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Material culture: the heritage of architecture

"There are as many different and fascinating properties as there are different materials that can be used to construct a building, they will qualify, modify and radically change every architectural form, continuously and naturally."

Frank Lloyd Wright

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Architecture and culture

Comparing architecture to music, it can be said that materials are like notes within a melody. This inseparable relationship between architecture and material makes the concept of the project establish a constant interaction with the concept of "material culture", that is the heritage of ideas, techniques and customs that are transmitted through objects and their materials.

The choice of a material in architecture depends on factors inseparable from the reference context: functional needs, local resources, climate, traditions, fashions, productive opportunities, memory, aesthetic and communicative intentions which vary considerably with variations of temporal, geographical, historical, political, economic and cultural contexts.

Architectural projects are the mirror of the tradition to which they belong and the materials are intended as a linguistic means of communication of the culture of the project. The need for representativeness, for continuity towards tradition or, on the contrary, the desire to highlight change and innovation, the desire to evoke something far away or lost, the need to communicate a precise message, have led to the affirmation or the evolution of certain materials and expressions aware of cultural choices.

"Classic" materials

There are some building materials that, since ancient times, have been part of the history of architecture: wood, stone and marble. These materials, used according to their availability and versatility, their manufacturing processes, their expressive power and the culture of the place, were first used as structural elements (think of wooden stilts, pyramids or Stonehenge and the Parthenon made from Pentelic marble). Subsequently, with the arrival of reinforced concrete and steel as an internal or external cladding, they offer specific aesthetic qualities to the most technically efficient structures. The pillar is definitively separated from the structure and the facade becomes "free".

Here are some examples of cladding made from wood, stone and marble, analysing their uses dictated by precise aesthetic, technical, cultural and social justifications.

Wood in modernist Finland

"The shape must have a content, and the content must have a connection with nature". It was with these words that Alvaar Aalto, the father of Finnish modernism, described his idea of architecture. Aalto's thought fits into the cultural context of post-independence Finland (1917), a period strongly characterised by the need to recover the cultural heritage of the Nordic people's tradition. The architecture of Aalto attempts to rediscover that link between project, man and natural habitat that industrial standardisation has interrupted. Achievements such as the famous Villa Mairea highlight the wooden panelling of Finnish woods in facades, interiors and furnishing elements, in a refined interaction between advanced technologies and traditional techniques, giving them dignity as a modern material in competition with reinforced concrete and steel.


The rustic stone mosque

EAA Studio's Sancaklar mosque is a triumph of stone. Located on the outskirts of Istanbul, the kayrak stone building blends and merges with the surrounding landscape, giving the land its own shape, marking its terraces. The cladding in local stone used in its most rustic form have strong cultural requirements: to create a serene environment in which contact with nature offers a place for meditation and prayer; redefining, by contrast, the symbols, shapes, colours, opulence and redundancy of traditional Ottoman mosques; to recall the essential nature of the first Islamic mosques and to evoke the sacredness of the cave of Hira where Muhammad received the revelations from the archangel Gabriel.


Italian marble in Norway

With the Oslo Opera House, the architecture firm Snøhetta uses Carrara marble cladding in an unusual dimension with the intention of depicting an iceberg of the northern seas: the building recaptures the coast of the Norwegian capital with snow-white surfaces that slope down to the point of touching the water like sheets of ice. To obtain the final result, a local granite and Carrara marble were used, historically considered the most refined among the marbles due to its uniformity and lack of impurities. Italian marble was chosen for the facade cladding in order to guarantee greater protection from the harshness of the northern climate due to its calcium carbonate-rich composition, while the local granite is used for the floor surfaces skimming the water.


Porcelain stoneware: a contemporary material

Nowadays, the complexity of architectural projects requires the use of materials with high technical performance which are sustainable, innovative, readily available, reusable, durable, easy to maintain and expressive. Classic materials remain at the base of architectural and design concepts, but, at the same time, cultural needs have encouraged the emergence and rediscovery of new products able to support them and interact with them.

In this regard, an ancient material as old as wood, stone and marble, confidently represents this innovative spirit and the required design freedoms: ceramic.

Today in its contemporary reinterpretation, porcelain stoneware, it is offered as a versatile and high-performance material which allows, in the same context, the most varied aesthetic inspirations to be created with no specific technical limits. It has high resistance, durability and waterproofing; it is obtained from the processing of natural materials and has a sustainable production cycle; it is easy to maintain and easily washable; it is fire-retardant and resistant to freezing; it is a design material due to its graphic decorations, colours, finishes and sizes offered on the market.

Between tradition and innovation: Penthouse One-11

Penthouse One-11, in the residences designed by Zaha Hadid at CityLife, represents an exemplary case in which traditional materials and innovative materials interact with each other to create a united space with a bold aesthetic impact. The prestigious apartment is presented as a large fluid environment without continuity solutions in which oak parquet flooring, raw iron sheets, Corian surfaces, glass windows and lacquered panels are elegantly combined with large porcelain stoneware slabs inspired by natural stones and marbles: the result is a perfect combination of tradition and innovation, naturalness and technicality.

Penthouse One-11 by Rudi Manfrin


Penthouse One-11 by Rudi Manfrin


Penthouse One-11 by Rudi Manfrin

Penthouse One-11 by Rudi Manfrin
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"A stone building will not look like a steel building. A brick building will no longer look like a stone building. A wooden house will appear purely what it is, because it will glorify the material of which it is composed. A steel and glass building will have no other appearance than its own. It will glorify steel and glass. And so on, covering the entire long list of the available abundances of materials".

Frank Lloyd Wright

Porcelain tile in architectural design