EXCHANGE OF FORCES: ENVIRONMENTAL DEFINITION OF MATERIALS IN THE WORKS OF VITRUVIUS, ALBERTI, LE CORBUSIER, AND PETER ZUMTHOR

Esra Sahin, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This research examines the ideas and the built works of four architects from different historical periods in order to distinguish and clarify some of the ways that the material qualities of architectural settings can be made manifest. Presenting a contextual approach to the understanding of material qualities, it counters two attitudes that prevail in contemporary architectural theory and practice: that design is either the creation and composition of autonomous shapes (known as ‘form’), or the elaboration of the materials’ intrinsic qualities. A critique of this divided understanding is presented in the Introduction, together with a brief survey of its history, origins, examples, implications, and shortcomings. In the following four chapters, works of Vitruvius, Alberti, Le Corbusier, and Peter Zumthor are examined in order to describe and exemplify an alternative understanding that challenges the prevailing form-or-matter choice. Each of these figures is among the most prominent architects of their epochs and has been subject of extensive research. Nevertheless, the ways building materials are understood, treated, and defined in their works have not been given due attention. Moreover, certain convictions have prevailed in the available accounts, which have evaluated them from the viewpoint of a form-matter duality. This dissertation critically reviews these assumptions, and investigates and interprets the ways the materials are treated. While offering a theoretical investigation, it thereby adds a new dimension to the knowledge of their works and contributes to the historiography of the scholarship on these prominent figures. It shows that in these cases the ‘formal’ or ‘material’ questions were understood as two of the many aspects of buildings that bring to visibility the exchange of qualities between the building and its encompassing environment. In the settings they described and designed, forces are exchanged between a material and its milieu, revealing the latent qualities of the material and the setting over time. Demonstrating the presence and persistence of the notions of force, exchange, opposition, equilibrium, and environment (in the sense of the surrounding totality that consists of both natural and human influences), this research reveals the hitherto overlooked history of an environmental understanding of material qualities.