The Death of the Shelf

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Installation: Jasper de Haan.

When buildings are no longer limited to manufactured products, will buildings feel less architectural and more atmospheric?

The “state of the shelf,” a familiar term among product manufacturers, refers to constraints set by what materials are available on the market. Electronics makers, for example, often innovate by assembling readily available components in novel ways.

If ever there were an industry defined by the state of the shelf, it’s construction. Architects and builders rely on what can be specified from product catalogs and rarely have an opportunity to think—or build—outside the box. Hence, the modernist mantra “form follows function” really should have been “form follows industry.” Mies was influenced more by the industrial market of plate glass and wide-flange steel than by anything else.

True innovation will alter the entire design and construction process so that we’ll no longer think of form and matter separately. As I wrote back in 2002, in Why the Future of Architecture Doesn’t Need Us, nanotechnology, for example, eventually could allow designers to specify performance independently of product choices: “Standard, irreducible components, such as the 2 X 4, the brick, steel shapes, nails and screws, will be replaced by microscopic parts. Form, texture, color, and strength would be defined at the cellular level. Orthogonal geometry, demanded for efficiency by standard frame construction, could disappear altogether.”

The “state of the shelf” will no longer matter, because there won’t be a shelf.


Comments (6 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:22 AM Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Lance...It appears that your blog may be going away here? If so it's been a pleasure dialoguing with you!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:18 PM Thursday, January 06, 2011

    Maybe limited by the time of his time, not the imagination; hindsight is 20-20. The language of a "nanobot" would be whatever it is programmed to do, and GIGO (garbage in garbage out); i.e. it depends on how well it is programed by the architect. Thus, the nature of these materials is no different than the nature of materials Wright talked about; it's just at a different scale. Can they morph/conglomerate into a variety of different shapes? Yes, but this is within the rules given to it by the designer. If were talking about the material taking shapes it intuits by itself then we're talking about artificial intelligence and mass customization when the customizer is the entity in itself, which is an intriguing yet I'm afraid very far off (sci-fi) proposition; and the idea of a material intuiting under a very large set of given (designed, programmed) parameters/rules is very different than a material creating it's own rules even based on certain programmed/designed parameters. The later I'm afraid could have serious unintended consequences unless the possible derivations are contained within a known field of safe range of possible permutations; but how might we know what is possible until the entire field of possibilities is analyzed, and how they do correlate with other materials; can they synthesize and become tertiary and thus infinitely numerous in variety; herein lies the real danger.

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  • Posted by: Lance Hosey | Time: 9:46 AM Friday, December 24, 2010

    See the article at my link ("Why the Future of Architecture Doesn't Need Us"). Wright's concepts were inspired but limited by the imagination of his time. On the one hand, he defined "organic architecture" as "building the way nature builds," which is exactly how nanotechnology works--assembling coded material at the cellular scale, just like genetic evolution. On the other hand, Wright also felt that architecture should stem from the inherent "nature" of its materials: "Each material speaks a language of its own." But what is the "language" of a nanobot? Miscroscopic materials have no visible vocabulary. I don't know if Wright would have been excited or deeply troubled by today's emerging techniques.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:09 PM Monday, December 20, 2010

    I believe Wright was on to this years ago when he said that "form and function are one." The day when we have a nanotechnology derived super-material that can solve all or most of our problems, I'm afraid, is a long way away. Until then optimizing the off-the-shelf kit-of-parts is the best way to proceed.

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  • Posted by: BellesArchitecture | Time: 3:50 PM Monday, December 20, 2010

    I wish you could be right on this. Belles Architecture in Rockford IL recently worked on an interior remodeling in a 100 year old, 13 story building. ALL the existing door knobs were emblazoned with the initials of the building. On a recent trip to Chicago, seen at we observed the initials of the architect on the facade at the Sullivan center. We could only hope to be so bold with our clients. Unfortunately, I fear the public is wanting to purchase entire buildings out of the catalogs (hence the any city USA look). The motivation, I think, is time. As a society we simply don't make the time to do custom work-everything must be from the shelf.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:43 PM Monday, December 20, 2010

    Lance your right on. Paulo Soleri addressed a seminar for architects in the mid 1960"s where he challenged students to get rid of the sweet's catalogues & go to your local lumber yard. hardware store. brickyard etc. to get your inspiration from basic materials. He followed the sermon with pictures of Arcosanti in Scottsdale where he used starched denim over site cut poplar trees to form his beautiful bell studio. I think this is the time for architects to shine, if they can get back to basics, think innovative & detail the hell out every possibility. I coined the phrase 'piano solution' several years ago when I discussed architects ; approach to a perfect design solution. The piano has a limited repeated octave but we haven't seen the last beautiful song in over thousands of years. I've also coined the phrase Architects...Poets of the built environment' Lets start playing the part. Curtis L Biggar Architect.CGP

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About the Blogger

Lance Hosey

thumbnail image Contributing editor and author of ARCHITECT’s monthly Eco column, Lance Hosey, AIA, LEED AP, Hon. FIGP, is president and CEO of GreenBlue, a nonprofit and consultancy dedicated to environmental innovation and the creative redesign of industry. A registered architect, he is a former director at William McDonough + Partners. With Kira Gould, he is the co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (2007). His forthcoming book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, studies how form and image can enhance conservation, comfort, and community at every scale of design, from products to cities.