Monday, March 1, 2010

Material Surrogates

What is your reasoning behind the materials assigned in Project 2? Are they supposed to be thought of in terms of building materials or as creative inspiration for componentization, fabrication, structural concepts, etc.?

In Project 1 we studied how to identify latent properties of materials as a source of design innovation. While this is useful in design, it has limited usefulness in the particular way we encountered it in Project 1. Once the latent property was discovered, it was merely nurtured: filtered, accentuated, etc. Since it was discovered in the process of designing a full-scale enclosure panel, the latent property was applied directly in the context in which the property was discovered. It was discovered while designing a panel in glass and it was applied to the design of a panel in glass, for example.

Project 2 releases the full power of material research by combining the identification of latent properties with creative recombination (i.e., “reinterpretation”). Because the material of study in Project 2 is not the material of full-scale construction, any latency found in the material of study must be reinterpreted for a different scale and different material implementation (if it was a real project moving forward toward construction). This requires creativity. On the other hand, Project 1 really only required selectivity. It required a choice about what latent property to accentuate and how to accentuate it. Project 2 requires this, but also requires recombining the latent property with other aspects of one’s situation to generate ideas for the design of a bridge. It requires scalar and material translations from plastic tubing to tube steel, or from Rockite to reinforced concrete, or from folded museum board to bent steel plate. In this way the material of study acts as a stand-in for an anticipated material of construction in the many cases when prototyping in construction-grade material at full-scale is unfeasible. Even when designers can’t prototype at full-scale, they need a way to tap the complexity of materials as a source of inspiration. Plastic tubing and curved steel tubing have many different properties, of course, and these differences must be respected, but they also share much in common, much more than we usually acknowledge, and these commonalities allow plastic tubing to act as a model-scale surrogate.

This surrogate relationship also aids collaboration with a structural engineer, for the same reason. Models made in tangible materials, which a structural engineer can even handle and manipulate, help designers communicate a more complex set of desires. Such models capture a more complex set of properties, which often capture an engineer’s imagination and spark further ideas. If you show an engineer a digital rendering of the geometry you want, then you will likely get that geometry. If you show him something he can engage empirically, he might push on it and think, “Hey, see how that bends around there, if we did that with a cable net, it might allow us to…” Empirical engagement reveals possibilities. Static depiction, less so.

To answer the question directly: materials at model-scale are engaged as what they are: plastic tubing, Rockite, wax, in order to reveal what another material might be: tube steel, reinforced concrete, structural fiberglass. This gives model-scale materials a hybrid status: such materials are both actual and representational. A designer engaged in materials research oscillates the status of such a material in his mind, one moment exploring what the material can do in its own right, the next reinterpreting this to inform his conception of a future full-scale construction.

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