The importance of the material

For me, designing and constructing is the same thing. I like the idea that form is the result of construction; and material,

well, that’s something finite. Nevertheless, confining myself to this formula would be a mechanistic reduction because the shape of the form, deliberate or not, bears – beyond its material or constructional component – information, an intent. Yes, even the absence of intent is information(which has been sufficiently well demonstrated by functionalism). Consequently, the separation between designing and constructing made by the teachers is a didactic strategy to create thematic focal points, which can be explained beautifully by the metaphor of the potter and his wheel. The potter models a vessel with both hands by applying force from outside with one hand and from inside with the other hand (in opposite directions) in order to reshape the mass of clay into a hollow space. A “vessel that holds space” is produced. At best these forces complement each other, or at least affect each other, as a result of which the didactics sometimes becomes the methodology of the work and, moreover, becomes the design process as such. This process advances from both directions: from outside in the classical way from the urbane to the architectural project, and from inside by means of the spatial and constructional fabric, the tectonics – and both lead from the abstract to the concrete.

Between them lies the architectural matter. It stands as the boundary and transition zone between the inside and the outside and unites in itself all architectural, cultural and atmospheric factors, which are broadcast into the space. This is the paradox of architecture: although “space” is its first and highest objective, architecture occupies itself with “non-space”, with the material limiting the space, which influences the space outwards as well as inwards. Architecture obtains its memorial, its spatial power and its character from this material. As Martin Heidegger expresses it, “The boundary is not the point where something ends but, as the Greeks recognized, the

point at which something begins its existence.” From this point of view architects are meta-physicists who would not exist without the physicists (technicians, engineers, designers), or even more like Janus with his two faces on one head: the presence of space antimatter) and the presence of matter are mutually interlinked and influence each other unceasingly.

Conceiving and designing space or space complexes in advance or reconstructing it/them subsequently are only possible when I know the conditions of realization and can master them as well.Consequently, the architect is a “professional dilettante”, a kind of alchemist who tries to generate a complex whole, a synthesis from most diverse conditions and requirements of dissimilar priority which have to be appraised specifically every single time.

The character of the architectural space therefore depends on how things are done and for that reason it is determined by the technical realisation and by the structural composition of the substances and building materials used. In this respect a remark by Manfred Sack is very instructive: “Again and again there is the sensuality of the material – how it feels, what it looks like: does it look dull, does it shimmer or sparkle? Its smell. Is it hard or soft, flexible, cold or warm, smooth or rough? What color is it and which structures does it reveal on its surface?”

Sack observes that architectural space is perceptible first and foremost in a physical-sensual way. By striding through it and hearing the echo of my steps I estimate and sound out its dimensions in advance. Later, these dimensions are confirmed by the duration of my striding and the tone of the echo gives me a feeling of the haptic properties of the boundaries to the space, which can be decoded by touching the surfaces of the walls and, perhaps, by the smell of the room too, originating from different things. So only by means of these sensual experiences do I realize what I later believe I can comprehend with one single glance? Vision is obviously something like

a pictorial memory of earlier physical-sensual experiences which responds to surface stimuli. I also like the idea of “which structures does it reveal on its surface?” Under the surface lies a hidden secret, which means the surface depends on a concealed structure which existed before the surface, which created the surface, and in a certain way the surface is a plane imprint of this structure. In architecture the line and the two-dimensional area do not exist – they are mathematical abstractions. Architecture is always three-dimensional – even in a micro-thin layer of paint – and thus plastic and material. As an example we can consider the distinction between color as coloring material and color as a certain shade of color, keeping in mind that the latter may be used to generate

the impression of two-dimensional areas. This notion makes it easy for me to understand construction not only as a question of technique or technology, but as tekhne (Greek: art, craft), as the urge to create, which needs the presence of an artistic or creative, human expression of will or intent, which is the starting point for the creation of every artefact. “Understanding” construction means to

grasp it intellectually after grasping it materially, with all our senses.

Extract from introductory lecture, ETH Zurich, 15 January 1999

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