Technology and Progress in Architecture
By: Sam Miller, Senior Project Manager in the Architecture Department
In architectural practice we may come to believe that every new technology represents an improvement, real or imagined, over work from the past. Common sense suggests this is true without further inquiry, but a more fine grained look into the past and real life work reveals some interesting oppositions to this notion. One of the tensions within design is the desire to experiment with new materials and building systems to further the artistic and functional potentials of our work. Choices about materials and technologies used over time is a result of the interaction of skill, location, cost and creativity. Some technologies are lost due to shifts in how building materials are produced.
Below is a photo of the water fountain in the main lobby of Louis Sullivan’s Peoples Savings & Loan Bank in Sidney, Ohio.
Photo by Sam Miller
The green material forming the water fountain’s top is glazed terra cotta, popular in the late 19th and early 20th Century. For ornamental detail, the material was perfect for a designer like Sullivan. However, times have changed. The use of terra cotta now is almost non-existent save for a small number of historical restorations in any given year and only a few manufacturers remain. The material is very expensive, only used sparingly, if at all, by designers.
Many ancient materials remain in continuous use today and have been improved via technology. Brick is an example: current use of brick is ubiquitous in modern construction and the material effectively comes in nearly unlimited color, texture and size. Also, materials are adapted to mimic others and provide superior durability at often lower cost. For example, architectural precast concrete sometimes takes the place of limestone. Precast concrete is often touted for greater durability and lower price. The size of pieces needed, size of structure, detail, and lead time play into the design team’s choices as well.
The question we often ask ourselves in day to day practice is: How does a particular technology improve what we do? There’s movement across the entire spectrum of building materials, a relentless development of more, newer, better. This is not always the case. A well-made, durable material always remains just that. And, like it or not, there’s almost inevitably a close correlation between quality and cost. Broader questions push the design professional into thinking about quality in a broad context: what does this do for my client? How does it represent her institution or brand? How does a material or system choice support the broad goals of a design concept, the needs of a community?
More often than not a single theme or organizing idea emerges from our design reveries. We discover resonance in an idea we choose to present to the client. This is where the rubber meets the road: If the client is pleased, the pieces begin to fall into place. The process is seldom neat, but the steady collection of form and substance around a good design theme with a balance between technology, old or new, and respect for the financial boundaries of a client yields results that get built. At a minimum we hope our clients are delighted. In a larger context, if our work serves our clients and the broad public comes to appreciate the value of quality design, the results point to the thoughtful use of various technologies. The evolution of building materials is fascinating, a continuing cycle of slow advancement in some cases and explosive innovation in others.