”we believe it is now timely to reopen the issue of matter and once again to give material factors their due in shaping society and circumscribing human prospects” (Coole & Frost)
”Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hopes of enhancing the accountability of specific humans?” (Bennett)
New Materialism offers a framework for reimagining the role of the ”body-in-the-world” according to the Merleau-Ponty conception of a refigured materialist theory of perception and agency (Coole & Frost). What is especially refreshing about the theoretical implications are that potentialities can be explored and studied without immediately having to cover one’s back, if you will, with explications about how and why interconnected phenomena do not neccessarily point to an obsession with causality. Especially the shi concept, as presented by Bennett sums up this point of departure – namely recognizing a ”potential that originates not in human initiative but instead results from the very disposition of things” (Bennett). For a study of the implications for social domains of the configurative and material properties of urban form, the challenge for me is now rather to bring to the question a post-humanist perspective where human social constructs do not represent the only potential. For, as Marres points out (in Bennett), ”it is often hard to grasp just what the sources of agency are that make a particular event happen” and the ”ungraspability may be an [essential] aspect of agency”. Rather, the aim is to ”read and ride” the shi of a configuration or context (including moods, trends, culture etc) (Bennett).
In practice, new materialism has some interesting implications for how we (designers) deal with complex, variable behavior not only in designing with new composites, but also in adapting old technologies to the reality that it is often non-craftsmen who implement and materialize them. Today, as Katie Lloyd Thomas pointed out in her talk, the architectural specification is not an expression of the designer ’speaking’ a common language to a craftsman, but has become a liability-tinged documentation which presumes future dischord. This is of course sad.
Still, there is hope! I was recently at a guided tour of the new Årsta kyrka by Johan Celsing and was uplifted by the humility and economy he showed in the face of the inevitable hurdles encountered during the construction process. The church is entirely out of brick and is constructed as an extension to an existing assembly-space used by the congregation. His approach was to incorporate the new church as a clear addition to the existing but for reasons of economy and sustainability, he opted to allow the old the meet new in a matter-of-fact way. The existing wood-panelled ceiling (cheap painted pine) was used in the extension to produce a concrete form which generated a negative cast of the original ceiling out of concrete rather than wood. This is both subtle and tasteful in light of the immense wastefulness in the construction industry generally. It also speaks to a materialist sensibility, in which the building blocks, brick and concrete in this case exemplify the kind of relationship between tendencies and outcomes described by Bennett as ”porous, tenuous and indirect”. This, argues deLanda, is something which craftsmen understand (even embody?): ”Artisans, craftsmen, and minor scientists in general, he argues, always had a different conception of the relation between matter and form, at least implicitly; they did not impose but teased a form out of an active material, collaborating with it in the production of a final product rather than commanding it to obey and passively receive in a previously defined form” (DeLanda).
In Årsta kyrka, Celsing also uses a wrap-around corner effect in several instances to accomodate the materiality of the brick. Rather than forcing strict corners with the issues which this creates for the brick-layer, glazed and unglazed bricks meet in a kind of carpenter’s joint at corners and as a sort of base-board set into the floor where the planes of wall (or bench) meets floor. I found this to be a strikingly simple and pragmatic acknowledgement of the tolerances in the material. In another instance, a room which the mason used the wrong brick for the walls was left as it was, here the rough bricks meant for an exterior wall are a distinctly untactile reminder of the natural state of brick. By incorporating mistakes into the finished architectural product (rather than pursuing a legal battle to rectify mistakes and claim one’s due), Celsing is practicing a sort of congregational agency, I would argue. One aggregating the material, the craftsman, the time element and the designer in a process underpinned by flexibility and open-endedness.
Jane Bennett, ‘The Agency of Assemblages’, in Vibrant Matter, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010
Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010
Manuel DeLanda, ‘Material Complexity’ in Neil Leach, David Turnbull, Chris Williams, eds. Digital Tectonics, Wiley-Academy, 2004.