Modern architecture is visually identified by aesthetics and materiality, with the latter being particularly important to the authenticity of the design. Material use and detailing completes the visual language and disposition intended by the Architect; materials complement the form, engage users, and add depth and richness to architecture. Rather than defining particular materials as “modern” and painting them across a boxy structure, “modern” is achieved when materials become inherent, rather than applied, to the overall design.
Materials can attract and guide users in to a building, and encourage engagement through various senses; see, touch, sometimes even smell and hear (though rarely taste… edible structures; perhaps an idea in the making.) Besides encouraging user engagement and setting atmospheric tones, the placement and arrangement of materials can also be utilized to emphasize the volumetric form of a building.
Take for example, the Integral House by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects.
Materials can attract and guide users in to a building, and encourage engagement through various senses
The use of materials emphasizes the graphic composition and undulating shape of the structure. The house was designed for a math professor and author, with a passion for classical music. While the shape of the house is defined by mathematical equations, the materials are crafted like musical instruments; baffled extrusions are used as screens and mullions, perhaps referencing the construction of acoustic instruments. The second floor, clad in translucent panels, is reminiscent of a theatre billboard lit up to display a performance. The materiality has a rhythmic relationship with the sky; quiet with its lightness and translucency in the daytime, yet amplified in the evening with its brightness. The composition, placement, and manipulation of materials is done with precision and intent; the result is form and materiality working in harmony to create architectural poetry.
By contrast, simply “applying” materials like paint, with neither discretion nor intent, can confuse a design. The square, boxy shape of this “modern” design is not its primary weakness; rather, it’s the haphazard, poorly composed use of materials that attempt to give the design character. The alternating use of brick/stucco/brick/stucco is elementary; the cedar siding used as both soffits and as cladding is visually confusing. The material composition lacks rhythm, causing the viewers eyes to jump around, never fully taking in the design as a whole. The four building volumes are similar in their proportions, and the four materials (brick, cedar, stucco, glass) are loud, equally weighted, and visually unsatisfying.
Personally, I would have taken an alternate approach to the exterior cladding in an effort to bring a sense of uniformity and softness to the multiple volumes and rooflines of this design. Limiting the cladding to glass + two materials, and swapping one material out for CharWood Siding – “Shou Sugi Ban” – would quiet the building, eliminating the competition of form and materiality.
Design is not separate from material selection; architecture must be considered holistically to bring maturity and authenticity to design.
When it comes to materials, my approach is simple. On the exterior, I prefer to let the building form speak by utilizing quiet materials – in this case, vein cut Eramosa stone, large format cement board panels. Warmth is achieved through the discretionary use of complementary materials – a large walnut door, unstained cedar soffits. The interior provides opportunities for greater experimentation; different materials can be used to cater to the use of individual rooms and create atmospheric moods. Whether interior or exterior, however, the same basic principles apply; materials should be true to their nature. Concrete should be used structurally; where it is exposed, it need not be stained or painted or even covered. Wood should be selected for its grain, its colour, and its durability.
Modern architecture requires consideration of materials in concert with form and function; materials, when utilized successfully, create visual rhythm and complement form while providing a purposeful use. Material selection is never an exercise separate or subsequent to design, and materials shine when they are inherent to the architecture.