The matter as a language. From redundancy to concealment
The matter as a language.
From redundancy to concealment
It is always next to us in silence. Like those good, attentive and discrete servants, it does not seem to have life of its own. The matter of architecture is all around us; it protects us at all times. It has been entrusted to give us shelter and comfort. It is something that comes before anything else, what we sense in it before we even feel its effects. If we pay attention to it, it seems to be willing to express itself by means of its own nature. Hans Georg Gadamer says that “that which can be understood is language”. It would be said then, that the language of the matter is one with no strict code which doesn’t use unequivocal signs. The matter intones a language which is both historic and obscure, and at the same time, ancestral and recondite.
Apart from protecting, sheltering and separating, the matter of architecture must be long-lasting to continue carrying on with these duties. That is the way we perceive it, and so, utility and duration, its basic features, are clear characteristics of meaning with no nuances. In terms of language, this would be resembled to the guttural sounds in the most basic levels of speech.
It is necessary to pay special attention when enquiring about the understanding of the matter of architecture as a means of expression. It seems obvious that after enquiring about it so much, we end up asking it and giving the matter itself the opportunity to speak for itself. The same way that Athenea gave the gift of speech to the Argonauts, it is necessary to give the matter the opportunity to speak for itself to be able to know more about it. Each and every one of us lend it our body and mouth for it to speak by means of us, like a ventriloquist or a Sybil.
We wait for the matter to express itself and we give it the presumption of “truth”. Following Richard Rorty, we understand by truth the best possible description , the most useful, the most adequate, and for that purpose, we will have to activate that “mobile army of metaphors” which Nietzsche talked about to describe the truth. Lessened truth, not the absolute truth, but a series of clear metaphors which are brilliant shortcuts which go through unexpected paths.
We now have included the matter in the field of language, as any other language. Therefore, it behaves as a language when it gives meaning. The matter is conjugated in the present; it has no future. It is assertive, not conjectural. It preserves the inside of architecture as writing holds the truth of what one wants to say. But the matter is the opposite of abstraction; the matter is language which becomes tangible (Merleau Ponty talks about the “flesh of things” to create a familiar relation between the issues).
Any matter is a lethargic theatre which awakens when you look at it, when you feel it, when you ask about its perseverance. The large stones of the wall of Tirinto are a drama which ranges from that which is telluric and that which is archaic. In the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna we find an elegy interpreted by many brilliant and qualified voices as if it were a choir intoning Mozart’s Requiem.
In whatever language, its most pure expression, the one with the most freedom, the most profound, is in its poetry. In the language of the matter we can also find moments of a similar clean expression, surprising, intense and inexplicable. Poetry builds the ceramic brick walls of the churches by Lewerentz and the concrete bones of Fisac’s decks. In terms of poetry as well, Mies writes the pillars of his pavilion in Barcelona, but before that, in clear poetic cadence we count the layers of stone of the Treasury of Atreus.
Usually, the matter in architecture, is something transitive. In its origin it was only determined by the nature around it from which it was raised. Afterwards, it was chosen because of its features of resistance and permanence. When architecture began to convey explicit messages, it was on the flexible matter that stories which power wants to tell people continuously were written, sculpted and drawn to comfort them and make them feel no pain. Yet at some point, this message stopped being explicit and the matter went from being background to being figure. Remembering McLuhan, from the late baroque churches to the Miesian Pavilion in Barcelona, the mean was turned into message. Consequently, the matter which has always had a mediating vocation becomes the main character of the ostentatious or self-absorbed content. The matter itself, with no added words, has then the power of speech which enables it to speak about the artistic vocation of nature (Wilde) or the probity of high technology.
The matter, remaining nearer and closer than shape, being a dilute means of expression in which meaning verges on suggestion, is very porous to the feelings that emotion and memories carry with them. It is also susceptible to fascination, to the delightful paralysis which opens a door to the future. We said earlier on that the matter, is conjugated in the present (pure presence) and paradoxically, it stirs up, with no rush, the deepest layers of memory and it anticipates scenarios of living experiences yet to come.
Maybe because the matter has this direct connection with memory, maybe because we give it the total presumption of innocence, there is a recurring refusal to the imposture in the use of the matter. Ruskin, the most genuine representative of this moral position, advocates the genuine raw appearance of each building material within the architecture work.
