material as more than architecture

Several days ago, I stumbled across a manifesto by Bruce Mau – no, not the “Incomplete Manifesto” but rather, one written for Icon Magazine1 in 2007. In it, Mau makes a call for the pursuit and training of architectural development as a means of making the practice more prevalent and more relevant to our cities. Mau begins:

“You probably don’t want to hear this, but it is time we stopped talking about architecture. We need to get out of the gilded box we built ourselves into. We should be thinking about educating, training and celebrating developers. The challenges of the future are so much more complex and systems-based than the object culture architecture currently embraces. We need a new culture of responsibility and comprehensive engagement with long-term implications that can only come from broadening the base of architecture to include the design of the business models that generate most of the qualities we live with in our cities.2

As a graduate architecture student completing my degree in one more semester, these words stuck with me. As I looked for a material strategies topic, I wondered how this thinking might apply to materials in architecture. It seems to me that the manifestos’ logic would suggest that architects should expand the range of what materials we consider and consider them in a broader context. That what we choose to engage in, in a material sense, are more than “fancy baubles for our urban entertainment”3

One project that seems related to these ideas is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.4 Funded entirely by the Norwegian government, the Seed Vault, which opened in 2008, is a safety-storage for preservation of duplicate collections of seeds on behalf of genebanks. The Seeds in the Seed Vault shall only be accessed when the original seed collections have been lost for any reason.5 While the media has often focused on the Seed Vault as some apocalyptic strategy, its true premise is much more derived from the day to day realities of genetic seed storage banks and the need for a secondary (or tertiary) mechanism to protect that diversity.

The way in which I believe the project is relevant to the above manifesto, is that its principle material is the seed. The protection and continuity of each tiny bit of material has broad reaching ramifications for the entire globe as well as every other material consideration involved in the project. In this sense, the design is much more than the architectural object of the building and truly represents ideas of complex systems (genetic diversity of seeds), comprehensive engagement, and long term vision.6

The permafrost nature of the sandstone mountain that the Seed Vault is built into, ensures a constant low temperature that would change only slightly if the coal based supplementary cooling system fails. Each sample is placed in a sealed package, that is again sealed in a box that are stored at minus eighteen degrees Celsius.7 In this design, each material choice and application is being driven by a broad vision. Some of the strategies like the mountain are low tech. Some like the sealed packages involve, man-made, hi-tech materials. All are derived from a vision that is broad, relevant, and requires multi-disciplinary action to accomplish. In this way, the Seed Vault in Svalbard has truly expanded my thinking on materials (I can’t even say in architecture) and how I can approach them in the future.

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