Review: ‘Immaterial Materialities’ symposium, Sydney

January 3, 2013

AR editor Michael Holt reflects on ideas raised at the recent Interstices Symposium in Sydney, ‘Immaterial Materialities: Materiality and Interactivity in Art and Architecture’, taking place in November.

The University of Technology Sydney’s Schools of Architecture and Design played host to the Immaterial Materialities: Materiality and Interactivity in Art and Architecture conference in November, gathering academics and practitioners alike to discuss the current position on materiality in the contemporary discipline from a particularly critical vantage.

Materiality, as a pronounced importance on art and architecture, disappears and reappears historiographically on the psyche; whether it is through the German aesthetes Freidrich Theodor Vischer or August Schmarsow, or the early avant-gardists Lazar Markovich El Lissitzky or Theo van Doesburg, through to the neo-avant gardists of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. As technological advancements have accelerated, so have the abilities to conjure ever-more illusory sensations as to the materials deployed by the likes of Olafur Eliasson in his use of temperature, light, colour and water. Materials have manifested as mediators between audience and user; resonating and interactive, temporal and diaphanous, the high-tech materials used by Lars Spuybroek, the weather architectures of Jonathan Hill, and, the subtle repurposing of nature as spatial experience in the works of American architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. What transmutes is a response; connotative and simultaneously representable.

Materiality, in the contemporary situation, was posited as somewhat entirely immaterial. Such immateriality invariably raises questions as to the distinction between material and immaterial, art and science, practice and theory, representation and experience, tradition and innovation, and producer/object/user. It probes boundaries and polemically quizzes the notion of identity.

Through a series of presented papers and keynote presentations (Philip Ursprung, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich, and Jonathan Hill, University College London, Bartlett) the conference’s chief objectives were well defined and yet not restrictive, allowing for a thorough and entirely expansive approach to a seemingly form- driven aspect of the discipline.

Ursprung’s keynote focused on the works of Peter Zumthor and Herzog & de Meuron. He focused on Zumthor’s Saint Benedict Chapel (Sumvitg, Switzerland, 1989) project through the images of photographer Hans Danuser. In doing so, he stated that Zumthor was a pivotal figure in a “transitional period” in architecture. Ursprung, in describing the project in such terms, opens up the presentation to the wider issue: that both Swiss architects were pivotal in a “pictorial turn,” where Postmodernism’s use of words was replaced by the pure power of image. His key examples were the photographic representation of Zumthor’s project – images deriving from Danuser’s works on post-industrial power plants or cooling towers – and Herzog & de Meuron repurposing Thomas Ruff’s images in order to manifest building-as-frame, whereby their work acted as a filter. The figural ambiguity of Danuser’s photography and the translucent materiality of Herzog & de Meuron’s earlier commissioned works, according to Ursprung, suggested a shift from a conventional approach. Both offices began to represent the non-representable through visual materiality; an artificiality of visual perception. Ursprung stated that both architects attempted to “rupture the urban web which, at first, may have seemed violent.”

Where Ursprung centred on materials for altering perception or legibility of spaces, Jonathan Hill’s keynote lecture was based on his investigative research into ‘weather architectures.’ Both share a desire to alter visual perception and to call into question the technocracy of Modernism, but such similar ideological imprints are merely a point of departure for the two speakers. Ursprung promotes the flat surface of the pictorial representation as a mechanism for altering visual experience, whereas Hill believes that only in perspectival tampering can the visual truly be in flux. He wishes to ‘redeem’ the Picturesque and Romantic from “trite associations,” going as far as to claim the Picturesque as encompassing sensory experience beyond the visual. His prominent example is William Kent’s Rousham House & Garden, Oxfordshire, UK, a project that was conceived in perspective. According to Hill, it is a “multi-perspectival space of multiple paths.”

His broader focus, however, is on the idea that “today architects draw buildings as if they were already built,” whereas In the Eighteenth Century they drew buildings in multiple states: under construction, as complete, or in ruin. He forms an analogy between the ruin and the alternate possibilities of weather in architecture stating that “the ruin and the weather are metaphors for time, decay and death.” He elaborates further to suggest that the weather is an authorial voice on built projects which can constantly switch the pictorial possibilities of perception. His example was how Alison Smithson invoked the Picturesque as a found condition in the Upper Lawn Pavilion and states that the project was exposed to the weather and would have to submit to the seasons. Hill’s overarching conjecture was to suggest that as ‘weather’ is purely experiential, ‘climate’ is an aggregated notion based on cumulative observations, and so architecture could align itself to the possibilities within the variabilities of weather, rather than a normative and inflexible climate.

The keynotes were flanked by a wealth of academic presentations that explored the broader spectrum of the conference subject. Notable speakers included Sophie Psarra (UCL, Bartlett) who promoted the notion that architecture should focus discussion on the discipline itself and to not be reliant on external constructs which are liberally applied; Nugroho Utomo (University of Canberra) who presented research on Brutalist materiality in Australian architecture; Matthias Ludwig and Hochschule Wismar presenting East German architect Ulrich Müther’s innovative concrete shell structures; and, Andrea Connor (University of Technology, Sydney) whose evocative address, The Fragmented Afterlife of the World Trade Center: Mediating Modernity after 9/11, presented the newly-found homes of recycled steelwork from the Twin Towers.

Each of the keynote lectures and ancillary presentations sought to bring about questions: to critically explore the contemporary discipline’s approach to materiality. The conference polemically concluded that materials can significantly alter perception of architectural space but, more significantly, can do so from acute angles or parallax positions. Whether it is through the tactility of concrete, a multiplicity of simultaneous vantage, or through the visual flux of an ambiguous flat surface; materials can be technologically evolving and with such evolution comes experimentation that continues to probe the notion of boundary and identity.

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