The matter is the crucial factor of the well-being that architecture aims for. The matter gives protection and comfort. That is to all, but the matter also aims at expressing itself giving pleasure, and it is in this, in the pleasure that the matter is able to convey, that some have an advantage: those who are blind, those who are scared, those who are curious, those who are shy, those who suffer from agoraphobia and those who are lazy. In many different situations the matter speaks up, but you can always hear it better at a short distance, at the distance that can be reached with your arm extended.
Before we continue, it is necessary to stop to take a look back to the origin, take a look back at the etymology and at the mythology, too.
At the very beginning, Man has to change his environment for it to be more favourable to his needs, more comfortable, more productive. For that purpose Man makes use of what nature offers to him, that which seems to be closer to him and more useful. When extracting, fragmenting, and putting together, he transforms these pieces of Physis into something different. Wood forgets the tree from which it came from as ceramic forgets about the soil it was extracted from. Nevertheless, there is an underlying acknowledgement and gratefulness from Man to the Earth because of all that it has given him. It is not casual that the word “matter” comes from Latin mater, meaning in Latin, mother, which broadens its sense to give name to wood which is free of the bark of the tree and branches used in wooden carpentries.
The roots of lexicon are deep, dark and bitter, as are those of vegetables. That which expresses something good in Indo-European language is ma. The one indicating familiar relationship is er. Matár or metér is mother in Sanskrit and so it is in Greek. It seems as if when the genius of language needs to name that part of Physis which is used to improve life, to improve well-being, it turns to a logical alloy which coincides with the noun for maternity. From another point of view we find that the root me in Sanskrit also means to measure. And so, we find that meti means that who measures and metra means measurement. The allusion to what is measurable, to what in other words we could say is stable, belongs in the end to the set of terms which converge in the noun mater which names matter itself.
In Greece myths were considered the great legitimizing elements of truth. They enabled the truth to be far from the dryness of morality and they became juicy, pleasant and exciting. Myths talk about all that is important to us about, taboos, desires, defects, nature and its prodigies. It always does so in an indirect way, via narrative and by the effective persuasion of astonishment. And so it tells us all about the cycle of seasons via the myth of Demeter and Persephone. From the same root meter comes the name of the Greek goddess of the fertility of Earth: Demeter. She is the goddess who is responsible of the agricultural cycles, goddess of wheat. In her figure motherly love and the concept of changing nature, of live matter, come together. Her daughter, Persephone, is kidnapped by Hades, god of the Underworld. It is then when Demeter gives up her divine attributes to go in search of her daughter. During the time it takes for her to desperately search for her daughter, the Earth, abandoned by its provident goddess, becomes a barren land. Only when Zeus agrees with Hades for Persephone to be back during half the year does Demeter regain her joy and consequently, greenery fills with great splendour the surface of the Earth again, avoiding this way for winter to be the permanent season of the Earth.
The matter which architecture is built from is the result of an armistice agreement, a truce that Man negotiates with time. A truce to stop permanent transformation, to postpone deterioration. In return, Man offers Physis new formulae with which to broaden the catalogue of categories of matter. Indeed, the matter consecrated by Aristotle as a philosophical concept turns out to be insufficient. It is then when one turns to the idea of grouping the portions of Physis, those which are useful for building, in groups of families and each of them receives the name of material, which as a term is already resounding and descriptive.
To prove the capacity of the matter as a language, we will briefly examine how the matter behaves when compared to two different rhetorical figures opposite in meaning such as reiteration or anaphor (the term used in poetry) and ellipsis, which in terms of matter would be mimicry or concealment. We will focus on these two opposite concepts. Sometimes the matter says I am me, sometimes it pretends to say I am nobody, or even, I am you.
Presence is a feature which is inherent to matter. The matter is pure physicality; it is presence, continuous presence. Maybe because of that, reiteration is a mechanism which is so immediate time- wise, that it seems difficult to create an elaborate and sophisticated speech in that complex situation, since it is not a mere assembly of mass. It would be the equivalent of an anaphor the way in which Lewerentz uses brick in the church of San Pedro in Klippan. I say brick to create rough moirés in the wall, I say brick to refer to the inclined floor plan which opens to swallow the constant dripping of holy water. I say brick to draw the warped inclinations and twists of the deck.
