Course Summary

Course Summary
ARCH 3511 Material Transformations: Technology and Change in the Built Environment surveys the development of significant architectural material technologies and their relationships to society and the natural world.

The ever-present built environment comprises innumerable choices about material technologies. Architects and other designers of the material world (from furniture designers to infrastructure engineers) make design decisions every day about what, where, how and why to use any particular material. Design decisions about material technologies have enormous implications for the shared human community and the natural environment, with consequences local and global, political and ethical, economic and cultural, and practical and aspirational.

The goal of this course is to help students understand the evolving nature of material technologies, how different material applications can change the meaning of architecture, and how materials and material transformations relate to society and the natural environment. With this goal in mind, this course enhances the value of a liberal education in several important ways.

A liberal education, for example, prepares students to engage a complex, diverse and changing world. This course helps students, as beginning designers and as people affected by the designed environment, to see material technologies in architecture as part of this ever-changing, complex landscape, and provides a broader context within this shifting terrain for evaluating normative materials and material technologies relative to innovative, creative and expressive new uses.

A liberal education also prepares students to critically evaluate information and integrate knowledge. In this course, students grapple with questions and problems inherent in material technologies as they apply to architecture, and practice evaluating information and integrating knowledge through design projects and issue-based writing assignments. Through these assignments, students are exposed not only to a range of possible material technology choices, but also to the numerous means by which designers might evaluate such choices.

A liberal education further prepares students to engage the world as informed, ethical citizens. Architectural design is an inherently physical, social and ethical endeavor. Students in this course begin to see how design decisions about material technologies affect people in their everyday lives and have consequences for the natural environment as well as for society-at-large. In this course, students examine how material and material technology choices have economic, practical, environmental and cultural implications—from harvest, manufacturing, scale of use, assembly, maintenance, disassembly and/or reuse of materials in architecture.

Primary Focus
The built environment is a continuously changing terrain. This course will address two types of transformations that are critical to an understanding of the role of materials in architecture:

  • The evolving nature of material technologies and their relationships to society and the natural environment
  • The ways in which different material applications can change the sociocultural meaning of architecture

Students will engage this subject matter by modeling two primary architectural practices: praxis (design as scholarship) and critique (scholarship of design).

Student Learning Outcomes

  • This course contributes to University goals of liberal education in that students taking this course will develop skills of:
  • locating and critically evaluating information as it relates to material technologies in the designed environment; and
  • understanding and addressing the role of creativity, innovation, discovery and expression as it relates to material technologies in architecture

The lectures, films, readings and course assignments—including an ongoing writing journal, term research paper and two design projects—collectively address these student learning objectives. The design projects provide a framework for locating relevant material information, and evaluating material technologies for a specific application. Each project further requires students to evaluate when, where, how, and why to use material technologies in normative and/or novel ways. The term research paper and weekly writing journal apply critical thinking, research and evaluation skills to issues of material technology raised in the context of this course.  With these assignments, students engage directly the question of how material technologies play a creative, innovative and expressive role in architectural design.

Additional Learning Outcomes

By the end of this course, students will also:

  • Understand major technological changes that have shaped the history of architecture
  • Be able to identify primary technological, social, and environmental influences in architecture and related disciplines
  • Be able to recognize and evaluate innovative building methods in comparison with standard techniques
  • Model basic design research practices employed by architects when assessing material technologies
  • Model basic critical writing practices employed by architects when constructing design arguments

Teaching Format

Each week we will address one material technology and one related theoretical and technical topic. Although this is a lecture class, we will utilize several strategies to increase interactive learning, including in-class small group discussions, team projects, and web-based responsive writing. I encourage you to ask questions during class, and I will sometimes call on individuals randomly in order to hear diverse points of view.


Architecture is born out of the shrewd alignment of concept and matter. The product of what Louis Kahn termed “the measurable and the unmeasurable,” architecture is the fulfillment of a spatial premise by way of material substance. Throughout history architecture has been shaped by the continual transformation of material technologies and application methods. Its course of development is inseparable from the shifting terrain of technology and the social effects that result. This intrinsic alignment with change—whether from a welcomed or critical perspective—reveals the extent to which architecture is inherently tied to material innovation.

Like technology, architecture has continually transformed over time—yet it has retained the consistent aim of elevating humanity, whether through the cultivation of the arts, advancement of the sciences, instillment of morality, or dissemination of culture. By studying the architecture of a given epoch, one can more readily discern particular technological and societal trajectories that illuminate future behaviors.

On one hand, new products and processes transform architecture by enabling alternative construction techniques and novel spatial possibilities. On the other hand, architecture’s utilization of established technologies in unexpected ways demonstrates its capacity to inspire new environmental solutions as well as empower social transformation. Both tendencies demonstrate the extent to which architecture expresses the shifting terrain of global techno-cultural objectives.

Text and Resources

Students will be expected to read a variety of articles that may be downloaded from the course website. Students will also use online blogging tools as well as design, illustration, and visualization software (such as Adobe Creative Suite or SketchUp) for project assignments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.