Participants in the opening materials-themed panel discussion, from left: Kiel Moe, AIA (moderator), Jan Knippers, Gail Peter Borden, FAIA, Skylar Tibbits, and Sheila Kennedy, FAIA.
Harvard Graduate School of Design / Jennifer Girard Participants in the opening materials-themed panel discussion, from left: Kiel Moe, AIA (moderator), Jan Knippers, Gail Peter Borden, FAIA, Skylar Tibbits, and Sheila Kennedy, FAIA.

Conferences about architectural materials are largely consensus-based events. Organized by topic, lecture panels tend to reinforce agreed-upon themes such as the benefits of low-embodied energy or the anticipated proliferation of responsive materials. Yet at the Adaptive Architectures and Smart Materials Conference, held earlier this month in Chicago, debate was privileged over consensus with regard to material approaches in design. After all, the burgeoning field of material technology is ever more complex, diverse, and uncertain, and requires architects to engage its many challenging themes in meaningful ways.

Hosted by Harvard University's Graduate School of Design on the eve of the Chicago Biennial, the annual alumni-focused event featured two days of lectures and a day of local architecture tours. Conference organizer Eric Höweler, AIA, a principal at Boston-based Höweler + Yoon Architecture and an assistant professor of architecture at Harvard, called the speaker lineup a “fantasy football team” of thought leaders in architecture and engineering. And although the assemblage of experts found agreement on many topics during the event, the most memorable moments exposed conflicting opinions and unresolved questions about building technology and design approaches. Below are four points of divergence that emerged at the conference and stand to influence future applications of material technologies in architecture.

1. To pursue or abandon light construction?

The conference’s first panel (for which I was a panelist) explored contemporary material innovations through the lens of recent architectural history. Miami-based architect and curator Terence Riley, AIA, introduced the session by revisiting the “Light Construction” exhibition he curated at the Museum of Modern Art, which ran from September 1995 to January 1996 and helped lay the groundwork for the themes of transparency, luminosity, and lightness evident in recent design works by the likes of Toyo Ito, Hon. FAIA, Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, and Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. Architect and theorist Todd Gannon followed with a reflection on his The Light Construction Reader (The Monacelli Press, 2002), a compilation of related writings and an expanded collection of similar works, while historian Eve Blau sharpened the focus on lightness with an in-depth analysis of Tokyo-based SANAA’s Glass Pavilion (below) at the Toledo Museum of Art, in Ohio.

Inside SANAA's Glass Pavilion.
Inside SANAA's Glass Pavilion.

Fellow panelist and architecture critic Aaron Betsky summarily denounced the light-construction approach, critiquing its emphasis on advanced technologies and expensive details. Arguing that architects should no longer design wholly new buildings, Betsky advocated instead for adapting existing materials and contexts to new uses. His point is certainly well taken—we have no choice but to be more resourceful and to creatively reuse existing materials. Perhaps the new, what I’ll call “crude-tech,” aesthetic that Betsky promoted will gain traction in some circles. 

Still, much can be appreciated in the refinement, precision, and evanescence of the works that Riley and others shared, and certainly intersections can be found among approaches of lightness and resourcefulness.

2. Should internal or external forces determine material agency?

During the next session, which covered material agency in structures, engineer Jan Knippers described his work with biologically inspired fiber-based composites and robot-driven fabrication processes at the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE) at the University of Stuttgart, in Germany. He included several examples of kinematic systems based on studies of plant movements, including the dynamic facade he engineered for Soma’s 2012 One Ocean pavilion at the Yeosu World Exposition in South Korea. By way of contrast, MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab director Skylar Tibbits discussed his group’s work with self-assembling materials. Claiming that there is “no top-down design or construction in nature,” Tibbits said he focuses primarily on programmable materials that transform themselves over time or automatically form larger structures when in proximity to each other, as opposed to requiring external forces for processing or construction. Both approaches are potent methods for harnessing natural wisdom in the designed environment, but whether the intended action should be triggered from within or without remains an intriguing question for material fabrication and building construction.

Soma One Ocean's dynamic, rippling facade is visible across the causeway at the Yeosu World Exposition in 2012.

3. Architecture: static or dynamic?

The third panel expanded the discussion of material performance in architecture. New York–based façade consulting firm Front Inc.'s founding partner Marc Simmons threw down a proverbial gauntlet by criticizing the use of kinetic systems in architecture. Claiming that people adapt much more than buildings do, he explained the inherent complexities in designing non-static building envelopes. “I have trouble doing an operable window that doesn’t leak,” Simmons declared before calling out dynamic assemblies as being excessively costly, maintenance-prone endeavors.

Simmons was followed by artist and engineer Chuck Hoberman, an inventor of transformable structures and a variety of kinetic building façade systems through his New York–based practice Hoberman Associates. Acknowledging their differences, Hoberman nevertheless championed the exploration of surface kinetics as a way to bring new capabilities to buildings. Showing multiple built works including the light-filtering 2009 Pola Ginza façade, in Tokyo, and the glare-reducing envelope for the 2010 Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Hoberman made the case for adaptive, modulating surfaces to reduce overall energy consumption and enhance user control.

This argument will continue to play out in the field of building construction, as sophisticated kinetic systems gain momentum for their potential to reduce a building’s energy consumption and therefore its costs, as well as to incorporate findings from new biomimicry research. However, any developments will likely be hampered by concerns about frequent maintenance and increased risk.

Audience Q+A during Harvard Design: Chicago
Harvard Graduate School of Design / Jennifer Girard Audience Q+A during Harvard Design: Chicago

4. Should structures reveal or conceal their technological innovation?

The final panel considered the range of energy and resource concerns in design. The speaker line-up of German engineer Matthias Schuler along with Martin Henn, partner at Germany-based global architecture firm Henn, Michael Meredith, AIA, principal of New York–based Mos Architects, Jeanne Gang, FAIA, founding principal of Chicago-based Studio Gang, and Frank Barkow, founder of Berlin and New York–based Barkow Leibinger, began the discussion in agreement that technological approaches in architecture should be driven by an ecologically aware design process. “Smart materials cannot replace smart concept and design,” said Schuler, who later added that architects' “responsibility is not about technology; it's about ecology.”

Yet the speakers were at odds about how technology should be visibly expressed. Prompted by a question from panel moderator and co-founder of New York–based SO-IL, Florian Idenburg, Assoc. AIA, as to whether material innovation should be revealed or hidden in a structure's design, Barkow advocated concealment, using his self-insulated concrete with integral panel heating as an example of how such technology can manifest simply within a sophisticated building assembly. Gang countered that innovation should be put on display. “I like to understand what the forces are doing and what the materials are achieving,” she said. “It gives you more information to process.” This age-old disagreement depends largely on context and, as a result, is highly circumstantial. Knowledge of when to reveal or conceal the presence of technology may be one of architects' most essential skills, and yet this kind of wisdom is rarely taught explicitly. It’s my opinion that architects should generally seek new modes of expression through new technologies, as it allows them to stay current and make concomitant contributions to the field.

Due to the many diverging viewpoints, the conference did not culminate with a singular message but instead raised a new set of questions. And that was the event’s greatest contribution. More than the caliber of speakers or projects shown, the critical questions raised—whether light construction should be pursued or abandoned, whether material agency should originate from external or internal forces, whether architecture should be a static or dynamic enterprise, and whether we should reveal or conceal technological innovation—stand to define the next chapter of technological pursuits in architecture.

In the words of American science fiction writer and critic Catherynne Valente, the future is “a messy, motley business,” which is why there are no easy answers, and why thought-provoking discourse can be so invigorating.