Form and Materiality have always been linked, the former or latter defining the other and often in relationship to technology. From the first structures made by humans, it has been the limitations of the materials around us and our ability to work with them that has defined the form of our constructions. From ancient monolithic stone construction, through Egyptian, Greek and Roman architecture, Renaissance, to modernist factory production and all the way to contemporary 3d printing, all approaches to design are related to the nature of the material we can or choose to use and our ability to manipulate it. It is always important to remember when looking through history at design that the architects and designers were working in the context of their own time often at the technological cutting edge. If we transported any of them into our own time, they would be producing very different designs though perhaps with the same goals.
The scale and proportion of the spaces we occupy has changed in step with our ability to understand materials and their limits. We could argue if our aesthetic tastes have changed in line with this or follow a different pattern related to far more complex influences relating to our culture’s perception of pas, present and future, progressive or conservative values. What hasn’t changed very much is our own selves, the size and proportions of our bodies still dictates the ergonomics of forms related to our use of objects and spaces.More recent technological advance shave allowed us to stretch and test the limits of materials more than ever before and we are able to create new materials and ways of working that open up new possibilities. However, somewhat ironically, there are historic structures
which were created through trial and error which modern knowledge and techniques cannot entirely explain. From cantilevered stone staircases to the bicycle, physics and scientific understanding cannot fully understand why they work. In architecture, this also means that modern buildings cannot use some historic approaches because we are unable to prove to the relevant construction authorities that they despite all the built evidence demonstrating it.
Designers are also in several camps about authenticity, both from an honesty to the material and to the history of the aesthetic. Is the form more important than how it is achieved or vice versa. Is making a classically inspired column out of plastic or concrete a valid approach or heresy. Likewise using old techniques to create contemporary objects. As with most design theory and practice the answer is a mixture and without fundamental right or wrong. One of the effects of more contemporary practices is the relationship between means of production and the aesthetic and form of materials. Historically it was about patterns applied by craftsmen and techniques developed over generations, the industrial revolution and modernism took us to a position of designing for mass production and identical components assembled in differing ways. Today we are moving into a mixture of both,where the individualism and bespoke nature of craft is being combined with technological processes to allow a muchwider range of options. Amongst all of this we need to make our choices. When looking at a space or piece of architecture, selecting a new chair or lamp, ask yourself why is it like that, why does it have this form and does this reflect it’s material nature. And if I choose it what does that say about me?