When asked, What is that one thing that makes you like a particular building or makes you want to visit again, what is your answer supposedly? Has it been material all this time? It hasn’t been, has it? Despite the importance and character it holds, it is one element rarely talked about. And what is rarer is the discussion of Materiality in Architecture. 

Materiality is the concept of applied use of materials in a built-form to carve the lines sketched on paper to reality. It is a means of expression of thought subsumed in the final design. It serves as a medium that articulates ideas into built forms, shaping different forms and volumes. It is about materials in any form, natural or virtual, or a combination of both. For instance, imagery or text printed on a tile or laminate explains that the existence of virtual materials is justified when applied intertwined with natural materials.

Materiality In Architecture_©Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn

Materiality talks about the significance of the apt application of different materials on conceptual grounds and how they bring the true character of design to users. Once secondary, it has now gained prime importance in architectural discourse and thinking architecture among designers. Akin to the tissue and skin the materials define the shape and specifics of the structure. Materiality acts as a medium of transference of artistic thoughts of the designer to the inhabitants. Materials are the language of the project often translated through aesthetics or physical elements of design.

Immateriality and its coherence with Materiality

Architecture is perceived as something solid, static, and stable but any design is conceived with thoughts and ideas, construction techniques and materials are a lateral concept. The primary thought behind any design defines immateriality in its bare form. The ideas and concepts are woven with materials to carve a structure and philosophically speaking if materials are removed from a structure then what keeps it connected is a net of thoughts sewed together to conceive the life of a building. 

The concept of Immateriality and Materiality are intertwined to design any space and if either removed there is no significant existence of any. As Palassma narrates in his book The Eyes of the Skin that ‘Instead of mere vision, Architecture involves realms of sensory experience which interact and fuse into each other’, the immateriality is also expressed through sensory experiences of a space by a user.

Earlier in the 18th century, immateriality was a known theory of design, through which buildings were connected to the user. Back then material was an afterthought, once the idea is processed towards practicality through sketches and drawings then material needs were discussed. But ain’t the 18th century anymore and now designers are tracing the trajectory of material use based on characteristics and merits favorable to a particular design.   

Evolution of Materials and Materiality

The materials and their architectural application have seen tremendous development and revolution since the first architectural existence till today. The first primitive design is believed to be a hut made of timber branches and mud finish as speculated by Vitruvius but if more precisely considered the first living space was a hut made out of four tree trunks supporting a pediment of branches as depicted in Marc-Antoine’s An essay on Architecture,1753. 

Frontispiece from Marc-Antoine’s An essay on architecture_©Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

In ancient times the concept of materiality was prevalent in terms of proximity, the materials that were easily and readily available were used to construct a space. The eras were referred to as stone age, copper age, bronze age, iron age, steel age, and silicon and polymer age symbolizing the prevalent material being put to use, and this classification reflects the importance of materiality and its understanding amongst designers. The materials are continuously being evolved but the pace of evolution has increased in recent times according to the needs and wants of different built-forms.

Today we have a wide range of materials available and new being discovered now and then. There is now rarely any material used for its singular characteristic, the criteria of judgment analysis many characteristics and number of options available to implicate them in a design.

Sandra Karina Löschke in her article Immaterial Materialities throws light on how materiality came into the limelight by August Schmarsow’s concept of spatial awareness in the interplay between body and material, Alois Riegl’s parallelism between deep space and sensation, and Robert Vischer’s advancement of space empathy relations, this all depicted an effort to explore the material world. 

The analogy did not concern the physical state or characteristics of material but the sensory effects they have on users, and that is how the concept of materiality stood out as an individual approach and not the same as materials. And the interesting fact to be addressed here is the fact these people do not belong to the architecture fraternity but then too researched and understood the concept of materiality.

During the Avant-garde era, the relation between human beings and materials was reconceptualized and described as materialized energy, thus after elucidating the effects on physiological and psychological behaviors of users by the environment, materials to be specific. 

Contemporary architecture and the digital era have given rise to responsive materials that work on user demands. The re-thinking of the traditional materials like timber, stone, and wood and the application of forgotten methods can be observed by architects like Kengo Kuma and Peter Zumthor. The conventional materiality is being tested in different architectural prototypes like parametric and futuristic designs to understand the structural stability and explore ways to enhance the same. Also, the waste materials, byproducts of material productions, or natural materials are being fused with different chemically reactive elements to devise a new material with improved characteristics combatting the present needs of architectural design.

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CLT Park Harumi by Kengo Kuma and Timber being the hero of the design_©Kobayashi Kenji
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Kolumba Museum by Peter Zumthor made in continuation with the ruins with the concept of reflecting pasts_©Rasmus Hjortshoj – COAST Studio

Concept of Digital Materiality

Digital materiality is the emerging transformation in the expression of thought and design character with the synthesis of material and the digital world. With digitalization and more precise data access, the material is more informed and new realities can be devised. It provides the architects with an opportunity to explore design through the facts and figures realm and enhances the scope of the profession.

Digital orders intensify the characteristics of materials, they are not just not a surface or texture but a physical entity with depth and layers. The conversation between materiality and digital enriches different aspects of each other along the process of designing. Digital materiality is generated with programming and construction techniques combined. Digital fabrication is the process of manufacturing various design components in a sequential form. This concept has brought to life the thoughts of designs that wouldn’t have been possible to live if not for digital fabrication. The computational arena is where data, artificial intelligence, mathematics, codes, and software come together to shape a design idea. 