In a different way, architectures which speak up strongly and with a renewed voice the vernacular languages of the matter, they would be inside this category of reiterative way of expressing oneself. I am thinking about those better-known works by the architect Anna Heringer built in Bangladesh, the METI School or the DESI Centre for Professional training. In these works we see the repetition of an alternation which is repeated successively using clay and cane, elements which rime with the rammed earth and also elements which rime with the bamboo lattice.
Eluding the matter seems a more difficult task and nevertheless it has been a permanent challenge of architecture, especially of contemporary architecture. The mechanisms are much more sophisticated: transparency, reflection, mimesis... Ultimately it consists of denying the matter its stable presence, its natural opacity. Matter which becomes the image of the one who looks at it, matter which assumes the image of what is behind, matter which denies its density, and matter which blurs, which imitates fog or which decides to be covered by it.
The works of Sejima/SANAA is a broad display of research in this area, in this game in which architecture seems to give up on the features which characterize its matter: opacity, massiveness, mere presence.
The Glass Museum in Toledo (Ohio) which ought to be the culmination of transparency, is, however, a subtle exercise where there is a collection of shadows and reflections which don’t allow the promised diaphanous vision of an inside which is continuously hidden. Sejima/SANAA don’t ask glass the aseptic transparency which Mies did. In the building they design for the firm Dior in Omotesando, transparency disappears via a series of slender openings produced by deforming butyl. In their works, vision through glass must remain, even if so very slightly, by means of its own matter. The different types of glass which they obtain from opal glass, its endless possibilities against light, its endless possibilities in terms of textures and thicknesses, remind us of the many ways blindness takes shape in.
Nevertheless Sejima/SANAA have also used the drastic reduction of thicknesses starting off from high density (House in a Plum Grove), or the slenderness of the pillars in the Park Cafe of Ibaraki. The reflection with no transparency of polished metal in the deck of the Serpentine Pavilion multiplied trees and human beings in an innocent ambiguous game. This might be, polished metal (steel or aluminum), the definitive way of mimicking matter in architecture. As an example of this, which has been accomplished, is the industrial building Aplix by Perrault in Le Celer-sur-Loire.
Before closing this section, I bring forward the example of the Kunsthaus in Bregenz which Peter Zumthor builds on the edge of Lake Constanza. Here the elusive mechanisms of the architectural matter aren’t so straight forward, so physical, but they include a conceptual ingredient to it. The mysterious Kunsthaus, made of two buildings, uses two different mechanisms to elude the matter. One of them, the bigger building, is a translucent prism like a block of ice which anticipates and abounds the fog from the lake. The smaller building, also a simple prism, is black, as the kurogo (black men) of the Kabuki theatre. These characters, who are completely dressed in that colour are supposed to be invisible, since black is the colour of the night in which figures disappear. Zumthor makes his two buildings join together with two enemies of visibility: fog and night.
In mid XIX Century, Gottfried Semper, taking History as his raw material and positivism as his method, articulates a theory about the origins of architecture based on the materials with which it is built.
He points out four basic materials, and he associates each of them to the four essential elements of architecture, which at the same time resist and go against the four basic elements of nature pointed out by Empedocles. These four basic materials are fabric, ceramic, wood and stone. Fabric is associated to enclosing elements (air), ceramic represents the deck (water), wood is the tectonic element, the structure (the earth), and stone is identified with the base as well as with the idea of a home (fire).
In the same way we have musical variations, we could complete the list of those basic materials of architecture with others which have recently broadened the catalogue, not only in terms of features and benefits but also in the terms of senses. Vinyl becomes a soft surface with no incidence, water- proof and with shaded colours. It is the matter of abstraction, the matter which is silenced under the power of geometry. Opal glass, is somehow like myopia and fog. It alerts about something which is banned or at least inconvenient to be looked at. Aluminum is light, not too metal, or the metal of trivial times. It is not supportive; it hasn’t got the vocation of being slender.
The matter still plays an important role in the new meaning of architecture. Matter which is wished for it to be soft, slim, sensitive. “Therefore, we can even say that the real aspect of architecture should be soft and flexible as if it were a slim film which wraps the body and covers it completely”.
Some matter remembers its origin. Some matter has forgotten it because it has been mixed so much and because of so much chemistry involved. Maybe for this reason, those materials which show their origin speak to memory, whilst the others to “dememory” which is the necessary limit with the future.
We must tell the architect: build with a material which knows more than you do, which knows something you ignore. Go and search for it, not in a catalogue, but in the places where it all starts, in hell, the place where everything which is worth-while is rescued from.