New Design Tools of Reference: Hyper-Materiality

axonometrica 0093 HYPER-MATELIALITY

New Design Tools of Reference: Hyper-Materiality

NOTE: The next text is part of a number of significant posts I published in that blog, that have been recently translated into english.

I would like to thanks to Josephine Watson for the translation of the texts. I guess, in the near future, to translate some others more regularly and start with the english version of axonometrica.

In that case, the text I publish today is, with others, the seed of a research about a contemporary approach to some key points in architecture we are doing in my studio Archikubik with my partners and architects Carmen Santana and Marc Chalamanch, and also at the University, ESARQ from Universitat Internacional de Catalunya at the final degree design unit with Professor Marta García-Orte. The authory of the text is in partnership with her.

Any comment or suggestion will be very well accepted.

There is no architecture without faith in the material.[1]


If we understand the idea of matter in its philosophical form, namely, as all that which exists outside of the spirit and separate from thought, or the non-spiritual and non-ideal part of reality, our definition of the term will be purely negative. We may stick to this definition and outline the role of materiality in architecture as a destination. We may determine any decision regarding matter as an unintentional sub-product of previous decisions, pure consequence. Following the previous line of thought, all that which has no awareness, all that which doesn’t think, all that which has no memory, intelligence, intention or emotion is material.

This may be the case in traditional economic thought or it may make sense in metaphysics, but we do not believe the precept is valid in the case of architecture. It is even less valid for architectural theory or for contemporary physics, which endows matter with thinking abilities by introducing the time vector (memory) in its formulation after quantum physics. To put it more simply, we have all learnt lessons related to memory, intelligence, will and/or emotion from the strict material nature of architecture. In Aristotelian terms matter may not think, but it certainly provides food for thought, making an essential and structurally constitutive contribution to spatial experience rather than a marginal one.

Let’s move on a little. The definition of materialism refers to ‘any doctrine or attitude that privileges matter, in one way or another.'[2] This is where architecture can begin to feel identified. To a certain extent, all valuable architectural reflections are indebted to materialism insofar as, in essence, it doesn’t consist of denying the existence of thought but of denying the absolute condition and ontological independence of thinking, its transcendent quality which, if taken to the extreme, would lead to God.

Materiality and Contemporaneity

Contrarily, the contemporary version of materialism enables us to relate matter and thought in an intricate indiscernible way. To make it easier to digest, just as it is absurd to say that ‘If I take a walk, I am a walk,’ in an extreme caricature of an insatiable idealism, it is equally absurd to say that only my atoms take a walk, only my essential physical constitution, while the set of reflections, affections and observations characterising the act of walking appear in a different sphere, not in that of the walk itself. In short, to do and to think, to think and to be are in fact so interrelated that they are one and the same, just as thinking architecture and real architecture are inseparable.

Once we have accepted this basic framework, we believe it is vital to account for several aspects of the relationship between brain and hand, in other words, the inseparable relationship between thinking and doing, between the idealist and the materialist, which are indeed one and the same. The material fact of architecture entails an ethical preposition that can be assimilated to the pragmatic intention of the craftsman to do things well, in the understanding that while the material condition of architecture specifically addresses the technical realm, it is in fact produced in the cultural sphere.

The connection between hand and head should be included in all reflections on the materiality of architecture, just as all fine craftsmen maintain a dialogue between specific practices and thought.[3] In this sense, we believe it is vital to establish the primitive relationship between matter and the material significance of architecture as a space of reflection and action, that derives from what Richard Sennett calls the development of skill, or what we used to call métier. In order to develop a body of cultural, but also technological, social, economic and political thought, starting from the idea of materiality we must accept, ‘[F]irst, that all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; second, that technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination. The first argument focuses on knowledge gained in the hand through touch and movement. The argument about imagination begins by exploring language that attempts to direct and guide bodily skill. This language works best when it shows imaginatively how to do something.[4]


It is from this double perspective—that of a conceptual materialism and that of the implication and perfecting of skills—that we understand the idea of hyper-materiality as a design tool of reference for architecture. That is to say, the material quality of architecture is a materiality full of properties, capacities and potentialities that transcend the actual conception of the material and project matter in architecture to a central position for the constitution of meanings: the hyper-material as a tool for the hand and for the brain, for the architectural fact in itself, and for the construction of the narrative associated with all spatial experience.

The realisation that the core fabric of all forms of architecture (and of all cities) is the fabric that physically shapes them, the concept of hyper-materiality is an attempt to take this truism one step forward. We are not only referring to the skin of architecture, to the layers of a certain epithelial thickness which have enjoyed great popularity over the past ten to fifteen years, but to a deeper level of construction—to what has been built and is real.

