MARCH 30 — APRIL 1, 2011

Wednesday, March 30

Wood Auditorium, Avery Hall

6:30–8:00 PM

Welcoming Remarks and Introduction to Conference

Mark Wigley
Dean, GSAPP, Columbia University

Remarks on Behalf of The Vinyl Institute

Keynote Lecture

Greg Lynn
Architect, Greg Lynn FORM, Venice, CA
Professor, UCLA and Institute of Architecture, University of Applied Arts Vienna

Thursday, March 31

Wood Auditorium, Avery Hall

9:30–10:00 AM

Introductions to Conference

Mark Wigley
Dean, GSAPP, Columbia University

Raimondo Betti
Chair, Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics
The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University

Michael Bell
Professor, GSAPP, Columbia University, Conference Chair

10:00 AM–11:30 AM

The Emergence of Polymers: Natural Material—Industrial Material

Moderator: Michael Bell
Professor, GSAPP, Columbia University

The emergence of polymers since the middle of the 19th century occurred in specific phases of development and within a broad range of relationships to natural sources as well as to the seeming and actual inorganic aspects of the urban and industrial world. The natural origins of polymers seem to be virtually forgotten today, at least in terms of the popular perception of plastics as artificial or lifeless, but at the outset polymers such as vulcanized rubber existed at a precipice between industry and nature. They conflated the industrial and natural in ways that today seem misunderstood if not simply forgotten. Is it possible to still see polymers as natural, or have they migrated so far from these beginnings that they have become something else altogether? What is the outcome of how these materials are understood historically; has the history of polymers been irrecoverably lost?

Charles Goodyear’s patent on vulcanization in 1844 set the stage for a new industrial procedure for rubber that would lie at the heart of the automobile industry and set the stage for vulcanized rubber as intrinsic to urban landscapes. What aspects of the history of polymers have been deflected, undervalued or misrepresented, if not simply lost, in the ensuing period leading up to the 1950s, when one encounters plastics in the full as both material and as a spectacular component of modernization?

The first 100 years of polymers seem distinct from the postwar American and European period during which a conflation of polymers as material, media and branding seems to increasingly present polymers as almost without history and without origin—as unbreakable, infinitely formable and as segregate from and thereby safe from contaminating partner materials and contagions. Did polymers’ relationship to nature decline or was their participatory relationship to their environment simply modified?

Craig Buckley
Director of Print Publications, GSAPP, Columbia University

Billie Faircloth
Research Director, KieranTimberlake

Lydia Kallipoliti
Assistant Adjunct Professor, The Cooper Union, Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture

Theodore H.M. Prudon
Historic Preservation, GSAPP, Columbia University

11:45 AM–1:15 PM

Permanent Change: How Long Does a Flexible Material Last?

Moderator: George Wheeler
Director of Conservation, Historic Preservation, GSAPP, Columbia University; Chemist, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Plastics have promised deeply engineered parameters that assure material stability and described if not warranted parameters for degradation over time. Yet plastics have also often been understood to inevitably offer a component of aesthetics or stylistic change—any shape is achievable and plastics are understood to offer both tremendous flexibility but also defined limits. Are plastics different from other materials in terms of life spans in building; are they tested, documented and adhered to for safety and investment parameters in unique ways? Do the wider public or legislative bodies understand plastics well enough to gauge their safety, their uses or post-consumer potentials?

Degradation, loss of elasticity, loss of color—these are all aspects of a material’s commodity value and liability determinations. What are the design limits of plastics in this realm? Is there a cleft between life span engineering and formal pliancy that one assumes with plastics? Are there long-term attributes to plastics that alter their environmental determinants; or applications and quantities of use and implementation that register in how a polymer performs in relation to public health, reuse or recycling? How do these attributes come together in plastics in ways that are unique or different from concrete, wood, metals or glass where life span and design potential are also often highly managed?

Plastics have promised a unique relationship to history—altering the life span of building components but also surprisingly engaged in keeping partner materials in new forms of duration: window gaskets suspending glazing in a differential time span; metals sustained by polymers in acrylic paints—polymers have deeply altered the relationships of given materials.

