Architecture is concerned with the enclosure or division of space. Space is confined by curves or lines. A study of surfaces, their arrangement and intersection, is, therefore, of the essence of architecture. This fundamental fact is obscured by the difficulties obstructing the physical embodiment of our ideas.
‘Shell construction’, Architectural Design, 17 (11), 1947; reprinted in Arup Journal, 20 (1), Spring 1985.
Architects often debate whether form should follow function or perhaps should be free to follow some other determinant. In either case, form, the writing and reading of intelligible geometric masses, is presumed to be the highest modality of architectural expression, and thus the ultimate purpose of architecture. An unspoken premise in the debate is that surface is subservient to mass -- that the architectural surface must be controlled to assist the mass in doing the “work” of architectural expression.
Our understanding of the architectural surface has been subordinated to a utopic, and idolatrous, paradigm of pure form. In fact, there is no pure form, in the physical world; nor in the constructed world, and most critically, not in the construed world, i.e., the realm of perception and cultural pattern in which ordinary people attach meaning to elements of their environment. Pure form is a figment of the architectural profession and the establishment powers it serves.
The status of the architectural surface must be reexamined in each of three interrelated contexts. The natural world of course is a determinant of available construction methods, and as the matrix of our evolutionary process, nature has also determined much of our perceptual apparatus and the cultural language of social meaning. The processes of construction mediate our place in, and our level of intimacy with, the natural world. And of course they are a significant determinant of cultural patterns, deeply embedded, after several millennia, in language, metaphor and ritual. Our perceptual apparatus, consisting both of deep elements, formed in the evolutionary time scale, and cultural elements, determines how we allow ourselves to engage with the natural frame and the constructed realm.
The architectural surface must be understood as an independent phenomenon, intimately engaged in the materiality and ontological status of the object, but distinct from the geometric mass of the object. The mass, of course, also claims materiality and ontological status, but in modern architectural discourse it has become an abstract concept -- and the surface has been reduced to a muted ghost.
Let us consider the status of the surface in its three frames. In the natural frame, the surface is an edge condition, where diverse agents interact and new patterns emerge. It is a place of decay, colonization, encrustation, and renewal.
In the frame of construction processes, its independent status derives from the specific functions of water protection and the thermal envelope; and from the undeniable freedom of the surface -- the tectonic independence of light materials, the independence of its late place in the sequence of construction, and the timescale of its more frequent repair and replacement.
In the perceptual frame, the surface is universally accorded a communicative function-- accorded, that is, by ordinary people, and then muted and censored by architects. The natural and constructional factors mentioned deeply engage the process of making social meaning, and surfaces are hosts to many collateral cultural processes and metaphors, whether enacted on them or only imagined, that are vital to city life, to habitation, and to social meaning.
Architecture and urbanism reify prevailing paradigms of social order. They create, (in cities, at least) immersive environments, enclosing the activities of daily life spatially and temporally. They monumentalize, in idolatrous fashion, and it is the mass, the “body” of the building, that is the primary means of expression. Architecture participates in an ancient and privileging ritual of embodiment. Many architects can see, and even protest against, our participation, but in fact it is inherent in the profession. And most architects, and certainly the ‘culture’ of the profession as received by the broader community, have accepted the exceptional status conferred upon architecture in the era of the modern state.
The greater objective of this essay is to strip architecture of its exceptional status and see it clearly as it is-- as one more mode of cultural production of social meaning, practiced in the context of other modes, and practiced by ordinary people, as both readers and writers . The status of the surface is a critical entry to another view of architecture-- the ontology of the surface, its embodiment through the construction process, and its reception in the mind, the imagination, and in shared understandings of place.
When architects allow the surface to regain its full status as a primary locus of the production of social meaning, we are much closer to restoring the social richness and engagement that characterize the indigenous built environment, prior to or at the margins of the modern era. Non-architects, from graffiti artists to bourgeois clients, appreciate the surface, often because it is the part of architecture that is accessible to them. It is the architects that must work to restore their own understanding of the balance of surface and mass, considered ontologically and epistemically.
In urban design, the question is even more critical. At this scale, of course, the surface is not a few millimeters of material-- it is several meters of the richest interface zones between the private and productive interior of the block, and the place of expression and exchange, the public realm of street and square. It is the locus of the city’s economic metabolism; its construction involves the fundamental political processes of the society; and perceptually, it is a vast theatre of the cultural processes of cosmopolitanism.