Gail Peter Borden Discusses His Latest Book: Process: Material and Representation in Architecture

School News

Gail Peter Borden Discusses His Latest Book: Process: Material and Representation in Architecture

November 14, 2014

“I’ve always been interested in phenomenology, the experiential aspects of design,” says professor Gail Peter Borden. “Right down to the primal way atoms work.”


Borden, recently appointed Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and also acting as Discipline Head of Architecture and Director of Graduate Architecture, has recently come out with a new book entitled, Process: Material and Representation in Architecture.


Released in March of this year, Process presents analyses of some of the most important works of architecture from the last century, “unpacking” them through meticulous line drawings and text to reveal the representational and material logics behind them. “I look for what’s effectual in architecture,” he says. “How architects use materials and the intentions behind them.”


A sweeping journey through architecture, Process focuses with analytical precision on buildings more commonly understood through the universalizing wide-angle lens of architectural history and theory. Says Borden, “My specific interest lay in the relationship between representation and tectonics - the idea that a drawing could speak towards the craft of construction. This book attempts to build a bridge between the systems of representation (and drawing in particular) and how they can associate with tectonic logics. The goal was to understand the logics of how to draw materiality.”


Process also carries forward the research mission Borden has been undertaking since he first became interested in issues of materials and representation. As such it can be seen as part of a body of work reaching back to his experiences in 2004 as an artist in residence at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. “It was a primal time for me,” he says. “The landscape, the synthesis of geometry, place, material, and intentionality. Seeing the works of Donald Judd was a moment of clarity. Light is as much material as concrete.”


It also goes back to a conference he organized at the USC School of Architecture in 2008, called Matter.


As stated in the introduction to the related conference volume Borden co-edited with Michael Meredith, Matter: Material Processes in Architectural Production (2012), “The design and application limits of a particular material are no longer seen as inherent within the material itself, but rather as functions of surrounding processes.” Because of this, they argue, “…we find that our nostalgic default material understanding has been fundamentally destabilized.” Thus, we need a new way to conceptualize the status of material in architecture.


Moreover, owing to the scientific overturning of any notion of validity to a Cartesian split between mind-body, or subject-object, “the notion of negating materiality is no longer ontologically possible.” They continue:


Architects and architecture are part of mutually interdependent material networks composed of neurons, trees, electricity, finance, et cetera, all together. We operate in the context of simultaneous and dynamic forces to which all matter is subject and with which all matter participates, amplifying and mitigating and being amplified or mitigated in turn.


In essence, matter matters and materials in architectural signification can once again have agency. This, as the authors say, “positions materiality as a procedural medium in which and through which we work.” In other words, design is a manipulative process in which material, or matter, is a key generative participant.


This re-assertion of the vital and dynamic role materials play in design as a process is the main premise that underlies Process and two other volumes written by Borden: Material Precedent: The Typology of Modern Tectonics (2010) and Architecture Principia: Architectural Principles of Material Form (2014), co-authored with Brian Delford Andrews.


Process, the newest “chapter” in Borden’s ongoing explorations, inflects this premise to introduce a “theoretical argument that offers a relationship of conceptual frameworks to graphic techniques that associate with specific material methods, all resulting in precisely derivative forms. “


In the book, sixteen iconic projects, including the Pantheon, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, and Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, are examined as precedents for defining a taxonomy of architectural representation, a comprehensive catalog of design processes that can be leveraged as generative tools.


The precedents, organized under four general categories of point, line, surface, and mass, serve as case studies. These categories are further subdivided down into sixteen sub-systems. This, as Borden writes in the introduction, suggests, “a catalog of the primal building blocks of forms and objects.” Architecture emerges from the manipulation of these systems.


The “precedent” projects were chosen based on their exceptional rigor in translation from drawing through material process and, at last, to building. They are not intended to serve as singular objects undergoing close readings and deconstruction, but rather function as the beginnings of lineages of “thought, method, formalism, and materiality,” as Borden describes. Through this analysis of the interplay between methods of representation and material systems architects can gain a deeper understanding of the fundamental forces that drive the design process.


“For me it’s about the celebration of inevitabilities and embracing the true nature of materials,” says Borden. “It’s an exciting time,” he adds. “We can draw anything, but now the question is why draw something.”