How do polymers alter the readings of permanence in building and what if any relationship exists between historical values associated with the term permanence and the performance of polymers today?

Jan Knippers
Engineer, Knippers Helbig Advanced Engineering

Craig Konyk
Adjunct Assistant Professor, GSAPP, Columbia University

Werner Preusker
Attorney, AG PVC und Umwelt e.V., Bonn

Rita Schenck
Executive Director, Institute for Environmental Research and Education

1:15–2:15 PM


2:15–3:45 PM

Architecture: Plastic Life, Life of Plastics

Moderator: Galia Solomonoff
Associate Professor, GSAPP, Columbia University

In an era of harvesting energy, pushing boundaries, recovering lost energy and convening new means of cross fertilization if not purposeful conflation of means, do plastics add a particular value or are they one of many newly liquid materials in the fields of design and engineering? Has the status of the architectural work gained or lost distinction in this regard—that is, is there an overt architectural significance to plastics today, or are they so fully embedded in work that they assume a less overt but nonetheless more pervasive role?

Are current designers more beholden to performance or strategic purpose than in prior generations and do plastics today signify something far more distributed and codified; or are plastics simply purposed as other materials with their own unique design instincts and parameters?

In the mid-1950s the promise of plastics took on a utopian guise but also a full-fledged image of total design: is it possible that plastics heralded an era of synthetic and ultimately engineered design whose concrete image and form betrayed the flexibility and dexterity that plastics represented at a technical (chemical) level? Did the image of the ‘50s utopian house of the future become too unilateral and too closed even as it was first envisioned to corral or signify the torrents of heterogeneous practices that were beneath, within and around these new engineered materials? Does design find itself outside of these practices, or possibly within them?

Anna Dyson
Director, CASE, RPI/CASE SOM, New York

Winka Dubbeldam
Professor of Practice, University of Pennsylvania

Sheila Kennedy
Professor of Practice, MIT School of Architecture + Planning

Bill Pearson
Technical Director, North Sails 3DL

4:00–5:30 PM

Cultural Material: Counter-Cultural Material

Moderator: Brian Kane
Assistant Professor of Music, Yale University

The 1950s and ’60s iconic images of plastic architecture such as the Monsanto House of the Future had a corollary in the pervasive yet nonfigural uses of plastics in plumbing, electrical wiring and waterproofing. If this is a divide that perhaps some saw in advance, it seems to have also cast the project of a plastic architecture—a figural plastic/plasticity—into a kind of nostalgic kitsch approached as a signal of a nascent but unrealized former future. The House of the Future seems to be received today as a figural as well as material prophecy come undone—a trajectory that lost ground in light of other imperatives. In its place, have we realized a world of plastic versions of previous building components—that is, vinyl-clad wood windows, vinyl versions of wood siding, etc.? Plastics are employed in ways that sustain former vernaculars and our gaze is cast forward materially and backward formally in time.

There seems to be little overt, i.e., expressive, plastic architecture today, but polymers such as vinyl are called upon increasingly to abet an array of design strategies. As opposed to being the manifest strategy of both meaning and form, plastics enclose former meanings in airtight containers. The deep and pervasive use of polymers in building mechanics and discrete systems—from paint and coatings to wire casing, plumbing, windows and siding—seem to continually reveal a divide where plastics migrate to pragmatic architectural problems rather then expressive proposals of form or shape.

Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable forecast the totalizing aspects of plastics as a pan-environment of countless ready-mades; a seemingly endless supply of branded differences that were in the end as homogenous as they were total. The environment was plastic: distributed plastics.

What has changed in regard to the word and associated aspects of the term plastics since the post-‘60s era? How has its meaning or potential migrated? What work set up the explosion of connotations and is it possible plastic has become both more and less pervasive?

Are we still concerned with the term “plastic” and its negative aspects and would we even concern ourselves with these connotations today—or ever?

