20. Cheap Materials

A great artist can use the simplest of materials and create a masterpiece.  Watercolor paintings made from coffee, sculptures created from scraps of wood or metal, a photograph that was taken through a grungy car window while traveling at break-neck speeds…yet each one is captivating and inspiring because it was created from seemingly nothing.

Architects find it necessary to prove themselves as magnificent artists, and attempt to do so by using some of the ugliest materials for their structures.  Something about using the discarded and outcast materials gives architects pride in their work if they are able to transform it into something beautiful and loved.  However, the problem is that architects tend to be purists, and rarely actually transform the materials; instead, they leave them as they were found and leave the user scratching their head as to why the budget was cut or the client didn’t insist on using drywall.

The most widely used excuse – er, reason – for selecting dilapidated, cheap materials is that they are the most ‘simplistic’ and ‘representative’ for the project’s over-arching theme and concept (even if there appears to be no logic involved at all, there can still be a concept…somehow).

The real culprit is the starchitect.  They go and design some awesome building that has unusual finishes and then every other architect decides that they, too, should use these same finishes.  Take for example Casa Da Musica, designed by Rem Koolhaas.  The main concert hall is clad in plywood panels.  Don’t get too excited yet, though, because these ‘simple’ and ‘humble’ panels were then covered with gold leaf.  Why, you ask?  Because plywood is particularly ugly, and it takes the addition of pure gold to make it look better.  The only reason Rem can get away with such things is because his buildings have the budget to make ‘simple’ materials actually look half decent.

Good plywood application (Because its covered with gold):

Image from http://farm1.static.flickr.com/25/40860447_0d1609c477.jpg

Bad plywood application (because it doesn’t have gold on it):

Image from http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2576/3977397704_b7c321808f.jpg

Somehow, wood and water don’t seem to mix well.  They probably should have installed a faucet that drips gold instead of water, then it would have been a success.

Somewhat successful use of plywood (only because there is a presence of gold in the vicinity):

I can’t decide which is more distracting – the gold-less plywood or the overly-gold table.  Talk about sensory overload!

Essentially, every cheap material must be covered in an expensive material or else it must be disguised to distract the user from knowing its true form.  Perhaps cutting it into unrecognizable pieces or covering it with some more expensive material would work.

Plywood isn’t the only guilty pleasure of architects.  They have been known to support the use of other everyday trash objects and recyclables for building houses.  Beer cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles, even sand bags have all been used in house ‘design’.

Image from http://architangent.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/2465964827_19a344ed344.jpg

Notice that the use of cheap materials here does not in any way influence the design of the house.  If the design is going to stay the same, why bother with the hassle that is sure to ensue when you go to get the place insured?  Just stick to normal cladding and paint it green.

Image from http://www.blogcdn.com/www.shelterpop.com/media/2010/03/plastic-bottle-house-bed-590.jpg

I’m no doctor, but isn’t it common knowledge that drinking from plastic bottles can cause cancer?  What happens when you live inside them and sleep on them?  Just sayin’…

Image from http://updatedhome.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Egg-House6.jpg

Someone, somewhere, thought this was a good idea.

Last but not least, the beer can house that is a few miles away from where I live:

Image from http://www.austinchronicle.com/binary/6e32/cols_daytrips.jpg

Sure, I’ve taken out of town visitors by this place, but really, who wants to live in the flapper-fringe beer can house?  I’m secretly planning to disassemble the whole thing and take it to a recycling center – imagine the cash I could get for it!

All of this goes to show that cheap materials usually don’t turn out the way we hope they will.  However, if you insist on experimenting with cheap materials in your next project and it doesn’t turn out so well, just apply some gold leaf.  Then it will be a masterpiece.

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