Material purity is highly valued in contemporary architecture. The ideal that buildings should be materially consistent inside and out seems to be gaining a foothold in the architectural canon, if highly mediatized prizes like the Pritzker are any indication. RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta, the 2017 winners of the prize named after a successful hotel magnate, exemplify the tendency of monomateriality perfectly. All their projects involve the exploration of a single building material, and that material is almost always Corten steel. But they are not alone: many other architects are exploring new possibilities of concrete, wood (especially cross-laminated timber), glass, composites, or bamboo. Indeed, there is also a resurgence of interest in architects of previous generations who became identified with a single building material, such as Miguel Fisac’s experiments with concrete or Eladio Dieste’s with brick, not to mention the revival of Brutalism. But where these works employed mainly one material in conjunction with others that are complementary, today’s mindset seems much more purist. The current ideal seems to be “make absolutely everything out of one material come hell or high water” (i.e. even if the building overheats or leaks). Oh, by the way, windows are allowed as long as they have no frames, since glass is not a material unless it is tinted, textured, tatooed or otherwise made “visible”.
Where is this new-found interest coming from? Does it have anything to do with architecture’s growing obsession with wanting to be considered “art”, specifically sculpture and land-art? RCR’s use of Corten steel appears to be highly inspired by Richard Serra’s work when looking at the way these architects tend to integrate this material within a landscape, always contrasting it sharply with any natural or artificially created topographical features.
While RCR’s use of Corten lends a highly-sought unity and purity to their work, it can also become somewhat overbearing, while in some cases it can border the ridiculous, as I discovered in the Bell Lloc Winery they designed, where everything including the bathroom and the kitchen sink –literally– is custom-made out of the same rusty steel.
Monomateriality is evidently a contemporary variant of “total design”, that movement of a few decades ago that attempted to subject absolutely everything to a highly identifiable and consistent design ethos. As Mark Wigley writes:
Total design has two meanings: first, what might be called the implosion of design, the focusing of design inward on a single intense point; second, what might be called the explosion of design, the expansion of design out to touch every possible point in the world. In either case, the architect is in control, centralizing, orchestrating, dominating. Total design is a fantasy about control, about architecture as control.
Implosive design takes over a space, subjecting every detail, every surface, to an over-arching vision. The architect supervises, if not designs, everything: structure, furniture, wallpaper, carpets, doorknobs, light fittings, dinnerware, clothes, and flower arrangements. The result is a space with no gaps, no cracks, no openings onto other possibilities, other worlds. The paradigm of this approach is the domestic interior completely detached from the chaotic pluralism of the world.
Re-reading this last sentence, I am reminded of a housing community called “Green Village” near Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali. It is situated near –you guessed it– the Green School, a private educational institution attended mainly by children of Bali’s sizeable hippie-expat jetset. “Set along the terraced slopes of the Ayung River in Bali, Green Village is a master-planned community of eighteen dramatically unique homes, hand-constructed by the Ibuku team. Each home is custom designed and rigorously engineered to embody the inherent strengths and versatility of bamboo.” (italics added). Indeed, Green Village is master-planned and custom-designed down to the finest detail, including electrical outlets which are painstakingly camouflaged with a thin veneer of bamboo, lest the sight of such technology disrupt the lifestyle-fantasy of “sustainable karma” that can be bought into here.
Herein lies the danger of monomateriality: at a certain point, the total design of monomateriality easily veers into totalitarian design; into a highly contrived, overly forced, highly unnatural environment. A work that aspires to be monomaterial aspires to be monolithic: pure and uncompromising. Any other materials that are inevitably necessary in a building as opposed to a work of art end up looking either like a disappointing compromise or else downright ridiculous. Thankfully, the world is not made out of one single material, so why should a work of architecture be –or appear to be?