Hernan Diaz Alonso
SCI-Arc; GSAPP, Columbia University; University of Applied Arts Vienna

Felicity Scott
Director, Program in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture (CCCP), GSAPP, Columbia University

Chip Lord
Artist, Founding member, Ant Farm

Beatriz Colomina
Professor, History and Theory/Founding Director of the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University, Princeton University School of Architecture

6:30 PM

Honorary Keynote Lecture

Altschul Auditorium, International Affairs Building (118th st. and Amesterdam Ave)

Michael Graves
Michael Graves Design Group
Michael Graves & Associates
Princeton, NJ

Friday, April 1

Wood Auditorium, Avery Hall

9:30–11:00 AM

Plastic Environments: Environmental Plastics

Moderator: Heiko Trumpf
Werner Sobek Engineering and Design, Stuttgart

What is the future of polymers in regard to expected and forecast potentials in the chemical engineering of polymers and also as building materials in a wider sense? Will polymers offer a future malleability that allows one to alter their chemical structure after production: that is, can we reengineer polymers and extend, alter or reroute their post-consumer uses? Are there financial or economic imperatives that could sustain or thwart taking polymers back to their atomic origins: to returning the material to chemical origins for reassembly or purpose?
Polymers gain strength and are shaped by way of initial thermal processes and exhibit properties of entropy prior to applications of heat: while thermoplastics can be heated and given shape and then melted again to be reformed, thermoset polymers cannot be reshaped after their initial formation. Thermosetting of polymers induces molecular cross-linking; once formed the molecular structure becomes permanent, giving the material strength but also the inability to be re-formed. The thermosetting and its inherent cross-linking effectively block the flow of one molecule past another, thwarting potential reuses. Thermoset polymers are not as easy to either reuse or reengineer—to recycle.

How does design affect the post-production use of polymers?

Will the future environmental implications of polymers involve a renewed attempt to alter the chemical structure of discarded polymeric materials or to reengineer what would otherwise be unusable polymers? Are there techniques that will keep polymers out of landfills if they could be reengineered and are there new expectations for what we can expect from what have been discarded material?

The reuse of polymeric building materials is usually done within a thermal recycling process; the melting, grinding and washing of polymeric materials prior to re-forming has limits and sets parameters for polymer reuse, reapplication and recycling.

What aspects of polymers—either by way of chemical engineering or the limits imparted by initial chemical engineering—will be critical to the future environmental factors of polymers? How are these stages as applied to polymers different from metals or other predominant building materials?

Erik Olsen
TRANSSOLAR, Stuttgart and New York

William F. Carroll
Vice President, Industry Issues, Occidental Chemical Corporation

Jack R. Armstrong
BASF, Leader, Construction Markets North America

Hartmut Sinkwitz
Director, Interior Design Center of Competence, Daimler AG

11:15 AM–12:45 PM

Structural Properties: Structural Aspects of Polymers

Moderator: Laurie Hawkinson
Professor, GSAPP, Columbia University

Designers tend to portray polymers as infinitely moldable and easily shaped but their limits are highly defined and as such are perhaps more ambiguous and misunderstood by architects and designers than are metals, concrete or glass. Are there tectonic aspects to plastics and do they follow and abide by the attributes of metals and other ductile materials? How do polymeric materials alter our basic concept of architectural or engineering structure and dislocate the work and the potential of architectural design and experience?

Increasingly, aspects of polymers and composites are present in heavy construction and operate in a realm where steel or other metals once predominated. That is, polymers are taking on plastic attributes of steel—or joining with steel and concrete—but with a completely unique array of structural techniques, both at the level of assembly and by way of chemical engineering. But polymers also shape a vast array of other building components where pliancy and movement are critical.

Has plastic been a component of your practice in ways that are beyond integral use in plumbing, electrical casing or waterproofing? Do you see a new role for plastics and in particular for vinyl or PVC and other materials seemingly relegated to issues of artificiality or lack of historical authority? PVC and other plastics are capable of being engineered for a tremendous range of properties, including heat resistance and stiffness. Do you foresee new uses for plastics in structural engineering?

The structural properties of polymers achieved by thermosetting, cross-linking and other chemical engineering techniques are rarely discussed in architectural design, but they comprise a unique component and strain of plastics that is distinctly different from thermoplastics. Polymers tend to be discussed in generic terms and/or with degrees of strength, flexibility and other parameters. They often seem to moderate other material conditions more then serve as distinct components. Are polymers a subset of construction or can they be seen as emerging as central to it?

