The invention of plastic in the mid-19th century was followed by a period of significant industrial transformation. By the 1930s and ’40s, a polymer revolution was underway, with the creation of many now-ubiquitous materials such as neoprene, acrylic, polyvinyl chloride, polyurethane, polyethylene terephthalate, teflon, and fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP). The sudden appearance of so many new and intriguing substances led many to speculate about their influence on the designed environment. In 1941, British chemists V. E. Yarsley and E. G. Couzens announced the rise of the Plastic Age and imagined, in a December 1941 article published in Science Digest, that subsequent generations would be born “into a world of color and bright shining surfaces, where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges or corners to cut or graze, no crevices to harbor dirt or germs.”
Plastic has indeed transformed the world of consumer products, which today exhibits the very qualities that Yarsley and Couzens envisioned. Architecture is another matter. Although polymers are now commonly used in buildings, they are typically applied skeuomorphically—or, to imitate products made from other materials. Take, for example, vinyl siding and vinyl window frames designed to resemble wood construction, or composite plastic roof tiles that mimic slate shingles. Despite prior dreams of a Plastic Age, architectural plastics today hide in plain sight.
Designer Justin Diles aims to actualize plastic’s unfulfilled vision. An assistant professor of architecture at The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School, Diles recently exhibited his "Plasticity Pavilion" at the nonprofit Tex-Fab Digital Fabrication Alliance’s annual event that was held earlier this year in Houston. Originally titled “Plastic Stereotomy,” the design was selected as the winning entry in the fourth iteration of Tex-Fab’s international design competition, which this year tasked entrants with exploring how polymer-based materials could be used to create innovative constructions. The one-story tall, C-shaped structure is composed of a sinuous series of black and white FRP masses, its gracefully undulating form suggesting both fluidity and change. The pavilion thus conjures philosopher Roland Barthes’ characterization of plastic in his book Mythologies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972): “More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation … it is less a thing than the trace of a movement.”
Diles’ pavilion represents not only an attempt to explore new forms of polymer expression in architecture, but also a desire to resurrect the lost art of poché. Unlike the substantive masonry or earthen walls that defined much of pre-industrial building, the contemporary wall assembly is commonly made of thin layers of different materials—a motley and relatively impermanent concoction that Sheila Kennedy, AIA, in KVA: Material Misuse (AA Publications, 2001), calls “the hollow wall.” By substituting lightweight plastic composite blocks for stone, Diles reveals a new way of investigating the sculptural thickness of the envelope. “Currently, I am most excited by the ways in which new materials allow us to design larger, lighter, and sometimes hollow parts for buildings, bringing poché back into our répertoire as designers,” he says. Diles calls the new approach “laminar poché,” in reference to the fluid formal characteristics of the composite structure as well as the layering—for example, laminae—possibilities within the FRP blocks. As a design strategy, laminar poché “foregrounds how architecture can incorporate novel materials and embed new technologies into thick, but hollow, assemblies while also reengaging lost disciplinary techniques like stereotomy,” he says.
The "Plasticity Pavilion" was conceived as a thickened monocoque—its self-supporting surface composed of large-scale, lightweight volumetric components that nest together in unanticipated ways. Many of the tightly spaced joints occur either within the black-colored components or along their curvilinear perimeters, thus disguising their presence. Diles developed the curved surfaces and their figural construction joints using finite element analysis application Karamba 3D, which allowed him to generate adaptive reinforcement strategies based on material feedback.
Like traditional Cyclopean or Inca cut-stone masonry structures, the pavilion is conceptually stereotomic, its constituent parts designed to meet and support each other along hidden surfaces. Unlike these masonry precedents, however, the installation experiences bending forces in addition to compression loads. “For this reason, the connection system remains a discreet but critical part of the design,” Diles writes in the project statement. “The hinges are simply laminated into the FRP flanges, making for an efficient means of integrating connections between complexly curving surfaces.”
American Canyon, Calif.–based fabricator and competition sponsor Kreysler & Associates built the components in March 2015, shaping each piece out of 1.5-pound expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam blocks cut by either a robot or a gantry-mounted five-axis milling machine. The components were subsequently coated with a resin-resistant primer and a layer of foil, followed by three layers of fiberglass mat combined with a polyester resin matrix to create the smooth outer finish.
Every built project has its surprises, and the "Plasticity Pavilion" is no exception. Due to a tight schedule, only seven of the 12 components of the proposed design were fabricated. As a result, the uppermost elements created a large, unanticipated cantilever, which required the addition of a column. "If the pieces were permanently glued together, it would be self-supporting as-is," Diles says. "However, the hinge connections keep the pavilion demountable and portable. These were also the most efficient to install, but they are not up to the task of supporting the cantilever, so the column was added." Despite this unwelcome surprise, one could argue that the incompleteness of the installed pavilion actually emphasizes the novel introduction of bending forces to stereotomic construction.
The pavilion poses several implications for future construction. The first is the fulfillment of Plastic Age visions, as the installation seeks to represent an authentic plasticity, in terms of sculptural fabrication and fluid expression. The second is a revitalization of stereotomic construction and architectural poché, creating an unexpected link between the oldest and newest materials. The third is a less conspicuous effect that relates to sustainability. EPS and polyester resin are environmentally problematic materials, as they are derived from petroleum, are energy-intensive, and contain toxic substances. However, EPS offers exceptional insulation properties, and the thickness of the poché used by Diles could easily be increased to Passive House standards. Moreover, biopolymers and bio-based resins are becoming more reliable replacements for both EPS and toxic resins, and could be used to make future laminar poché constructions.
Appropriately, the pavilion represents an inherently plastic process: a continual search to realize the innate architectural expression of a material, both in method and in manifestation. In this case, the complex field of polymer composites presents both a daunting and compelling material palette. “No well-known material goes untransformed by a good architect,” Diles says. “But when we work with unfamiliar or novel materials, there is always the exciting possibility that we might also fundamentally transform architecture itself.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that the pavilion's components are not permanently glued together.