Visitors to the Back Lot—a parking lot turned multipurpose outdoor studio—at the California College of the Arts (CCA), in Oakland, are first greeted by a series of crudely finished columnar forms placed in seemingly random orientations. One boxy, thin-walled structures is broken near its base, the bulk of its height resting on the ground. The resulting cleft exposes the installation’s internal construction, a haphazard amalgam of particulate debris consolidated into panels that are attached to steel support angles. Although unintentional—the column was damaged during shipping—this kind of material failure is one of the highlights of the current CCA exhibition, "Designing Material Innovation," on view through Dec. 22.
Curated by Jonathan Massey, former CCA dean and now the architecture dean at the University of Michigan, "Designing Material Innovation" features five full-scale installations that aim to demonstrate novel material applications for architecture and related disciplines. According to the exhibition website, “these works combine technological innovation in materials research and fabrication with aesthetic and ethical approaches to form and appearance.” Created by teams of academia-affiliated designers and industry partners, the projects showcase a variety of intriguing departures from conventional building blocks, construction methods, and programmatic uses.
The broken column in question is part of the “Clastic Order” installation by University of Michigan–based T+E+A+M. A clever combination of material repurposing and anticipatory archaeology, the work consists of reclaimed construction waste—fragments of masonry, glass, concrete, and piping—bound together in molten plastic. The designers call this hybrid material “plastiglomerate” after the term coined by geologist Patricia Corcoran, marine scientist Charles Moore, and artist Kelly Jazvac to describe rock and other debris found to be fused with melted polymers. According to these researchers, the material represents a new kind of stone resulting entirely from human activity—an “anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record.” T+E+A+M takes a proactive approach to this idea, developing a hypothetical building material composed of a similar set of discarded materials. Thanks to the collapsed column, as well as a couple of demonstration prototypes that include a palette of ingredients, viewers can appreciate the work as a process rather than a product—a provocation that invites us to consider the future of building waste in a visceral way.
Another approach to second life–materiality can be seen in the Polymorph Pavilion created by CCA Digital Craft Lab faculty members Andrew Kudless, David Shook, and Aaron Willette, Assoc. AIA, and their students. This installation consists of a series of large curved panels elevated on particle board supports. Each module exhibits the primary material—repurposed EPS foam from nearby architectural composite-fabricator Kreysler & Associates’ project molds—in a different state of finish. As its title suggests, the Polymorph Pavilion was originally intended to be a completed freestanding structure, a six-legged composite shell designed to function as a shelter for casting projects. The team’s inability to complete the piece before the opening actually benefits the exhibition. The full-size components on display depict the work in various stages of completion: discrete, robotically cut foam blocks held within a frame, blocks pinned and glued into a solid panel, and a finished panel with a red polyurea coating. The heuristic nature of the installation is further emphasized by the presence of stray foam blocks that have migrated out of the first panel—thus inviting viewers to participate in the hands-on process of panel assembly.
For their Thinness Pavilion, Syracuse, N.Y.–based APTUM Architecture and Mexican building materials manufacturer CEMEX created a multi-vaulted structure made of fiber-reinforced concrete modules to explore the potential contradictions between literal and figurative mass. From a distance, the concrete structure appears quite heavy, its supports serving as thick poché that frames narrow openings. In proximity, however, visitors can see that these modules are perforated and hollow, consisting of only 0.5-inch-thick walls. Predictably, a project that pushes material limits in this way has an intriguing process story. Peeking behind the shipping container backdrop, the visitor can find a collection of construction material samples—including a foam panel with lost wax casting blocks (for the perforations), steel molds, and a concrete test module. The unexpected combination of antiquated treatments (lost wax casting) and contemporary approaches (water-jet-cut silicone) reinforces the role that the creative hybridization of methodologies plays in developing novel material practices.
As fulfilling as these works are, exhibition visitors may be left with a few nagging questions. For example, are there themes beyond the open-ended title that unite the participating works? Process and material-testing are seemingly fundamental topics that are profoundly evident in three of the installations; however, the other two are presented as finished products without indications of process. What of the materials themselves? Plastic composites and concrete make a good showing while other materials such as wood or metals are conspicuously absent, but such a categorical focus is likely unintentional. Sustainability gets a mention in the exhibition brief, but the predominance of petroleum-derived and carbon-intensive materials—even in a repurposed capacity—is never questioned.
Furthermore, an ambitious title like “Designing Material Innovation” certainly elevates expectations—and perhaps unfairly so. The term innovation is sufficiently vague that it begs greater precision in this context. Although the CCA exhibition brief includes descriptors like “technological optimization” and “sophisticated scientific and aesthetic experimentation” to qualify the works, I would welcome a more rigorous definition of innovation in the context of material applications in architecture.
Such concerns aside, one certainty is that innovation does not result from the clean, linear pursuit of solutions to problems; rather, it emerges unpredictably out of a messy and nonlinear process, the outcome of which cannot be predetermined. The fact that "Designing Material Innovation" includes several works that appear to exemplify such a process—what we might call the crude underbelly of material development—is its greatest strength, whether intended or not.