexity.
Within the research of the materiability research network at the Chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design (CAAD), ETH Zürich, a wide range of (smart) composite materials and their inherent properties are analyzed for their feasibility in an architectural context. Besides an interest in their softness, immateriality and organic appearance (ShapeShift, 2010), which - at least subjectively - seem more appropriate for human environments, than machines do, a strong focus is dedicated to direct physical contact with the materials and their manual reproduction in collaboration with experts of the respective fields (Actuated Matter, 2011). Since many of these materials are actually based on rather simple instructions, they are fairly easy to reproduce as long as efficiency and durability don't become crucial factors. This approach not only provides a chance to explicitly express one's personality through the process of creative making but also gives an identity to the final result as each element can be different to the previous one.
While researching how these materials might be combined with "traditional" materials, as active structures and surfaces (Animated Textiles, 2012), another aspect that is currently investigated is the possibility to merge these materials into self-sufficient systems, treating their interrelations more like ecologies than mechanisms. In that context "Phototropia" has been realized in April 2012 by the Master of Advanced Studies class at the Chair for CAAD. The project combines self-made electro-active polymers, screen-printed electroluminescent displays, eco-friendly bioplastics and thin-film dye-sensitized solar cells into an autonomous installation that produces its required energy from sunlight and - when charged - responds to user presence through moving and illuminating elements.
This liberation from prefabricated components and predetermined systems, standards or classifications through inspiration equally found in natural systems as well as information technologies, and a design agenda that tries to understand (dynamic) material properties to develop assemblies based on their unique opportunities while still leaving room for unpredictability, failure and even chaos, not only changes the way we create (responsive) spaces but might also lead to a more vibrant, faster changing architecture that can decay while simultaneously being renewed and adjusted. Since this approach is very much driven by continuously growing online communities and the open access to knowledge and information it likewise demands to make these new materials and technologies more available and to break the highly scientific myth that surrounds them to pave the path for a physical digitalism as a potential means for self-expression and self-reflection for future citizens.
Manuel Kretzer is a researcher and educator at the Chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design (CAAD), ETH Zurich. He is responsible for coordinating and leading the postgraduate Master of Advanced Studies class’s digital design and production modules. His doctoral research aims at the notion of a soft and dynamic architecture with a specific focus on new (smart) material performance. He is also partner at responsive design studio, based in Zurich and Cologne, a collective with special interest in vivid architectural geometries that interact with their user. Just recently he co-founded the materiability research network, an educational platform that brings together various disciplines engaged in the use and potential of smart materials in architecture and design.