In architectural education and practice, the notion of appropriateness drives material selection. Louis Kahn’s parable of the brick embodies this presumption: By insisting it is used in an arch rather than in a lintel, the brick tacitly rebukes the application of a material beyond its original and arguably best intent.
Unfortunately, this approach limits innovation. Although Kahn was an innovator, his parable reinforces standard construction methods. Yet history is replete with buildings celebrated for exhibiting unexpected uses of materials. Take Gordon Bunshaft’s stone windows in the Beinecke Library, in New Haven, Conn., or the paper tube columns of Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA.
This strategy becomes more provocative when applied to mundane materials. For the undulating masonry walls of the Plinthos pavilion by Athens-based Mab Architects, bricks stand in shiner fashion, exposing their multicellular cores. LED torches behind the walls transmit the silhouettes of figures beyond, leading visitors to the realization that the solid wall they are approaching is largely void.
Designer Kouichi Okamoto’s “Form of Light Force Transmission” installation shifts a material’s intended application beyond recognition. Okamoto uses solder as a primary surfacing material rather than a connective medium. After heating solder in a container, he slowly and methodically dripped the molten metal on a wood panel. Over time, the solder drips coalesced, creating a dappled, blurred mirror surface that Okamoto then peeled off the substrate and hung on wall panels. Finally, he used the metal skins to conduct electricity by clipping the installation’s light fixtures and wires to them.
At the MIT Media Lab, the Silk Pavilion incorporates both an unconventional material and production process in design and construction. After project director and professor Neri Oxman and her team programmed a robotic arm to weave a panelized armature from silk threads based on the cocoon-building movements of silkworms, they then set 6,500 live caterpillars free atop the fibrous scaffolding to complete the structure with their own silk deposits. Thus, the insects contributed to the project’s inspiration, material, and subcontracting services.
Experimental works do not face the same requirements of permanent structures, such as waterproofing or insulation. But they do require more research and development, and they provide a great bed for testing preliminary ideas. The misuse of materials can result in surprises and increase the resource efficiency between conventionally disparate material flows. As architectural critic and writer Reyner Banham advocated, “The greatest of all environmental powers is thought, and the usefulness of thought?…?is precisely that it dissolves what architecture has been made of to date: customary forms.”