Mind & Matter


Mind Over Matter

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I didn’t care much about materials in architecture school. Sure, my classmates and I made the most of our compulsory brick-laying or concrete-pouring exercises—but we were more interested in form-making and “big ideas.” As a result, materiality was an infrequent topic in design studio.

That all changed for me after graduation, however, when I was given the chance to research building products for an important public project. I faced a steep learning curve, and quickly became overwhelmed by the thorough process required to ensure successful material selection and specification. However, I was also hooked. My preliminary foray into materials research revealed many new and exciting technologies for architecture—many of which the “old guard” had never heard about.

I should add here that in several of the architecture offices where I worked, conservative product selection and application were givens. A house design would default to wood studs and siding, a school would automatically appear with a steel frame clad in brick, and an office building would be assumed to have a post-tensioned concrete frame with precast panels. After a while, you came to know the basic systems, their dimensions and tolerances, the stack of standard details in the drawer, and the small degree of options left for the “designer” to manipulate. (I remember once being asked to choose between two ugly samples of beige dryvit; when I said I liked neither, the project architect replied, “You have to choose one—you’re the designer!”)

Luckily, this time has come and gone. Like me, many other architects and designers have become infatuated with the untapped possibilities of new material applications. Moreover, the extraordinarily influential sustainable design movement has shaken things up, rendering that stack of standard details as questionable if not obsolete. If there is one thing that the LEED rating system has accomplished, it has awoken us from our short-sighted stupor and alerted us to a wider array of more meaningful and responsible choices.

However, our work has only just begun. Clearly, it is not enough to check boxes on a scorecard or specify a trendy new material for a project. We want to know why we should choose one material over another, what makes a product truly “green,” which building systems will stand up to the uncertain forces of climate change, and what materials will avoid looking like silly fads in the future. In addition, we want to understand the deeper meaning that materials hold, their influence on our psyche, and the mysterious connections between new technologies and social transformation. For me, this is where the real magic happens—when the palpable object of architecture can affect a series of positive outcomes that extend far beyond the physical constraints of its site.

As I reflect on the post-architecture school years, I know that the “big ideas” that captured our attention as students have really never disappeared. They are simply struggling to find the most meaningful tangible form. As we engage in the daunting yet worthwhile pursuit of creating meaning within our constructed world, I hope that Mind & Matter will offer some insights along the way. It should be a fun ride.




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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.