Composites are increasingly seen as the heir to a wide range of historic building materials such as metals and concrete and in some ways have already changed the discussion of tectonics and assembly in architectural design and engineering: do you expect to see a wider range of composites in design?

Mark Goulthorpe
Associate Professor, MIT School of Architecture + Planning

Johan Bettum
Professor of Architecture and Program Director, Städelschule Architecture Class

Heiko Trumpf
Werner Sobek Engineering and Design, Stuttgart

Ignaas Verpoest
Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, Katholieke Universiteit

12:45–2:00 PM


2:00–3:30 PM

Plastic Bodies: Polymers, Life Span and Bodies

Moderator: Paola Antonelli
Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Plastic has long signified cultural change and contemporary life: but what are the term’s other uses today?
Does plastic space still survive as a useful term or does the term and facts of plastics cast us into a very different contemporary world of ecological concern and transformed meaning of what was once the material of the future?
What is the emergent role of bio-plastics in design and how do these materials alter the relationship of plastics to the body and to the long-held popular image of plastics?

Materials such as vinyl have long held a role in all modes of design related to the body—from seating to automobile interiors—but what new roles do polymers play in more invasive or medical/biological roles in regard to bodies?

Have we passed a threshold where the bodily or haptic aspects of plastics—from the ergonometric of the hand-held, to electronic circuitry or the pervasive use of plastics in food packaging—is actually a former frontier whose effects, while far from certain, are more traceable or directly corporeal when compared to the bio-engineering of plastics we see today?

Sanford Kwinter
Professor of Architectural Theory and Criticism, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

George Jeronimidis
Professor Emeritus, Centre for Biomimetics, University of Reading, UK

Fabian Marcaccio
Artist, New York

François Roche
Architect, R&Sie(n), Paris

3:45–5:15 PM

Plastic Abstraction: Concept or Material

Color, Shape and Bodies

Moderator: Juan Herreros
Visiting Professor, GSAPP, Columbia University; Professor, Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, Madrid

Is plastic the first material for which it is possible to claim that material precedes concept—did plastic emerge without a mandate or with seemingly eased constraints compared to wood, stone, glass or metals? That is, does the term plastic as an adjective or material nomenclature fail to live up to what the material could have been or could have prompted?

Embodied in polymers, the aspects, effects and qualities of luster, reflection, surface or even weight all seem to have been often seen in light of other more historically qualified materials: do plastics need an entirely new language of art history, of artistic qualities?

Have plastics found the depth of their potential or were they short-circuited by applications of earlier mandates, or earlier material constraints on image, shape and design? Are plastics still today a material in search of a concept?

Michael Meredith
Associate Professor, Harvard University, Graduate School of Design

Jorge Otero-Pailos
Historic Preservation, GSAPP, Columbia University

Hilary Sample
Professor, Yale School of Architecture

Mark Wigley
Dean, GSAPP, Columbia University

Sylvia Lavin
Professor and Director of Critical Studies and MA/Ph.D. programs in Architecture, UCLA

5:15–6:00 PM

Concluding Discussion
Plastics, Vinyl, Composites and Engineered Materials: The Future of Plastics in Architecture

Mark Wigley
Dean, GSAPP, Columbia University

Steven Holl
Professor, GSAPP, Columbia University

Sylvia Lavin
Professor and Director of Critical Studies and MA/Ph.D. programs in Architecture, UCLA

Werner Sobek
Werner Sobek Engineering and Design, Stuttgart

Followed by a Reception

Convened by:
The Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation,
Columbia University in the City of New York
Mark Wigley, Dean

In Collaboration with:
The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science
Fenioski Peña-Mora, Dean

Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design (ILEK), University of Stuttgart, Germany
Werner Sobek, Founder

Permanent Change has been generously underwritten by the exclusive sponsor:
The Vinyl Institute

Exclusive media sponsor:
The Architect’s Newspaper

Download the Permanent Change Save the Date

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