Materiality in Architecture
Models made using Digital Materiality_©www.asd.sutd.edu.sg

Materiality transcends the user to the imagination of the designer and defines the thought process behind any structure in some sense or the other. Talking about some live examples of buildings doing the deed will make the concept more clearer so narrating a few here.

Here are some buildings that reflect materiality:

  1. Seed House, Sydney
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Seed House in Sydney by Fitzpatrick Partners_©John Gollings & Ben Guthrie

A design responding to trees and bushlands strongly reflects materiality, scale, and size in its free-flowing spaces. Extensive use of Timber and intricate detailing celebrate architecture and its inseparability from its surroundings makes it a wanna-be home for any dweller. 

The wooden battened doors, stone masonry, local sandstone, varying species of timber, use of recycled on-site materials, minimal application of paint, blend of new and old technologies, and particular choices of finishes reflect the architect’s awareness and acknowledgment of the importance of materiality in a design concerning the surroundings and design concept. The architect James Fitzpatrick revealed that it took 3 years to just finalize the design of the house because of the appropriate implication of materials that align with the design character.

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Seed House in Sydney by Fitzpatrick Partners_©John Gollings & Ben Guthrie
  1. Lycee Schorge Secondary School, Burkina Faso
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Lycee Schorge secondary school by Kere Architecture_©Iwan Baan

This school design sets an example of construction with locally sourced materials and putting them to use innovatively to combat the site conditions. It is a 9 module design consisting of a series of classrooms and administration areas with walls made of Locally available Laterite stone. This stone can be easily shaped into bricks when fresh and hardens when left for a while acting as a viable option for wall construction. It also provides thermal characteristics to the design, lowering the interior temperatures that are otherwise unbearable due to the hot climate in the region. 

The wavy concrete and plaster ceiling are a bit offset from each other to provide ample ventilation and make the space breathable. The off-white color of the ceiling is chosen to spread diffused daylight for appropriate illumination and preventing solar heat gain. The major differentiating element of the design is the blanket of the wooden screens wrapping the whole building as a secondary facade providing shade and protection from dust and winds to the areas surrounding classrooms. It is an appreciable materiality-oriented design showcasing how effectively basic materials can be utilized with creativity and leave significant effects.

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Lycee Schorge secondary school by Kere Architecture_©Iwan Baan
  1. House in a Grove, Tamil Nadu, India
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House in a grove in India by STO.M.P_©Prithvi M. Samy

House in a grove is a reclaimed architectural heritage redesigned according to the needs of the client to keep the historical vibe intact. The house has an open plan concept with indoor and outdoor spaces connected with corridors and voids. The materiality comes into action to deal with the hot climatic conditions of the region. The front terracotta jali is one such feature instilled to ensure ventilation and dappled light to the indoors and no direct sunlight. 

The metal gate and stoned wall gardens with flowers and water features at the entrance distinguish the artsy vibe of the house from its urban surroundings. The exposed concrete ceiling, timber finishes, and mix of Jaisalmer and Kota marble with Athangudi tiles impart the Chettinad legacy to the place and also its design character sets it apart from the harsh exteriors.

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House in a grove in India by STO.M.P_©Prithvi M. Samy
  1. Church San Giovanni Battista, Switzerland
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_Church San Giovanni Battista in Switzerland by Mario Botta_©Ernst Christen

Now if we travel a bit in time, this one dates back to 1986 designed by architect Mario Botta gracing a small village Mogno, Maggia valley in Switzerland. It is a thick stone construction with a glass roof imparting strength to the structure for any possible future mishappening. It casts attention on another aspect of materiality describing how aesthetics is not bound by the presence of innumerable materials but a single material rightfully used can create a profound design. The rectangle inscribed in an ellipse converting to a circle depicts a thoughtful interplay of shapes using a singular material.

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Church San Giovanni Battista in Switzerland by Mario Botta_©www.en.wikipedia.org
  1. Brick House, Mumbai, India

It is a farmhouse in hills amidst a rural settlement in Wada, Mumbai. The major element of materiality here is brick as the name would have suggested and stone, Ferro-cement, wood, bamboo being among other applied materials composing together an earthy vibe built-form. The spaces converge into each other moving the eyes of the viewer along curved lines and different views. 

This design reflects how the right choice of material can result in a green design leading to a better environmental impact and also cut on the economics as this one costs only INR 12 lac due to the maximum elimination of materials like steel, cement, plastering, and sourcing locally available materials. Also, the varieties of architectural elements like brick jalis, brick arches, rattrap bonds in brickwork, are incorporated in the design using a single material that is aesthetically pleasing and thoughtful.

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Brick House In Wada, India by iStudio Architecture_©AN clicks

The concept of materiality in architecture communicates the essence of design to the users and the viewers. It enhances function, form, conceptual idea, aesthetics, and appropriate usage at the end. The focus should be kept on the materiality aspects while designing a space, not after, and also it is a step in the direction of green architecture which is a motto of every field concerned person. Moreover, the materiality should be discussed and appreciated to signify its presence and highlight the importance of its implication. 

So next time when you are going out for lunch keep in mind to take a glimpse at the materiality of the place and what character it imparts to the design!


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Sarra, F., 2021. Materiality in Architecture | Modern + Materiality | Frank Franco. [online] FrankFranco Architects. Available at: <https://www.frankfranco.com/inspiration/modern-materiality/> [Accessed 2 October 2021].

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Aastha is an architecture graduate who is enthusiastic about playing with words and inditing the stories waiting to be told. Apart from being an expressionist she is an avid reader and a philomath on a journey to make a difference with her deeds.

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