Mind & Matter


Strategies for Material Innovation

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Interior of the Za Koenji Theater by Toyo Ito, one of the case studies included in Material Strategies. (Photo by the author.)

Innovation is widely recognized as being important to architecture—yet, what puzzles me is that there is little pedagogy or praxis developed specifically around innovation. In the area of materials and methods, the lack of knowledge about how architects can successfully transcend convention aesthetically, technologically, culturally, and environmentally is particularly notable.

In architectural curricula, material education typically occurs within a building technology sequence, in which students are given information about basic material properties and conventional approaches. Students are exposed to canonical precedents but are not often taught the significance of the particular material achievements of those examples. Learning the foundations is necessary to articulate a more sophisticated vocabulary; however, the rote following of traditional practices practically ensures an unremarkable result.

Architectural practice is worse: in the majority of offices, there is no established discipline or method for material innovation—despite the widespread belief in its importance. Moreover, material methods are often discussed purely within a technological context, although the implications of material decisions also affect a broad set of conceptual, theoretical, and design conditions.

This lack of focus on innovation in materials is something I have attempted to address in a new book entitled Material Strategies: Innovative Applications in Architecture. The book, which is a part of the Architecture Briefs series published by Princeton Architectural Press, does not follow the typical materials and methods “how to” model—but rather seeks to transcend it. Naturally, standards and conventions exist for a reason, and must be studied. However, we know that architecture that simply follows convention is not worthy of much attention; nor does it make an important contribution. Therefore, this book is meant to provide valuable insights about how architects can pursue innovative material practices and make significant work as a result.

The book is organized by general material categories, and includes historic summaries, modern precedents, environmental considerations, emerging technologies and applications, as well as case studies of notable contemporary projects. I hope that the book will become a valuable resource to architects and architecture students pursuing the important goal of material innovation in architecture.



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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.