Materials make up the majority of the built industry but are often one of the least understood elements. There is exciting potential for designers to resurrect long-forgotten building methods and materials and pair them with innovative, modern technology. We also see the ability to shake off existing connotations associated with materials and what they can do. Looking at materials in a limiting way has driven us as a society to create new materials to fulfil our requirements. There are circumstances where we can learn from past innovations, understand materials potential and combine them with modern techniques, science and technology. In these circumstances, we have the ability to create something that is new as well as being more efficient and effective; the potential results are limitless.
Selecting the most fit-for-purpose and effective material in a design is an art form that is a careful balance as the designer has so many intricacies within the space to consider. Designers experimenting and pushing materials boundaries, is by no means a new idea, it is something that has been implemented throughout time. For the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London (part of the World’s fair) Joseph Paxton defied belief by designing a towering glass and steel structure with a curved glass dome. It was created in a time when glazing was always straight and certain sizes and steel was purely structural; suddenly these materials were seen in a whole new light. We now have soaring glass skyscrapers and whole buildings made of curved glass and steel made possible by these original pioneers.
A more contemporary example of this relates to bricks and the belief that it wasn’t possible to create undulating curves with them. Through innovation and strategic thinking, buildings like Frank Gehry’s UTS Sydney Business School, have been actualised. The building, also known as the “Brown Paper Bag”, was said to have started with one of the architect’s iconic sketches and his desire for it to be constructed with bricks. It was originally believed that the design required over 200 different shaped bricks and a large amount of steel to support it which would have blown the budget and rendered the project unfeasible. Through some innovative thinking and carefully testing, the design was made practical by reducing the brick shapes require to 7 and the use of an ingenious, “barely there” steel structure. This building has received recognition throughout the world, not only due to the architect’s famous name but the design feat that it achieved.
Once the materials inherent qualities are understood and tested they can be paired with existing and new techniques to created marvellous, innovative structures. At the 2016 Venice Biennale, a canopy structure was created using 399 slabs of limestone with no glue or mortar to bind it. It was a beautiful curved canopy with structural spans up to 16m that was supported by compression as opposed to traditional fixings or adhesives. It is quite impressive to see photos of three men walking across the structure knowing there was an absence of adhesive, instead relying on all the pieces sitting together in perfect harmony. This technique of materials on a curved plane supporting themselves is a technique that was utilised in medieval France but was replaced as the material they used was too hard to produce at the time. The technique is ideal for this propose and shows how the designers intricate understanding of the material and detailed knowledge of compression forces has inspired this structure and changed how we can shape building construction in a more efficient way. Limestone is believed to be one of the most difficult materials to use structurally which makes this canopy even more impressive and shows the practical implications of questioning what a material is capable of. A material that has always been seen only as a high end, decorative finish that requires additional substructure to support it actual has substantial structural potential when used in this way.
In an age where most materials are either reconstituted, attempting to be something they are not or composite, we need to return to true honest materials by better understanding them. Our technology ruled era has made us accustom to simply creating a new material when it is believed that nothing exists to fill the need. Sometimes this is the case and new materials do have their place but there is opportunity to revisit and reinvent traditional materials.
It is beneficial to think twice before discarding a material on a project before testing its limitations and researching potential options. Take the time to research the material and consider what techniques and technology could be utilised to advance the potential of the material before jumping straight to the composite and reconstituted materials. Granted these examples are of large scale projects with healthy budgets but the concept is still there. To dream big and be honest to the material being used by pushing it to its limits and ultimately create something breathtaking.