Materiality

Seagram building Mies

1. West facade, Seagram building. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1954, New York

When architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was working on a skyscraper in New York city, he had to face a difficulty which was threatening to his entire ideology. The State of New York did not allow structural steel members to remain exposed and had to be covered in fireproof materials, which might seem trivial to anyone who isn't familiar with Mies, but it was a question of gravity for him. The solution that he composed was a sublime trick that surfaced and articulated a crucial phenomenon about materiality and signification in architecture. The structural steel I-beams were concealed in concrete,and to make up for the hidden structure, Mies in all his eloquence put I-section bronze mullions on the facade of the building. This restored the image of the steel, the gesture of verticality which was of divine importance to him and above all reinforced the conceptual existence of the material itself. The solution was neither a functional product of the design nor the inevitable end of a poetic design process, so to say a pièce de résistance; but a segue into the conceptual realm. The steel like bronze used here is not only for its properties, physical or nostalgic (relating to industrialization and it's use of steel as a symbol of progress) but as a 'sign' of the verticality and the expression of its implicit existence in the material. The mullions then become a conscious intervention by Mies for the building to become more: more than the sum of its parts. This point is further validated by the fact that these mullions were of a non-standard size and had to be specially manufactured. (1)

Seagram building corner details
Seagram building I section

2. Corner detail of Seagram building with concealed I-section column and jutting out  mullions

3. Bronze mullions, Seagram building 1954 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

What Mies deployed is of importance here: Materiality as a conceptual tool. There is a case to be made for the opposite insofar as the materials are employed in conscious indifference for their particular and intended undermining (For example the cardboard houses of Peter Eisenman use white plastered concrete walls with no textures. This is not ignorance of materiality but a calculated undermining of the physical for the textual world). But I digress. Let me take this ignorance of materiality and also the more precarious situation of materials used as tools of romantic expression and contrast them with the conceptual materiality. There is a non-cerebral undertone that comes with the deployment of materials with romantic gestures. The romantic argument is that the conscious use of matter which has an inherent spiritual value (or a spiritual embodiment) appeals to the sensual and is transcendent in ways that are important to the very being of architecture. Now, there is a certain problem that arises in this. When materials are employed in these particular ways in architecture they hail the phenomenological aspects but completely ignore, undermine and subvert the conceptual aspects. The physical realm is taken to be the field of the experience and of the sublime. The argument forms itself as the phenomena: Material-Experience-Reality-Transcendence. The space of reality that the romantics have established is insufficient and in many ways inelegant (to the limit where it seems almost primitive). The continuous and rampant exclusion of the material from the league of the mind is problematic and there are particular sets of important effects that occur in the 'intellectual mind' that are of importance to the field. 

Peter Eisenman House VI interior

4. Interior of House VI, Peter Eisenman 1972

Romantic gestures are corporeal and while they can inhabit and overlap on the space of the conceptual, they rarely do. The architecture that romanticism and to many extents neo-regionalists produce is only interested in the immediacy of effects. Effects that are primitive and limited: as Wassily Kandinsky suggested that we think of materiality only in the sensual and physical sense which can evoke only so many emotions until it exhausts itself. Fear, joy, grief, nostalgia etc. are the only arsenal in the repertoire of the romantics. In Kandinsky's view these emotions are crude and largely ignore subtle and more paradoxical emotions which constitute man and more specifically the modern man. (2)

"... Shapeless emotions such as fear, joy, grief, etc., which belonged to this time of effort, will no longer greatly attract the artist. He will endeavor to awake subtler emotions, as yet unnamed. Living himself a complicated and comparatively subtle life, his work will give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words" (3)

Wassily Kandinsky compositon IV

5. Composition IV Wassily Kandinsky (1911) 159.5 x 250.5 cm oil on canvas

The material world has power to influence our sensibilities which can cause a considerable shift in our mind. In the architectural ethos these are the constructional materials, which have effects and affects. (Note here that the materials aren't just the bricks, concrete, steel etc. but also the drawings and the textual work that surrounds the physical objects). These have to be used to their maximum potential, unlocking multiple realms at the same time, instead of just the one (sensual). The most archaic example of this would be the use of standard brick masonry walls at Mohenjodaro (see the Great Granary at Mohenjodaro) where the brick works only as an instrument of structure.

Brick structure in Mohenjodaro

6. Upper Part of Podium of Great Granary at Mohenjodaro, excavated 1950 (harappa.com)

Parthenon Acropolis
Doric column

7. Doric column at the Parthenon, Athens (red rectangle where the two pieces of stone are rested onto one another)

8. Front profile of a typical Doric column

There is evidence however, throughout history, of architecture having sensibilities that are not only corporeal but that which require deeper analysis or deeper reading to understand. For example: When is the Doric column born? It certainly is not born when pieces of stone are assembled and load is put on it. Although the certainty and the specific time of it's birth cannot possibly be known to us, it is nearer and around the time the fluting is done (i.e. the vertical lines are cut into the stone) which 'joins' the individual pieces of stone together and enforces the vertical nature of the masculine column. Another of these examples would be the use of ceramic tiles in the Majolica House by Otto Wagner: pieces of these tiles together create an Art Nouveau pattern over the entire building facade which seemed 'hideous' at the time but was representative of the larger artistic avant-garde in the region (Secessionism). Also notice it completely eludes the visibility of a structure or any hints of its existence. Nowhere are you informed of the scale of the building and the block stands in a mysterious repose partially out of the immediate context of Viennese facades. There certainly are many other examples of this which include the works of Corbusier and the use of white plastered concrete blocks at Villa Savoye, Mies's Farnsworth house with its perfectly flat deck using individual drains for each piece of stone, OMA's CCTV tower and it's use of a false structural facade etc.

Majolica House Otto Wagner

9. The Majolica House facade, Vienna Otto Wagner 1899

CCTV tower beijing

10. view of CCTV headquarters with the false structural diagrid on the facades, OMA (2012)

Detail of CCTV tower beijing

11. sectional detail of the CCTV headquarters (CCTV by OMA A+U 2005)

    A is the false structural metal piece on the facade

    B is the real structual member of the diagrid

The case for the conceptual is certainly not dogmatic. The use of materials leaning toward mannerisms, blatant use of them as sources of momentary pleasures in a field where the capacity to engage is much more potent and the nature of the discourse and it's proliferation are factors worth considering. We already have achieved the thesis that parts sum up to consistent wholes and in many ways after the century of modern painting and modern architecture we have also grasped the parts not adding up to consistent wholes. These inconsistent wholes (that is the whole which cannot be defined by one dimension of thinking and work simultaneously in many: like the Maison Dom-Ino diagram of Le corbusier which had an enormous impact on architecture) are in a way what the field demands and is a way forward and towards a more sophisticated architecture.

Notes:

 

1. The curtain wall consists of 4-1/2” by 6” extruded architectural bronze I-beam mullions.

2. Mills, Christina Murdoch, "Materiality as the Basis for the Aesthetic Experience in Contemporary Art" (2009). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. 1289.

3. Wassily Kandinsky, "Concerning The Spiritual In Art", translated by Michael T. H. Sadler.