Architects and builders find themselves at the forefront of a transformative moment–where provenance which delves into the origins and narratives encapsulated within the materials and products deployed in construction, presents itself with a profound opportunity to weave ethical, sustainable, and deeply meaningful choices into the very fabric of our built environment.
Traditionally applied to art ownership, the concept of provenance also uniquely resonates within the realms of architecture and construction. Christel Force, associate research curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, beautifully articulates the essence of provenance as the collective biography of lives of objects and their owners, wrapped into one. “Objects have a life from the time they are created,” she says. “With provenance tracing their biography.”
Provenance challenges architects to not only envision the finished product but to also consider the origins and narratives entwined within the material selection process. The repercussions of overlooking provenance in architecture reverberate in the contemporary landscape. This places a responsibility on the architect to avoid the use of materials and processes whose provenance encodes violence and degradation in our built environment. It emphasizes the importance of material choices and labor practices that will yield beautiful architecture while simultaneously catalyzing positive transformation for people and planet.
Ethical Sourcing and Labor Rights: A Moral Imperative
At the heart of this architectural evolution lies a crucial mandate—to ensure that the materials used are untainted by forced labor. The Design For Freedom initiative, spearheaded by Sharon Prince and Grace Farms, and of which MASS Design Group is a working group member, underscores this critical dimension. Designers, manufacturers, and builders must be acutely aware of the human cost embedded in building materials, recognizing that without a conscientious approach, they risk perpetuating a legacy of abuse within the very materiality of their constructions.
James Kitchin, our Performance & Provenance Director, aptly notes that "Simpler products have simpler stories." To untangle the complexity of modern building components, we must demand greater transparency in product sourcing, including detailed ingredient lists and material origins. Initiatives leveraging blockchain and synthetic DNA could emerge as powerful tools supporting traceability and empowering stakeholders to unravel the intricate journey of each construction element.
Social and Environmental Impacts: A Holistic Perspective
Inextricably linked to the discussion of provenance are the social and environmental impacts of architectural decisions. Carrara marble, a globally recognized example, serves as a cautionary tale. Although it has been quarried since Roman times and cherished by the likes of Michelangelo, the region of Carrara is today one of Italy's poorest areas. The marble quarries, controlled by a handful of family businesses, witnessed a precipitous increase in extraction, and the toll of this is apparent in the local erosion of mountains, pollution of rivers, frequent destructive flooding, and decline in biodiversity. Additionally, while the region was once the site of not just extraction, but immense craftsmanship in transforming the marble, most of those skilled roles have been globalized, further commodifying the material and diminishing the economic value that was once retained in the region.
Once a symbol of artistic elegance, the region's exploitation for marble extraction has left scars—environmental degradation, economic decline, and a loss of local craftsmanship. A holistic view of marble sourcing makes evident that with our material choices, architects must evaluate each decision as an opportunity for a restorative and regenerative future. While reducing the carbon footprint through low embodied carbon materials is undeniably crucial, it is only a fraction of the broader ethical imperative we face.
Championing Craftsmanship: A Cultural Shift
Craftsmanship, often overshadowed when we only look at the variables of cost and performance, emerges as a beacon in the provenance narrative. Understanding the origins, energy invested, and the human touch throughout the material's lifecycle catalyzes a cultural shift. More than harm reduction, but a cultural shift in celebrating the stories within materials and products, and acknowledging human ingenuity.
To transcend moral imperatives, we must celebrate provenance. By narrating the stories embedded within the materials and products we employ and by championing their craftsmanship, cultural significance, and ecological stewardship, we can define a new architectural value proposition.
In MASS's inaugural project, the Butaro Hospital in northern Rwanda, the abundant but typically overlooked scoria volcanic stone became a testament to the power of provenance and craftsmanship. It was a material ubiquitous in the region but undervalued, and piled on the sides of the road where it was a nuisance and impediment to farming. During the process of adapting it for use as a facade, we met Anne Marie Nyiranshimiyimana, a trailblazing woman in the male-dominated construction industry.
Her mastery of working with the stone in this way led her to form a cooperative that has since replicated and refined this approach in various projects across the country, where she now trains and mentors other women and men masons. Through her expertise, she is responsible for training and inspiring the next generation of masons and is improving the local material and construction supply chain in her county. Here we see the use of local materials providing an opportunity to unlock potential to provide both a unique sense of place and inspire great value due to the craft of their assemblage.
Towards a Provenance-Driven Future: Crafting Spaces with Purpose
Provenance invites us to engage with our surroundings, honor local cultures while creating new livelihoods, and champion sustainable practices. It empowers us to design spaces that transcend superficial aesthetics, embody ethics, and foster planetary restoration. Good provenance has expansive meaning and across disciplines it includes responsible material extraction that respects planetary boundaries, leverages the use of native species to promote biodiversity in our landscapes, and maximizes the potential of adaptive reuse for our existing buildings.
In MASS’s largest project to date, the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, sourced regenerative materials locally meant 90 percent of the budget was spent within 500 miles of the site. Building with earth, stone, timber, terra cotta fired with agricultural waste, and a variety of fibers minimized embodied carbon, while working with over 85 different cooperatives and artisans allowed most of the building materials and furniture to be built with the same principles of provenance.
Centering provenance is a paradigm shift. By caring deeply about the origins of our materials and products, we can create spaces that resonate with the values of our time. Provenance reminds us that architecture encompasses more than structures; it encapsulates stories, cultures, and the legacy we bequeath to future generations. Demanding good provenance is a manifestation of the commitment to a just, beautiful, and sustainable future.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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