Design Workshop: Materials That Tell a Story
Meaningful architecture, for me, always relays a story. It’s fundamental that it conveys something about a place, a specific time, a person or a family. It must have an opinion, an attitude. Architecture doesn’t have to be an explicit rendering of that idea; rather it can be discovered over time while living in a structure or just by knowing a little more today than yesterday.
My personal design process always begins with my asking the question, “What is the story I’m trying to tell?” Architecture can convey historical ideas, ideas about craft, personal tastes, an attitude toward light (or dark), the forest canopy, a city skyline. This seed of an idea can become the design engine for the project, a reference point for decisions made along the way. Most architects refer to this as a parti, but the term is far less important than the actual concept. One of the most basic and accessible means of conveying this idea is through the use of material.
I’ve chosen three common materials to focus on that are particularly fluent narrators: natural stone, wood and concrete. Let’s have a look.
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The story of this space is richly textured, and while this project employs all three of the materials we’ll be discussing, we’ll focus particularly on the stonework.
Constructed of four types of locally sourced stone as well as reclaimed barn wood, this room poignantly illustrates the care and precision of the mason’s hand in laying this stone. The material links the architecture to the indigenous geology not only in tone and texture, but also because local tradespeople were employed to craft its assembly.
The knowledge of local stonemasons is invaluable, as they’re intimately familiar with the raw materials. They understand how to best fit the pieces, their inherent graining and characteristics, how to span openings — all of the things that comprise a wall that’s structurally sound and inherently beautiful.
This knowledge is present in the finished product, and that story becomes a part of the home. Stone is an excellent means of conveying ideas about shelter and permanence as well. Its mass can temper thermal extremes, and the stone itself is monumental (in both cost and appearance).
The polished concrete floor anchors the home in the present day and offers a smooth surface at one’s feet. The difference in shine also delineates living space versus the circulation or hallway space, where the wood has a dull finish.
When selecting materials, architects rely on two basic types of contrast: textural and tonal. Textural contrast works well when materials are tonally very similar, as seen here in the muted French grays. Tonal contrast, as we’ll see in another example, works to highlight form and volume. Note how the texture of the wood recalls its past life as a barn; the markings and weathered patina warm this new space with historical deference.