35: the material culture of architecture

on site review 35: the material culture of architecture

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in this issue: material, materialism, material culture, the material culture of architecture, the materials of architecture, architectural materialism

Ultimately, this is an issue about materials and the culture that produced them, the cultures that use them, and the culture that takes them for granted, as everyday. Often discussions about architecture tilt to the philosophical; the proliferation of ~isms that encode attitudes, dogmas, not-so-eternal verities leading us to more and more arcane discussions in which physical buildings lose their materiality and become primarily signifiers of the conditions of our time.

It surprises me that after almost 40 years of the writing of deep history in most other fields, it hasn’t permeated architecture that much. We still tend to focus on one interest and then delve into a building in search of occurrences that support that interest. If we start with the existential fact of the materials a building is made from and of, and let that lead us to a web of social, economic, historic, geographic, environmental, political, technological and cultural factors, might this not start to build an archive of deeply understood artefacts we understand as architecture?

It is a matter of which direction we approach architecture from: from our own, often abstract, carefully crafted preoccupations, or from the materiality of a built work.

The material culture of our present day architecture has roots certainly, but is not necessarily the culmination of a long process of development, rather it is the product of these times, neither progressive nor recessive, simply these times. And what are these times? We seem singularly unable to read them: our world is in chaos as orders fall, hard-won civilities crumble, alliances fracture and reform and over it all, the climate hurls us toward extinction. What does architecture have to say about such things? Is it an eloquent practice? Not as currently discussed. This is why it might be helpful to consider the small, local, hard details of the material culture of architecture, for its strengths and its blindnesses.

the original call for articles

Material culture: the things important to us that we can touch, things that mean something to us because they figure in our lives, things we see and know without having to explain why they are there.  

There is a vast literature on material culture, we won't go over it here, but we might think about architecture as material culture in the way we consider Navajo pots, pit houses and tupperware collections as micro-monuments to particular ways of living.  This isn't a conversation about the vernacular, although that is part of a larger discussion of material culture.  It is a conversation about how and why we make things, choose things and how things embody our culture(s).

The question here is: what will be read from the material culture of our houses, our settlements and artefacts when all our words, our theories, our ambitions are gone?  What does the materiality of our architecture tell us about who we are?
And, what is the materiality of our architecture?

thick description            resource extraction and use            surface
microhistory               extravagance and parsimony            shape
identity                  materials and capital accumulation        shelter
pattern identification   materials and carbon accumulation        settlement
building materials         agency                                        one short life

about On Site review: the name of this journal is grounded in material conditions, on site. Not on paper, or in words, or files, but on the ground. This is the touchstone for our discussions.

contents and amplifying links:

Andrey Chernykh, ‘Forensics of Nuclear Landscape’ pp 28-33

Nicole Dextras, ‘The Culture of Materials: Chronos, Forest Warrior’ pp 14-17

Robin Wilson, ‘The Hard and the Brut: a journey through Parisian Brutalism’ pp 34-41