“I don’t live inside buildings because buildings are dead places where nothing grows, where water doesn’t flow, and where life stops. I don’t want to live in a dead place.” Elizabeth Gilbert “The Last American Man”1
Although the urban and interior spaces have changed little, the context of the building, that is, the society, climate as well as the user’s needs have transformed all the more dramatically. Considering the carbon footprint of a building, it is no longer possible to ignore the origin, acquisition and manufacturing process of the material. Thus, also the academic architectural scene has come to focus more on the characteristics of material in order to consider them already in the early stages of the design process as well as on the influence of material on the form of the space. Last autumn, Spanish architects Anna and Eugeni Bach conducted an art project at the world-renowned Barcelona Pavilion designed by Mies van der Rohe for EXPO in 1929. The project included the removal of all materials (covered with white PVC panels) thus highlighting their strong connection with the space: together with the floor to ceiling marble plates and the stone floors leading outside from the interior also much of the quality – power – of the space disappeared. There was only a 1:1 scale model of the symbolic building, a prototype of geometrical solutions. Covering or in a way losing the material was a protest against 20th century architecture, either against modernism at large or the functionalism practised to this day, that often covered material under a coat of paint.
In Estonia we may underscore an intriguing architectural style – limestone functionalism – with its unique architectural language manifested to this day in Herbert Johanson’s fire station building (1939). Relying on their Modernist rationalism, they invented their own version of functionalism: the limestone was taken from the
foundation excavation of the constructed building and this way the house acquired its local character suiting the environment.
Wallpaper or structure
In addition to material, the starting point may also be constituted by form with fantasy leading to the rediscovery of forgotten possibilities. Students of interior architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts studied the relations between material and geometry. In the course of the thread geometry studio2, students were to encode a material that does not exist but whose characteristics could give rise to a new spatial quality. Similarly to nanoscale, they relied on interweaving and continuing a recurrent element and weaving it into a uniform fabric-like surface. The given thread geometry surfaces are characterised by features such as light transmission, directing water and waterproofness, flexibility and rigidity. The objects that turned from rigid plastic to elastic and flexible on 3D printed 10×10 cm samples transformed the notion of material. The understanding of the components of material and the qualities added to the material by geometry revealed the constant dialogue between the material and form. Contrary to the substantial dialogue between the form and material, Austrian architect Adolf Loos considered the latter merely as an effective means of coating. Relying on the primarily text-based theory of style by Gottfried Semper exploring material and form, Loos came to apply it in more general terms. In his attempt to avoid constructional or spatial geometric ideas, he came to design space on the so-called wallpaper principle. Just as people dress appropriately for every occasion, he dressed up his spaces: living and dining rooms with dark oak or marble, bedrooms with light wood and fabrics, shops with wood and brass, the facades of public buildings with strongly patterned marble or granite while private houses remained bare, that is, under a layer of plaster.3 Contemporary architecture is increasingly more concerned with material logic whether structural facades or spatial constructions and this has led architecture to smart material-centred solutions. For instance, a cross-laminated timber panel is equally suitable for structural functions and separating rooms and such walls do not require any additional structures or formwork. As the material is easy to process, it can be used for free-form economical buildings that do not need any finishing layers. Driven by material and geometry, Siim Tuksam and I as the curators of the main exhibition of Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2015 “Body Building” gathered together 3D printers that print layer by layer rubber (3D printed clothing by Julia Köerner), weave carbon and fibre glass ropes into large metal frames (pavilion prototype by Achim Menges and Moritz Dörstelmann) or create fibreglass laminated surfaces (the partially transparent structural surface by Roland Snooks). The visions of the future experienced at the exhibition remain distant for the visitors and also alien as living spaces in terms of material and geometry. It seemed there can be only one variable at a time: the more distinct the space, the more familiar we should be with the material. This must be considered also in the urban space so that the local leaders would allow novel projects to emerge…
Form versus material
Loos’ building could not have been constructed in central Vienna in 1910 with such revolutionary minimalism and bereft of decorations, if the architect had not drawn marble patterns and lush flower pots in his view sketches. The marble patterns created the illusion of intense relief, a kind of ornament that was to reflect the prosperity and high social class of the owners. Loos, however, wanted to create seamless sleek surfaces as the decorations and ornaments of the façade would make the building go out of fashion faster.4 In his opinion the information from the material did not age as quickly as that from the form and ornaments. Similarly, Emperor Franz Joseph I and the general public were against the so-called bare building. Thus, Loos used a classic frieze and Doric column in order to receive a nod of recognition from the client and make the building perhaps somewhat more acceptable. Carefully hidden, the marble pattern remained the only small-scale ornament of the building. There have been numerous innovative prototypes constructed in leading European architecture schools that explore, for instance, the reaction of fibres to moisture and the flexibility or porosity of material. The ability of contemporary computer software to simulate and scan material characteristics, create free-form geometry and with the aid of robots produce materials highly similar to their projection on the screen has provided architects with unprecedented possibilities for spatial solutions. It is now possible to construct objects opening and closing in reaction to humidity on the basis of so-called breathing cone principle (ICD Stuttgart) or an airy wall construction made of bent plywood surfaces that is several times lighter than we are used to thus saving a lot of material. Considering the worldwide energy crisis and the increasingly worrying climate change, any attempt to decrease the material expenditure or the carbon footprint of architecture deserves praise. The employment of local manufacturers and building material as well as the awareness of the origin and acquisition of the material allows the architects to have a say in the ecological and social matters (e.g. global warming, deforestation etc).
In addition to the familiar sight in every international research group photo – orange Kuka robot arm –, Estonian universities have nothing much to add, however, we do have something that has much more value at the building site – timber house industry with highly developed equipment. Along with the aspects mentioned above (free form, new manufacturing and joint methods, spatial qualities), cooperation with the industry also gives an important advantage of time, that is, the speed of production and construction. In architecture offices as well as in the academia, the use of material should be primarily approached constructively, economically and ecologically with the focus on its immediate implementation.
In the light of the Estonian timber architecture innovation hub (the installation programme of Tallinn Architecture Biennale provides young architects with the opportunity to cooperate with local timber industry to construct a timber shelter in front of the Museum of Architecture) 5 , I hope to see Estonia in a few decades as a smart industrial state with fewer buildings wrapped in wallpaper or wooden cabins emerging without architects indifferent to material. I hope to grow older in a state where the material and architecture develop in an intense dialogue and the urban spaces include living and renewable building material with respective constructional and spatial forms.