NEW MATERIALS ARE RESHAPING OUR WORLD
Throughout human history, material innovation has been defined by the persistent testing of limits. Transmaterial is a catalog of materials, products and processes that are redefining our physical environment, based on a compilation of Blaine Brownell's "product of the week" electronic journal developed at nbbj. www.transstudio.com
Archinect: Briefly describe yourself and your current employment.
Blaine Brownell: I am an architect with about eight years of experience, and I am currently an associate with nbbj in Seattle. While I have been involved mainly with corporate/commercial work in recent years, I am more interested in collaborating with interesting clients than focusing on a particular market type.
Did your professional responsibilities at work motivate you to start this research?
Before I moved to Seattle in 1999, I had the privilege of working with Mark Wamble, who leads the firm Interloop Design with Dawn Finley in Houston. When I collaborated with Mark on the design for the Jones Plaza renovation in Houston (see Architecture issues April 1999 and July 2002), Mark put me in charge of materials research for the project. He told me to "be a detective,"Â and to grill product representatives with tough, thoughtful questions. It was then that I realized that my architectural education had not fully prepared me to engage the material world.
However, it didn't take long for me to realize that conventional thinking about materials in architectural practice is severely limited. It intrigued me that countless innovative products are being developed, yet relatively few are utilized in building construction. I now say that if architecture is indeed the mother of the arts, then it is also the great-grandchild of the sciences. The rampant conservatism throughout the construction industry has been stifling for architects, and therefore many of us know less than we should about innovative materials.
My experience on the Jones Plaza project was fantastic, however, because Mark knew the value that material innovation has for design, and he persuaded the design team, client, and contractor to a develop a new level of appreciation for this kind of material research. It was this positive experience that inspired me to begin developing a catalog of innovative products that could serve as a fundamental palette for future projects.
What methods do you use to find all of these innovative new products?
About four years ago, I forced myself into the habit of investigating new items every week, which I find via an assortment of websites and print publications. When I began to share these discoveries, I encouraged my colleagues to share their discoveries as well. Now, about three out of every four products I feature in my electronic journal come from the recommendations of others.
How important is product development to architecture?
I think it is paramount. Innovation is required to make architecture; otherwise, it's simply building. Moreover, architecture is ultimately a physical art. So, while innovation can assume many forms, I believe that innovation which affects the physical qualities of a structure is what makes architecture. Clearly, Ronchamp would not be the same if Le Corbusier had not experimented so heavily with the possibilities in reinforced concrete. Likewise, the Eberswalde library would not be memorable without H & deM's development of photoengraved concrete and image-laminated glass.
Why have you decided to share your research with the public rather than keep it in your personal library?
While itÃ¢'s a cliché, I believe that what goes around comes around. Like many fields, the profession of architecture is plagued by the selfish hording of knowledge. However, I believe that the more we all share, the greater our chances of improving architectural practice in general.
I also believe that the recent interest in new materials has the potential to spark a revolution that could dislodge the conservative mindset we face today. Thanks in part to the work of Material ConneXion, Toshiko Mori, Inventables, and Greenspec, clients, consultants and building departments are already adopting more progressive views about what is possible in their projects. Therefore, I want to augment this trend in any way I can, so that architecture can become the norm within our built environment, rather than the exception.
What are the three most interesting and/or valuable product discoveries you have made since beginning this research?
I am actually less interested in particular products than in the general trends that are redefining our physical environment. One of the most intriguing trends is the movement towards dematerialization. As we learn to accomplish more with less, raw materials can be stretched farther, and can be arrayed into stronger, more resilient configurations.
This trend is evident in LaFarge's Ductal high-performance concrete, which can support a 2,000-pound car in a sheet which is 6" x 10" and only one inch thick;
or Giovanni Pagnotta's pencil-thin Z5 carbon fiber chair, which weighs only 14 pounds but can withstand a 1,200 pound load.
The trend towards ephemerality is perhaps most striking in the example of Aron Losonczi's fiber-optic embedded Light Transmitting Concrete; now, even something as solid as a concrete wall can be translucent.
Other interesting trends include what I call repurposed materials, which are surrogates for materials conventionally used for particular applications (such as rubber sidewalks or denim insulation), as well as recombinant materials, in which two or more different materials are combined to create a product which performs greater than the sum of its parts (such as plastic asphalt or glass-reinforced fiber metal).
How much longer do you plan on continuing this research? Are innovative new products being developed fast enough to allow you to continue your weekly findings indefinitely?
I plan to continue this research throughout my career. Stephen Kieran recently said that "more potential products have been invented in the last 15 years than in the entire prior history of architecture,"Â so I don't think I'll run out any time soon.
Paul Petrunia is the founder and director of Archinect, a (mostly) online publication/resource founded in 1997 to establish a more connected community of architects, students, designers and fans of the designed environment. Outside of managing his growing team of writers, editors, designers and ...