Furthermore, to materials with tactile, light and evocative properties we must add performative, relational and emotional aspects. Indeed, this reflective trend is not new: the idea of nature playing a central role in the design process of the architectural object, and consequently in its materiality, surfaced in the sixties. Figure and ground merge in an open logic in which figure becomes ground and ground is transmuted into figure. ‘The architectural work, therefore, is not conceived as a finished material object but as an artefact capable of originating processes and exchanges with its environment, blurring its limits by allowing its surroundings to act on it. As a result, uncertainty and the permanent change characterising the environment are introduced as basic elements in its conception.'[5]

At this point we may speak of materials with a memory of shape—biomimetic or bio-digital materials—that open the door to a reactive technological materiality that is capable of exchanging information starting from environmental conditions and immediately altering some of its features.

There is another position, however, perhaps not contrary but at least distanced from cutting edge technology and equally valid: that of genuine materiality, a much more accurate term than honest materiality, that refers to the use of traditional materials and building techniques based on the condition of raw material painstakingly manipulated, of natural appearance in which the specific weight of the material (light or heavy) and its proximity are its constituent values. We could thus speak of a material hyper-contextualism. The use of that which we associate with tradition should not be mistaken for a conservationist position in the worst sense of the word. What is intended is to design from a position of proximity but to design in a contemporary way. The success of this materiality lies in the minimum change suffered by the spirit of the place, preserving an interpretation that may be linear but is still correctly related to that permanent place where architecture is implemented.

Last but not least, we would like to mention another dimension of hyper-materiality. If we accept that industrial processes form an inherent part of material production, constructional solutions should derive from raw material taken from the industrial cycle, i.e., surplus or waste products from other industrial processes that are manipulated and transformed into recycled materials. In this sense, the time vector and the opportunity of obtaining rejected raw material appear as important factors in this new materiality.

Following a similar logic, far from falsely ecological components we discover a diverted materiality—in other words, the use of materials and/or constructional techniques taken from other spheres, such as civil architecture or art, which are then barely manipulated and transformed into materials for façades, paving or other unforeseen applications. This strategy benefits from the opportunity of resorting to established constructional techniques or systems that are not, however, used as materials.

Full Stop

In all the strategies we have announced, hyper-materiality appears as a design resource insofar as it conceives the material and constructional as a driving force for the fabrication of a narrative that the architectural design will develop. That is to say, the materiality of architecture does not derive from a coherently structured discarding process, nor is it the end product of a chain of decisions; on the contrary, materiality is used as a strategic element in the creation of this coherence. In short, the notion of hyper-materiality enhances architecture and provides a solid design tool.

In sum, reading the interesting article Esas tenemos by José Ballesteros[6] in a positive light, we should produce buildings that welcome the possibilities offered by industry, accepting their improvements in our architecture, making sure they don’t stick out a mile, and contextualising all that materiality can offer for the construction of the urban framework and architectural space.

The truth is that ‘[M]any architects are involved in exploring new materials, inside and outside universities, in research groups or in association with companies. Such new adaptations of materials that we are already using, new production processes that improve them, making them more efficient and longer lasting are also designed to noticeably change our spaces.

Several architects are working with minimal building elements, drawing attention to the possibility of preparing processes for users—architects as designers of processes, not of objects.'[7]

Apparently, or at least as outlined here, exciting times lie in store, an entire repertoire of new design tools are waiting for us to develop and place in the service of our contemporaries.

The image that illustrates this post belongs to the exhibition Diagonal Verda, we did last year at D-HUB in Barcelona. The exhibition shows the work of 28 students within the Final Degree Design Studio at the ESARQ, Universitat Internacional of Catalunya. More than 3.000m2 of plans, models and videos that emphasizes the research around the concept of Productive Landscape. One unit of the studio was lead by professor Jordi Badia with the support of Jaime Batlle and Eva Damià. The other one was lead by Marta García-Orte and myself. Photo by Aitor Estevez.

[1] Luis Moreno Mansilla, ‘Sobre la confianza en la materia,’ Revista CIRCO, 1998.52, Madrid, 1998.

[2] André Comte-Sponville, Dictionnaire Philosophique, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2001.

[3] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.

[4]  Idem.

[5] Manuel Costoya, Una nueva materialidad contemporánea, at

[6] José Ballesteros, ‘Esas tenemos,’ Pasajes. Arquitectura y crítica, no. 119, América Ibérica, Madrid, 2011.

[7] José Ballesteros, ‘¡Que inventen otros!, Pasajes. Arquitectura y crítica, no. 124, América Ibérica, Madrid, 2012.


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