Seed Cathedral, Heatherwick Studio

Course Description

Graduate-level seminar on emergent materials and architectural applications

Teaching format: seminar meetings with lectures, discussions, student presentations, and written assignments with instructor- and peer-based review

Learning Objectives

This course is intended to provide students with a strong foundation of materials knowledge related to contemporary environmental, technological, and social issues in architecture. By addressing important historical milestones as well as contemporary case studies, students will develop an appreciation for the roles of disruptive technologies and disruptive applications in building design and construction.

This course will enable students to:

  1. Assess the role of material innovation in design based on material strategies and effects
  2. Conduct critical written analysis and hands-on synthesis
  3. Be able to present and lead discussions of findings

Course Topics and Structure

The course structure is based on six elemental categories: mineral, concrete, wood, metal, glass, and plastic. These categories will be addressed in two cycles during the semester: The first cycle will occur between the beginning of class and mid-term, and will focus mainly on theoretical content and historical precedents. This phase will consist primarily of instructor-led lectures and class discussions. The second cycle will follow until the end of the term, and will focus mainly on technical considerations and case studies. This phase will consist primarily of student-led presentations and class discussions.

Each week, this three-hour seminar will include presentations, critiques, as well as general discussions. It is critical to the success of the seminar that all students participate in the discussions in an informed and thoughtful manner. Each student is expected to do all the readings for each seminar session and to come prepared with questions to engage the group in discussion.


Architecture is born out of the shrewd alignment of concept and matter. The product of what Louis Kahn termed “the measurable and the unmeasurable,” architecture is the fulfillment of a spatial premise by way of material substance.1 Throughout history architecture has been shaped by the continual transformation of material technologies and application methods. Its course of development is inseparable from the shifting terrain of technology and the social effects that result. This intrinsic alignment with change—whether from a welcomed or critical perspective—reveals the extent to which architecture is inherently tied to material innovation.

In his assessment of canonical twentieth century works of architecture, historian Richard Weston states that “the bias has been toward those [buildings] that were innovative—stylistically, technically, or programmatically—and especially those that significantly affected the course of architecture.”2 On one hand, new products and processes have transformed architecture by enabling alternative construction techniques and novel spatial possibilities. On the other hand, the architect’s utilization of materials in unexpected ways has demonstrated architecture’s capacity to inspire new growth in construction-related industries as well as stimulate cultural change. Both tendencies demonstrate the extent to which the innovative application of materials has been vital to the advancement of architecture.

In order to understand the nature of material innovation, we must give it more precise definition. McLuhan’s articulation of a disruptive technology—an expression further developed by technology theorist Clayton Christensen—describes a new product or material that displaces an old one unexpectedly.3 Disruptive technologies exhibit competitive advantages over so-called sustaining technologies that offer small, incremental growth. Although necessarily novel and unproven when first introduced, disruptive technologies often supersede existing technologies rapidly. Light-emitting diode (LED) lighting—one example of a disruptive technology—has quickly emerged as a durable, low-energy alternative to many types of incandescent and fluorescent lighting.

In a similar way, a disruptive application is an unexpected replacement of a conventional design or construction practice with a new one. While disruptive technology generally refers to a product or material, a disruptive application considers a more complex system or physical assembly—such as a building—as well as its larger cultural and environmental context. An application is not only considered disruptive in the result it produces but also in the methods used to achieve the result—such as in the robotic fabrication of brick panels instead of traditional hand-laying. Disruptive applications may employ disruptive technologies, or they may exhibit unanticipated uses of conventional technologies. Both disruptive technologies and applications are defined by the fulfillment of the unexpected: an aberration or mutation that upsets and displaces the status quo within conventional systems of praxis.

1 Louis I. Kahn described the “measurable and the unmeasurable” in a talk to students at the School of Architecture, ETH, Zurich, February 12, 1969, reprinted as “Silence and Light—Louis I Kahn at ETH 1969,” in ed. Heinz Ronner and Sharad Jhaveri, Louis I. Kahn: Complete Work 1935–1974, 2nd ed. (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1987), 6.

2 Richard Weston, Key Buildings of the Twentieth Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 11–12.

3 Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003).

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