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On the surface

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Skin: Surface, Substance and Design By Ellen Lupton. Laurence King, 2002. 240pp. £26 (Accompanying an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, until 15 September)

This is a great taster book for a subject that is both relevant and fashionable: skin, surface, blobs, folds - key themes that have dominated architectural theory and education for the past decade. Typically, most writings associated with these trends are either abstruse or ridiculously reverential; this book is neither. It does, admittedly, tend towards the addictive shallowness of musthave consumer magazines, but it is an exhibition catalogue of contemporary product design, so it is not surprising that there is an element of soft sell.

Exhibits - a cross disciplinary collection of packaging, clothes, art works, furniture and representations of architecture - have been organised into six themes. The nomenclature is interesting (Beauty, Horror + Biotechnology, Vessels + Membranes, Warps + Folds), but the actual classifications are rather spurious. It is a forced structure, but it does not unduly intrude.

The three short essays at the beginning are much more successful, particularly those by Ellen Lupton (the curator) and Alicia Imperiale. They provide a clear overview of the subject matter, and raise issues that give you a framework for assessing the exhibits.

'Skin: New Design Organics', by Lupton sets the main premise - contemporary design is focused on the skin (surface) rather than the skeleton (structure). 'New Organics' is characterised by a crossover of skin properties; at the same time that developments in biotechnologies and cosmetic surgery make 'natural' skin more manufactured, products are showing more skin-like properties.

The theme is continued and extended into a more architectural application in Imperiale's 'Digital Skins: The Architecture of Surface'. Imperiale explains that, in contrast to the Modernist dialectical division between interior and exterior space, contemporary works compress allusions of spatial depth into the surface. This emphasis on the complex surface has theoretical, material and technical roots, all of which have provided designers with means to produce (and describe) this new aesthetic: the Deleuzian idea of continual spatial flows, developments of new materials where the boundaries between the natural and the man-made are blurred, and, of course, digital technology.

Imperiale also neatly observes that the spatial development from Modernist to contemporary forms is mirrored in our design drawing methods, by the difference between Cartesian and algorithmic mathematics - points in space (x, y, z co-ordinates as in AutoCAD and Microstation-type software) versus surface geometries (NURBS splines, as in CATIA, Rhinoceros and Form Z-type software).

The essay is unfortunately illustrated by the rather overused (unbuilt) examples of Greg Lynn et al, but Imperiale is able to stand far enough back from the subject to make refreshingly sharp criticism. How accurate is the architectural world's use of Deleuze? What stops interior volume becoming inferior leftover space, a result of the over-prescribed external form? Is technology devised for three-dimensional modelling of products such as shampoo bottles really appropriate for large-scale urban interventions?

Jennifer Tobias' essay, 'Artificial Skin: Ingrown and Outsourced', is more problematic. It is an account of the properties and possibilities of skin - for example, grafting, skin substitutes, and stem cell research - but I suspect that this subject will be cherrypicked and downgraded to the inaccurate pseudo-science so loved by architects.

This use of technology is my main concern about the theme as a whole. Despite constant references to the impact of imagery, the whole subject has been postrationalised through the scientific analogy of skin. We know, though, that these products are more aesthetically than technically determined. They look like they do because someone wants them to.

Some of the objects appear quite beautiful, and I assume will be even more impressive when seen in the flesh. But if image is replacing tactility as Lupton suggests, one wonders why they want to mount an exhibition at all.

Sarah Jackson is an architect in London

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