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Material Dialogues: The column in the work of Labrouste, Wagner and Lewerentz

Book - Dissertation

With their focus on the formal and conceptual, most architectural studies reduce matter to a passive recipient of form. Can this perspective be reversed, given the growing realisation that material resources are finite? And if materials are considered active, in what ways do they influence the architectural project? To answer these questions, this thesis develops a material lens that considers the creative process as a dialogue, with architect and matter as equal interlocutors. Examining three historical cases with innovative iron applications, this lens reveals a dynamic interaction in which materials play larger and more complex roles than is commonly assumed. To construct the material lens, the thesis builds on theories that challenge an anthropocentric view. These broaden the perception of materials and reveal how material impacts the structure, detailing and spatial character of a project. Three historical cases serve as testing ground, starting from an epistemic building element - their iron column. Practice-based knowledge helps in revisiting archival material, in reconstructing the design steps and identifying decisive moments in the process. By redrawing 'seriations' are constructed that re-enact the creative process while setting materials in motion. Jointly, the methods reveal "material motives" or predominant material themes that describe different ways in which a material can exert influence and generate meaning. The first motive is material transfer, describing the interaction of with stone in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1868) by Henri Labrouste, where the transposition of stone culture to cast iron properties innovated the design. Assembly is the second motive, defining the process by which Otto Wagner composed his steel columns from standard profiles in the Postsparkasse (1906), steel’s assembly generating a new type of ornament. The Cor-ten steel column of the Sankt Petri Kyrka (1968) by Lewerentz is an example of how the origin of a material is thematised, as the project considered the entire life cycle of steel. Through this material vocabulary, the thesis identifies just a few of the myriad ways in which materials can challenge and innovate architecture. Complementing each other, the methods reveal the complex intertwining of material innovation and existing building cultures. They also point to the temporality of material motives, as they seem decisive only at when challenging prevailing theories and discourses. The approach, methods and case studies enable a critical conceptualisation of materials and help address the challenges currently facing the discipline.
Number of pages: 146
Publication year:2023
Keywords:Doctoral thesis