Material Assemblages and Literal Embodiments: an Environmental Perspective of the Building Envelope | The Plan
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Material Assemblages and Literal Embodiments: an Environmental Perspective of the Building Envelope

Alejandro Zaera-Polo | Britt Eversole

Material Assemblages and Literal Embodiments: an Environmental Perspective of the Building Envelope

While the façade is one of the most theorized architectural elements, the idea of the façade has been in question since at least the end of the nineteenth century. The conventional notion of the façade is marked by “faciality” (see definition by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in
“A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia”), driven by linguistic and compositional operations, proportional laws and linguistic codes. However, the radical development of building technologies during the last century and the increasing number of oversized, complex buildings have progressively replaced the value of picturesque compositional strategies and mythopoeic meanings with significances arising from the quantitative and material logics and logistics of the envelope. Rather than the superficial, representational conceits of traditional façade theories, envelope logics arise from sectional relationships - layers of materials, products and even mechanisms that we call envelope assemblages. In envelope assemblages, representational and semiotic operations have become increasingly secondary to their behavior and performance. Performance is about measurable qualities (durability, insulation value, cost). Behavior is, like in old-school cybernetics, the changes in the environment (physical, social, economic, political) in relation to the outputs of any given object, and the environmental inputs into that object.  
Understanding these logics, behaviors and performances foreground architecture’s literal material entanglements with other fields, material practices, cultural economies and political structures, not just as a contemporary phenomenon, but as one that has been building since façades were decoupled from their load-bearing obligations. The adaptation of military technologies into building components after WWII, the prominence of airtight and integrally insulated systems during the polluted 60s and energy crises of the 70s, and the increasing use of titanium rain-screens after the early economic failures of post-Soviet Russia are examples of the relationship between architectural tropes of the envelope and their cultural, technical and political substrata. Of course, many of these assemblages have existed for decades, and they have been used in service of classical façade compositional strategies. We are, however, arguing that architectural discourse lacks a coherent theory for speaking about why and how building technologies change, how changes come to enjoy popular value, why the most advanced technology may not be the most widely used, why old technologies may suddenly become significant and why perfectly viable technologies may decline into disuse. Classical theories of representation and their parallel in phenomenology still play a discursive role but they are inadequate for explaining the complex, environmental relationships that drive technological change in architecture. The understanding of these processes foregrounds literal material embodiments rather than representation as the core of architectural practices of the building envelope. Instead of a history of inventions or technological greatest hits, we are calling for an anthropological study of architectural envelope assemblages that have evolved since the scission of façade from structural performances at the end of the 19th century. This study has less to do with historical sequences of wonders than with understanding the ecologies of materials and technologies, how they spread and how they adapt to changing conditions. Materials such as aluminum, technologies such as curtain walls, and assemblages such as rain-screens are not vehicles to represent cultural or political concepts, as the classical orders once did. They are literal embodiments of geopolitical and cultural processes whose architectural implications need to be articulated, not because they are invisible, but because they are both real as well as widely and popularly recognized.
Assemblages undergo a process of creation, proliferation and, ultimately, extinction. They cannot be understood as singular artifacts frozen in time and space: they sit within a historical fabric that includes other architectural materials and assemblages that inform our understanding of the evolution of envelope technologies. Every time a material assemblage is deployed in a building envelope, its significance is modified; further, the significances, or meanings are not necessarily intrinsic, but come from their relationship to other materials, assemblages and environments. Against the phenomenological search or moral imperative for expressing a material’s essence, we argue that the significances of assemblages cannot be reduced to any one essential or enduring meaning. They exist as a multiplicity of narratives, economies and histories, some of which are proper to architecture as a discipline, while others are imposed from outside in unanticipated and often problematic forms. Therefore, significances vary with time, and in their multiplicity, they can change rapidly and even be in conflict with one