The Challenge of Materials

Chris Wilkinson

Materials are the vocabulary for the language of architecture and often they are taken for granted. They provided the surfaces that we see and the structure that holds buildings together. I believe materials have an inherent beauty, and they can be used in many ways with different effects. Whilst an artist might fashion and polish a piece of stone to become a work of art, for instance, a builder might see the same stone as a useful piece of masonry for a wall. This ambiguity exists in architecture but, in my opinion, it is important to be true to the nature of materials and use their qualities to enhance the design. The choice of materials has to be appropriate and relates to aesthetics, function and context, but these are not finite; they are subject to the instinct and preference of the designer.

Until comparatively recently, the choice was limited to natural materials, but now technology has massively extended the vocabulary for architects to explore. There are great opportunities for innovation which often stem from the interesting use of materials, or the reinterpretation of traditional ones. This is what excites me, and it's what I call 'the challenge of materials'.

My eyes were opened to this when, as a student, I attended a lecture by Richard Rogers in the late 1960s, in which he brought with him a box of sample materials which included composite fibreglass panels; aluminium extrusions with zip-up gaskets; and flexible hoses, all of which were new and exciting at the time.

For me, this was an epiphany which fundamentally changed my approach to architecture. Then a similar thing happened when I met Buckminster Fuller and attended one of the last lectures he gave at the Royal Institution in which he talked about the lightness and performance of materials in an inspiring way. At that time, I was working at Foster Associates, where we were looking at new materials and construction techniques, so it all seemed to make sense to me.

Later, when I started my own practice in 1983, my interest in exploring new materials had, to some extent, been pre-determined and, since then, I have followed advances in building technology with enthusiasm and explored the use of materials through my projects.

However, time has encouraged a degree of caution in the use of technology for its own sake, so aesthetics, durability and wearing qualities now take a high priority in the choice of appropriate materials as well as technical performance.

It is therefore not so surprising that we have used stone at the Earth Sciences building in Oxford and timber with copper on several other projects whilst, at the same time, we are still pushing the boundaries with a near zero-carbon all-glass exhibition building in the Royal Docks in London, and a fabric covered Basketball Arena for the 2012 Olympics.

This is an extract from Chris Wilkinson's 'The Challenge of Materials' lecture, given at the Royal Academy in September 2011.