Book Review: Materials for Design

Materials for Design by Victoria Ballard Bell with Patrick Rand, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. (Amazon)

One of the most popular magazines with architects is the aptly-named Detail, as it presents detailed drawings alongside the typical professional photography. This thoroughness to how ideas are translated into buildings is also evident in this great book by Victoria Ballard Bell with Patrick Rand, focused on five materials used in much contemporary architecture. These five materials (glass, concrete, wood, metals, plastics) comprise the book's chapters and its way of categorizing the 60 buildings presented, with each chapter giving a brief but thorough overview of the material's natural properties, historical use in buildings, design and other considerations. While geared to students, the book is eminently appealing to practicing architects, if not for these descriptions then the great projects presented.
While this book aims to give the student a basic background in the materials and a way of seeing how they are applied to buildings, in order to be able to select the appropriate materials for a particular design (a consideration all-too-frequently missing from many studios that deal in the abstraction of computer models or chip-board or bass wood physical models), it also shows how the materials can be used in varied and creative ways. A good example is the book's cover project, the Laminata House by Kruunenberg Van der Erve Architecten. Instead of using glass in its typical role as a clear barrier in an opening, the architects used it in this research project as walls and structure by gluing together on site more than 10,000 sheets of pre-cut glass. It's an amazing project that can only be accomplished (at this time) as a research project (due to cost and time), but it's definitely something that can influence how a student or architect thinks about the material, in a manner different from typical applications.
Criticisms of the book are few: The selected projects (like most presentations of contemporary architecture) have a Western focus, with most projects in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. This almost total ignorance of a non-Western context excludes architects like the late Geoffrey Bawa in South Asia and Simón Vélez in South America, whose ambitious constructions with bamboo offer a great precedent for architects designing sustainably, though here bamboo is limited to nARCHITECTS' courtyard design for PS1. Additionally, what could be considered the most important part of each project -- the detailed drawings -- are inconsistent, with some buildings featuring thorough and easy-to-follow details, while others lack keys or a level of graphic legibility that the reader deserves. This is most likely due to the various contributions to the book via architects who practice in different ways, and the lack of free labor afforded by a design studio like Function of Ornament, though future editions or volumes (if any) should address the more deficient drawings. Lastly, the relationship of the text to the drawings is sometimes frustrated by the former mentioning an important design element that is not documented by the latter.
Even with these criticisms, the book is an excellent resource for the architect as well as the student. With the importance of materials and material selection going beyond the realm of effect to its impact on the local and larger environment, the architect must always be considering and reconsidering what buildings are made of. This book helps the architect see the various applications of the most popular materials, and gives the student a background that enable them to recognize the importance of materials and push them in a direction that is hopefully both creative and responsible.