another. Consider the fragmented path of steel windows, which at the end of the 19th century, were trumpeted for their strength, slender profile and resistance to warping and infestation. They were widely used to retrofit failing iron and wood fenestration in existing buildings, but by the twentieth century, they were linked to modernism and the dematerialization of the solid façade. Icons such as Gropius’s Dessau Bauhaus or Albert Kahn’s Detroit factories with their walls of steel windows made this assemblage synonymous with modernism. Though their profiles have changed little in the last 130 years, steel windows were by no means perfect, and thus were in a constant state of revision. Hot dip galvanizing, which became an industry standard in the Thirties, resolved corrosion problems, yet the technical resolution of a material problem is no guarantee of its persistence. Demands for steel during WWII led to a return of wood windows and to the popularization of alternative fenestration technologies such as aluminum. In America, wood windows were patriotic, and In Italy, where League of Nations sanctions for her militarist adventures in Africa reduced the availability of strategic materials, regressive architects declared steel building systems to be un-Italian. Countless other local and global narratives could be cited to point to the changing and multiple significances that any assemblage comes to enjoy over time. Simple narratives of progress cannot accommodate these economic and political entanglements.
Moreover, because architectural technologies are often appropriated and transformed from other practices, it is difficult, and even misleading, to speak of their invention in architecture. Instead, we propose thinking about architectural technologies as subject to processes of adaptation. More often than not, existing technologies await the right environmental conditions to become relevant and useful in architecture, hence our interest in their behavior and performance - i.e., what they do and how they act in concert with (or against) the environment - rather than what they are. Envelope assemblages, such as curtain walls, rain-screens, composite panels, media façades, inflatable, tensile and vegetated or kinetic envelopes, and the whole range of new technical possibilities that have emerged through the 20th century outside the disciplinary discourse and architectural theorizations, do not transform in a linear manner, but in a discontinuous fashion, in fits and starts, sometimes lying dormant, transferring from another industry, changing in response to new environments. Furthermore, a particular assemblage or technology may exist for some time, enjoying only limited use, only to later find a new environment in which to flourish, even if only for a time. For example, EIFS arose in the early 1950s as an insulating and finishing system to be used for rapid and economical reconstruction in war torn Germany, as well as for the retrofitting of older buildings to prevent heat loss and to lower energy costs. Its growing popularity exploded in the 1970s, when it became the go-to material for suburban American housing communities - a finish with a high-end appearance but with significantly less cost than brick found its market (i.e., its environment) in inflated single-family homes and big box retail. Its later life as the finish of choice for postmodern architects who used it to realize large areas of bright prismacolored surfaces was, however, in direct contradiction to its public perception as a problem-plagued material, prone to failure. More bizarrely, manufacturers trumpeted its postmodernist applications - some of which violated their approved installation practices! - while simultaneously changing the assemblage to introduce additional layers of moisture proofing. EIFS’s curious and contradictory history is an excellent illustration of the dynamic processes that inform an assemblage’s evolutionary path.
Unlike simple materials (think of stone, steel, wood), assemblages are totalities: the coming together of a variety of materials and material systems that work together to form a singular, constructive ensemble in a building at a particular moment in history. Assemblages are always more than the sum of their parts precisely because they must risk a statement about joining those materials into an assemblage in a particular environment. This risk arises from the contingent nature of every assemblage; they are marked by a provisional search for equilibrium, or homeostasis, within the conditions of a specific environment, taken as a whole. This environment isn’t just physical - it includes the meshwork of forces, conflicts, polemics, laws and codes, stories, fictions and myths in which assemblages are insinuated and which dynamically condition their significances. But it is only through assemblages that environmental equilibrium is dealt with at a systemic level, and all the attendant myths attached to individual materials come together into the grand narratives of envelopes. This means that whether one is speaking of a standardized assemblage - what normally passes for professionally accepted means and methods of assembling materials and components with common details and common construction practices that can be applied to a wide range of projects over a broad geographic area - or an integrated assemblage - designed for a particular application that takes into account the inside and outside environment as a technical and semantic problem - envelope assemblages can be said to register the complex of agents, economies and authorities that inform and influence architectural decisions. For our purposes, however, the difference between standardized and integrated assemblages is not one that can be reduced to the generic versus the custom or the economical versus the luxury. Rather, the distinction is one between assemblages which enjoy a largely unintentional relationship to their environment and those which seek to modify their environment. This distinction offers us an initial means for evaluating degrees of environmental integration and equilibrium, as well as a means for studying how disequilibria map onto changes in our understanding of a building or an assemblage.
