Immaterial Architecture

Jonathan Hill (Bartlett)

  • Hill explores immateriality in two aspects – the first is an exploration of the concept of security within the physical boundaries of space and the unknown outside, demonstrated through his example of home; the second is a discussion on architecture as an immaterial idea in contrast to a physical building.


  • Architecture is expected to be solid, stable and reassuring – physically, socially and psychologically. Bound to each other, the architectural and the material are considered inseparable. But Immaterial Architecture states that the immaterial is as important to architecture as the material and has as long a history.
  • The first chapter considers the material stability and solidity of architecture through an analysis of two homes – one of architecture, the other of architects – identifying the safety they offer and the threats they face. ‘Chapter 1: House and Home’ discusses the coupling of material stability to social stability, and considers the resultant pressures on architecture and the architectural profession to be respectively solid matter and solid practice.
  • The second chapter traces the origins of the architect, as the term is understood today, to the Italian Renaissance, when drawing was first associated with ideas and essential to architectural practice. Dependent on the concept that ideas are immaterial and superior to matter, the command of drawing underpins the status of architectural design as intellectual and artistic labour. In conclusion, ‘Chapter 2: Hunting the Shadow’ relates the command of drawing to other concepts that draw architecture towards the immaterial, such as space and surface.
  • There are many ways to understand immaterial architecture. As an idea, a formless phenomenon, a technological development towards lightness, a tabula rasa of a capitalist economy, a gradual loss of architecture’s moral weight and certitude or a programmatic focus on actions rather than forms. I recognize each of these models but concentrate on another. Focusing on immaterial architecture as the perceived absence of matter more than the actual absence of matter, 2 I devise new means to explore old concerns: the creativity of the architect and the user. The user decides whether architecture is immaterial. But the architect, or any other architectural producer, creates material conditions in which that decision can be made.
  • In the conclusion and index, Immaterial Architecture advocates an architecture that fuses the immaterial and the material, and considers its consequences, challenging preconceptions about architecture, its practice, purpose, matter and use. Conclusion: Immaterial– Material’ weaves the two together, so that they are in conjunction not opposition. ‘Index of Immaterial Architectures’ discusses over thirty architectures – buildings, spaces and artworks – in which the material is perceived as immaterial. 3

Immaterial Home

  • The statement ‘All that is solid melts into air’ encapsulates the force of a capitalist society that, in expanding cycles of destruction, production and consumption, undermines all that is assumed to be solid, such as the home. 11 But in undermining the safety of the home, a capitalist society feeds desire for a home that is evermore safe. Sibley argues that while the apparent stability of the home may provide gratification it can also, simultaneously, create anxiety because the security and spatial purification the home offers can never be fully achieved. Often the consequence is an increasingly intense need for stability not an awareness of its limits: ‘Generally, anxieties are expressed in the desire to erect and maintain spatial and temporal boundaries. Strong boundary consciousness can be interpreted as a desire to be in control and to exclude the unfamiliar because the unfamiliar is a source of unease rather than something to be celebrated.’ 12
  • Referring to Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay on the uncanny, Sibley adds that ‘this striving for the safe, the familiar or heimlich fails to remove a sense of unease. I would argue that it makes it worse.’ 13 However, Freud offers another meaning of heimlich: ‘Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know about it.’ 14 Striving for the familiar is ineffective because the home can never be safe enough and the heimlich is not what it seems. Heynen writes: It is not without reason that dwelling is the key metaphor that Freud uses in his reflection on the uncanny. According to Freud, the most uncanny experience occurs in the environment that is most familiar to us, for the experience of the uncanny has to do with the intertwining of heimlich (what is of the house, but also what is hidden) and unheimlich (what is not of the house, what is therefore in a strange way unconcealed yet concealed). 15
  • The uncanny is experienced when something familiar is repressed but returns as unexpected and unfamiliar. 16 The uncanny operates where the heimlich (homely) and unheimlich (unhomely) converge. One is at home but out of place.
  • Sibley does not reject all attempts to construct a stable order. Instead he argues for the merits of both defined boundaries and spatial porosity. As an example he considers the child’s experience of the home. He writes that the negative view of strongly classified environments fails to take account of evidence from research in group therapy that children (and adults) need firm boundaries in order to develop a secure sense of self. If members of a family ‘live in each other’s laps’, in a boundary-less, weakly classified home, or they are ‘enmeshed’ as Salvador Minuchin put it, there is a danger that children, in particular, will not develop a sense of autonomy. 17
  • When it is identified with the formless, the immaterial is associated with all that appears to threaten society, architecture and the home, whether insidious disorder inside or lurking danger outside. But the threat of the immaterial is imagined as much as it is real. The desire for an architecture that is safe and secure can never be fulfilled. Instead, it may increase anxiety and further desire for an architecture that is evermore safe. Replacing a static and material architecture with one that is fluid and immaterial is no solution, however. Instead, compatibility between the spaces of a home and the habits of its occupants is desirable. A tightly structured group of people occupying a loose spatial configuration will create tension and anxiety, as will the opposite. However, matching users to spatial configurations fails to take account of changing users and changing needs. 18 Instead, a home must have the potential to be both spatially tight and loose. To accommodate evolving conceptions of the individual and society, architecture must engage the material and the immaterial, the static and the fluid, the solid and the porous. An architecture that is immaterial and spatially porous, as well as solid and stable where necessary, will not change established habits. Rather it may offer those habits greater flexibility. 19
    • [Think: a desire for heritage to be representative of the past is imagined as much as it is real.]

Immaterial Practice

  • On a more fundamental note, immaterial architecture revels in qualities – the subjective, unpredictable, porous and ephemeral – that are contrary to the solid, objective and respectable practice expected of a professional.
  • The stability of architects’ practice is a myth, however. Cousins states that the discipline of architecture is weak because it involves not just objects but relations between subjects and objects. 20 As the discipline of architecture is weak, so too is the practice of architects. But, weak is not pejorative here. Rather it is the strength to be fluid, flexible and open to conflicting perceptions and opinions. The practice of architects needs to confidently reflect the nature of the architectural discipline. Architecture must be immaterial and spatially porous, as well as solid and stable where necessary; and so should the practice of architects.

And then Hill moves on to give an index of immaterial architecture, from fabric to television and give a short discussion text on each immaterial.