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Material world

Materials, Form and Architecture By Richard Weston. Laurence King, 2003. 240pp. £35

What a delight: a book about materials that isn't a catalogue of building materials.No lists of the properties of stone, wood, concrete, glass and steel; instead, an invitation to think about what materials are, and about what it means to call architecture an art of materials.

The fact is that, for all the talk about 'materials' and 'materiality' today, there is a real poverty of ideas with which to discuss these sorts of questions.Writing about materials generally tends either towards phenomenological mysticism (materials are the revelation of being), or to technological progressivism (materials are being improved all the time, and architecture should get on with finding new forms to express their properties).Richard Weston, to his credit, avoids both of these, and succeeds in an extraordinarily comprehensive and non-partisan account of the arguments and ideas that architects have had about materials.

Why is there so much talk about materials these days? Weston's answer is that Modernism's emphasis on space and structure put materials in the shade; and that when Post-Modernism discovered materials, it impoverished them by using them as signs, so that nothing was itself, but always represented something else.

There is another reason too, which is that materials seemed to satisfy that yearning for a constant; with the demise of other unifying architectural immutables - mathematics, geometry, the human body - materials looked as if they could be the common denominator that connected all architecture at all times. But this is a fallacy, because materials, as Weston makes perfectly clear, are not timeless. Granite in ancient Egypt is not the same as granite in the City of London today, for even if the chemical composition of the stone hasn't changed, we ourselves have; architectural materials are always about a relationship between those who build - their mental outlook and physical capacity - and the substances with which they build.

Weston is good at showing that what a material is depends upon the time and place of its employment.

Anyone who tries to talk about materials today very quickly finds that discussion about them is still stuck in the 19th century, which is when there was last any really creative thinking about matter as part of architecture.

The 20th-century emphasis upon dematerialising architecture meant that the discourse of materials languished, and so it is still to the great writers of the 19th century, Ruskin, Semper and Viollet-le-Duc, that we resort for our ideas.

One of the virtues of Weston's book is that he reviews the whole 19th-century debate, and the various 20th-century additions to it.Materials, Form and Architecture does not pretend to be a new theory of materials, but as an intelligent survey of existing and recent thinking about materials (there's an especially good final chapter on the Swiss phenomenon), it could hardly be better.

What distinguishes Weston's book, besides the lucid text, are the superlative illustrations. If ever proof were needed of the merits of authors taking their own photographs, this is it: Weston's photographs actually show what it is he is talking about, under the light conditions appropriate to whatever it is he wants us to see. So much more use than the blemish-free photographs of professional photographers.

If I have a criticism, it is Weston's preference for the works of 'great' architects. Not that I have any complaints over what he has to say about these - on the contrary, he is intensely interesting, always thoughtful and fresh with first-hand observation; nor did I mind that so many of his examples are drawn from Aalto and Utzon, whose work he knows so well.

No, my regret is that he did not give more attention to everyday construction. The language of materials is not controlled by the avant-garde - it includes all building, civil engineering too, and if one wants to understand what the avant-garde is up to, one has to look at the full register.All the same, this is a wonderfully perceptive and readable book that architecture students will love.

Adrian Forty is professor of architectural history at the Bartlett

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