Building materials: conceptualising materials via the\ud architectural specification
Thomas, Katie Lloyd
The last few decades have seen unprecedented levels of change both in the production of building materials and in the ways they are deployed in building. Despite rigorous debates about materials in architecture from very different areas of theory and practice – ranging from the new materialists’ critique of the concept of matter to ecological concerns with embodied energy and life cycle analysis of building materials – the extent to which these developments might demand more adequate conceptualisations of materials remains unexplored. The position this research takes is that building materials cannot be assumed to be nothing more than particular instances of matter in general – whether matter is understood in its classical philosophical hylomorphic relation to form, or as the physical substances of science. Here, the architectural specification – a document usually considered to be merely ‘technical’ and therefore outside theoretical enquiry – provides descriptions of building materials drawn from inside architectural practice. It yields a number of types of description – from ‘naming’ to the ‘recipe’ to performance – and the differences between these ‘forms of clause’ and the degree to which each is contained by or exceeds the notion of hylomorphic matter are shown to involve radically different conceptualisations of materials. Moreover, the specification makes visible the changing historical and industrial contexts that constitute its format and content. Part I sets out this variation and constructs a typology of forms of clause, and Part II studies two of them in detail. The key philosophical move derives from Gilbert Simondon’s work on individuation in so far as materials are considered not as substances or as matter (as already individuated individuals) but in terms of the dynamic processes through which they are constituted (individuation). First, process-based clauses provide found descriptions of form taking in terms of such operations, and expand Simondon’s account of the preparations which set up the possibility of individuation in a technical object to include statutory, social and other operations in addition to the physical ones he describes. Second, the performance clause requires us to understand how specific use (excluded by Simondon in his accounts of technical systems) might itself become preparatory in the new industrial conditions of performance-engineered materials. Part III takes up Simondon’s ‘complete system’ of individuation and understands the variety of forms of clause as evidence of a variety of ‘systems of material’ which necessarily include the full range of the preparations which make possible the specific deployment of any given material in building. Furthermore, what is constituted in any individuating system is not so much an individual as the possibility of a transductive mediation between hitherto disparate realities. It is, in particular, the possibilities of new mediations that are produced in industry – between a terrorist threat and a piece of glass – in addition to more familiar ones – between a notion of form and a lump of clay for example, that demand attention and new conceptualisations. For Simondon, transduction is also a process of thought which derives problems and resolutions from within a domain rather than seeking a principle from elsewhere. If we are to understand how concepts emerge from applied practices and their productions, and not just from philosophy and science, then the transductive method has applications well beyond the question of building materials that is put into motion via the architectural specification in the process of this research.
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