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Spot the difference: while so many manufacturers persist in making their products look like something else, can they persuade architects to embrace them eagerly?

Years ago a young architect from one of the most respected and successful practices started a conversation with me about steel.

Wasn't it a pity, she said, that steel always had to be painted or have a surface applied to it. Wouldn't it be lovely to be able to use the material in its natural state? Well, I said, there was something called weathering steel that didn't have to be painted; it produced its own protective layer. Yes, she said, but it went an orangey purple colour, and that wasn't what she was looking for. And she didn't want to use stainless steel either. I tried to explain that leaving normal steel uncoated and untreated just wasn't feasible, because of that nasty thing called rust. This was in some ways a depressing conversation, but it did at least reflect how closely many architects are wedded to the idea of honesty of materials, even when, in some cases, they are chasing an impossible dream.

Why is it, then, that so many manufacturers of building materials are only concerned with making things that look like something else? In our theme on doors and windows (see pages 8-18) Sutherland Lyall discusses the fact that almost all manufacturers are keen to imitate wood. Manufacturers of plastic doors labour to give them a convincing grain and colour, whereas in fact many wooden doors are painted with such glossy paints that their surfaces resemble plastic.

Makers of plastic windows are rightly proud that they can now produce more slender sections, and that many of the quality problems from early days are now behind them. In fact, they have advanced by leaps and bounds with the result that some of them can now produce windows that look very like wooden ones - complete with a wood-grain finish. But why do they bother?

If plastic windows are so good, why don't they celebrate their? (what should we call it? ) plasticity? There are a few nods to artifi ce in terms of colour, with a frightening magenta or emerald green occasionally popping up on an exhibition stand, but that is as far as it goes. A couple of years ago, one manufacturer was approaching a fashionable designer to come up with a new concept for a plastic window, but we have heard nothing since then.

And it's not only plastic. Artificial roof slates and tiles, produced in a variety of ways, always strive to resemble the real thing, whereas in fact they could be very different, suffering none of the constraints of the natural product. Plastic drainage pipes are coloured to look like terracotta, although their manufacturers are keen to tell us how superior they are. And if we blame the planners for the conservatism of the external envelope, then what happens when we go indoors? We find laminate floors, all trying to look like wood, and ceramic tiles mimicking a whole gamut of fi nishes. Playful imitation can be charming, making a hard surface look as if it is soft, or a porous one appear solid, but component manufacturers still seem to be stuck with slavish imitation.

All these manufacturers of 'replacement' products are keen to promote their virtues, whether these be lightness, cheapness, low maintenance requirements, durability or reliability. There is a great market for actors who are lookalikes, so you can have Marilyn Monroe at your party, or somebody to do the dangerous stunts or even run the risks of public appearances. But nobody thinks they are as good as the real thing, and they don't earn as much. As long as manufacturers of new components persist in slavishly imitating what came before, they will never rise above the status of a tribute band. If they really want the starring role, and to be welcomed by the most discriminating architects, they must forge a new aesthetic. Now there's a design challenge for somebody.

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