To the “participant” view of social sciences or the humanist view of phenomenology, we prefer an embodied perspective when thinking about the human effects of envelope assemblages. We cannot look at a building without a knowledge of economy, materials, the scandals that plagued its construction, opinions about fitness or appropriateness, and so forth. We also move through the world, seeing buildings of every sort under construction; from childhood, we are conditioned to imagine buildings denuded, their guts exposed, their hidden relationships revealed. We bring our life experiences with us to every building and we cannot pretend they are absent. However, even if context and buildings are dynamic, they are also bounded by a circumscribed set of possible past and future significances that are positively limited by our experiences. The site of this dynamism transpires through these assemblages, which is where the contestation of economics and politics over time is played out. Of course, every material deployed in the construction of a building envelope is still subject to the forces of the world - wind, water, gravity, temperature, light and vision, as well as the vectors of penetrating bodies (humans, furniture, machines, etc.) and the often concealed transmission of information, electricity, plumbing, and other services. Materials are also created in relation to those very same forces, which establish limits on their dimensions and applications. Elasticity, coefficient of expansion, thermal deformation, compressive strength, and so forth, are not exactly essential properties. To use a term proposed by evolutionary theorist Daniel Dennett, they express a kind of “design space” of formation, which is the totality of the environment and the process of a material’s creation, the forces in the world it has encountered and is likely to encounter, its adjacency to other materials, and the legacy of preexisting human practices or ways of forming. Matters of political economy, global commodities trading, supply, demand and scarcity inform architectural materials. Further factors in technological development are human: preferences for certain aesthetics at a given moment, desires for maintenance-free construction and affordability, as well as regimes of materials testing and building code enforcement.
Rarely are there unique forces affecting a building material or assemblage. Imaginative architectural forms push the limits of engineering, but qualitatively, those limits are still defined in relation to relatively well-known physical and economic conditions. Design space is a bounded set of probable and improbable forces, few if any of which are unheard of. Probable forces are things like wind, budget and wear and tear; improbable forces would be antigravity or council communism. New forces will emerge in tension with, and thus will be understood in relation to existing ones. And it is important to distinguish between a truly new force, such as social media, and the eccentric expression of existing forces.
Of course, we all love those truly great works of art that push the limits of architecture, engineering and construction. The drive to create very particular and unique architectural effects and forms has yielded amazing and unique assemblages. And some of those assemblages have indeed become popularized and widely used, such as the development in the late 1960s of point-fixed structural glazing by Pilkington. Others, however, are so unique that they cannot be considered part of the overall evolution of architectural technologies. Herzog & de Meuron glass lenses for Prada Tokyo and Hamburg Opera, or Ned Kahn’s kinetic devices are examples of technologies that exhibit a kind of hypertelia - an over-adaptation to a unique function that holds little possibility for further transformation. Some examples, such as the patented and therefore unrepeatable glazing details on Apple Stores are even conceived as “proprietary,” one-off constructions. But as Gilber Simondon points out, it is technologies that can adapt and change to broad environments - “open” technologies and systems - that often hold the greatest potential for wide realization and influence. Reyner Banham once criticized Sigfried Giedion’s collection of inventions and firsts, and instead called for a history of “mosts.” Likewise, the new anthropology of material assemblages and, more broadly, the idea of envelope that we are calling for aspires to move away from our typical celebration of architecture’s greatest hits, and instead take up a more realist history of the forces that inform the evolution of architectural technologies.

Alejandro Zaera-Polo with Britt Eversole



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