Materiality and Immateriality in Architecture

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Humans seek balance throughout their lives, both physically and mentally in order to find comfort. This is our reality. You may never have the whole of one without, at the very least, the part of another, otherwise, there is imbalance. You may never have light without dark, nor silence without noise, never a life without death, and as such, material without immaterial. They are symbiotic, and therefore, will always work together in harmony or dichotomy to create a depth of sensation in architecture where-in our presence in the space created can alter our perceptions.

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The definitions of material, materiality, immaterial, and immateriality within the English language are closely related to the thoughts of Leon Battista Alberti, Jonathan Hill, and Juhani Pallasmaa as outlined in the book Introducing Architectural Theory, by Korydon Smith. This idea of symbiosis between materiality and immateriality most closely relates to, and agrees with, the theories placed forth by Jonathan Hill that argues architecture should, “fuse the immaterial and the material . . . so that they are in conjunction not opposition.”

In order to expand on this, examples of design precedents from Iowa State’s architecture program will be analyzed within the boundaries of their materiality and immateriality. In order to understand the relationship between materials, architecture, and the preceding theories put forth in this paper, materiality and immateriality must be defined. Material is defined as the matter from which things can be made or denoting that of physical objects rather than spiritual.

It can also be defined as information used for ideas or writing; keep this in mind when comparing to the immaterial; which is defined as the spiritual or intangible rather than the physical. This is interesting because these definitions provide a bridged understanding of the terms. Although material is understood as physical, its literary definition creates a transition from words (tangible) to thoughts (intangible). One, then, might make the argument that these words, not just in meaning, but in their roots, carry an inherent connection. Jonathan Hill focuses on a material architecture that produces conditions that allow a user or occupant to decide whether the space is material or immaterial. Here, both are welcome to coexist, rather, it is the thoughts and perceptions of an individual that choose what is reality within the building’s context. This illustrates what I believe to be true, that both materiality and immateriality form a whole and it is our perception, or more, our responsibility to choose what is true for ourselves. A building, in this way, can be one of an infinite number of iterations based solely on the intangible thoughts about a tangible building.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s north building façade is composed of a two-part system; glass and screening. Glass is a transparent object that responds to its own context, whether that be light, color, water, etc. and relates to the immaterial. The screening corresponds to the material and is immediately tangible, it is unmistakably a physical object attached to the building. From here, it is up to the occupant to decide what to believe about the architecture; because the screening was designed to control natural forces like light passing through the glass it acknowledges the physical presence of the glass, does that make both materials tangible and therefor, material? Or, does the leniency of glass and the opacity of metal represent the harmony between immateriality and materiality? This is where one’s own perception comes into play. Perhaps I am the occupant and initially see the screening as a physical part of the building and the glass as an attempt by the architect to create a “false” or intangible wall because I cannot really see it, I simply theorize that it is there because a façade open to elements seems impractical; I then touch the glass and, from this new sensation, decide that the façade as a whole denotes an entirely physical ideal, a material palate.

The most important concept from this scenario is that it is up to the individual to determine a building’s importance. Immaterial may also be defined as the irrelevant or unimportant under circumstance. This relates to Plato’s idea that immaterial is associated with the formless; the formless, since intangible, is often synonymous with the irrelevant; but often the formless spaces between the walls or columns of a structure are intentional and more important to its designer than the physical form. Plato also argues that it is the formless that most resembles true reality and is the truest source of knowledge. This illustrates the importance and the impact of the immaterial, contradicting one of the preceding definitions as well as the thoughts of Leon Batista Alberti on materiality and the importance of the physical composition of architecture as well as how those physical materials are used in construction. Alberti begins his writing enthralled in the complexity of constructing without fault or imperfection and highlights a human’s innate abilities to know what is right and what is wrong in their surroundings, it is because of the heavy criticism that follows this ability, Leon argues, that the physical, or material, aspect of a building is so very important and why flawless constructions deserves an occupant’s full attention. One might go as far as to say that he believed the immaterial or intangible thoughts of an occupant on the building detracts from the skill and care that when into its construction and insults the people responsible for such work. Indeed, the importance of craftmanship in architecture is immeasurable, but, does not inherently hold the only importance. It, once again, coexists with the immaterial. The works of Louis Kahn are prime examples of the emphasis of material and construction, as most of his buildings are made of stone or masonry materials that “tell him what they want to be.”

If craft was not of such importance in the Pabellón de Portugal, its success would not be so well documented, instead, its flaws would be the point of focus for so many of the world’s critics. In my life I try to live within a harmonious state, as might most people; it is natural after all, that is, to be in balance physically and mentally. Why, then, would such a concept not span all facets of life? I may argue that my reactions and beliefs surrounding materiality, immateriality, and the stances of these authors are based on my own perception of reality; what it means to be in harmony personally. Our actions are most often projections of our thoughts and our thoughts reactions to the consequences of our actions. It is a cycle, a relationship, a harmonious connection, symbiotic between our material bodies and our immaterial minds. We experience life through this dichotomy, so it seems to follow that it is impossible to fully separate the two. To do so would be to separate ourselves from reality, something that is generally believed to be either impossible, or of a higher order; religion. Our need for balance in life is thus projected onto our architecture, whether intentional or not, this is why any building can be different based on an individual’s perception at that moment in time; if said person were to revisit the same architecture, who is to say it would not have a new impact.

The idea of infinite iterations was introduced at the beginning of this paper based on the idea that perception dictates reality; the materiality and immateriality of a building. Alberti, Hill, and Pallasmaa argue individual facets of the experience of architecture in their own perception of it. Each believes in either materiality, immateriality, or both in conjunction. This juxtaposition is in itself an analogy of my overall thesis; how a topic may have multiple meanings to the individual simply from perception. Successful architecture does not chase perfection, for it only exists uniquely to each person, instead, it should aspire to provide conditions favorable to a variety of experiences. It should incorporate texture, sound, color, light, movement, and anything sensational that would provide an array of personal experiences. A designer can only ever wish or hope for occupants of their building to react a certain way, thus, I believe it is their responsibility to provide a space that considers a person’s development up until that point and allow them to respond.

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