Materials in architecture and design

Smart planes –  Intelligent houses – Shape memory textiles – Micro machines – self-assembling structures – Color-changing paint – Nano systems. 

The vocabulary of the material world has changed dramatically since 1992, when the first ‘smart material’ emerged commercially in, of all things, snow skis.
Defined as ‘highly engineered materials that respond intelligently to their environment’, smart materials have become the ‘go-to’ answer for the 21st century’s technological needs.

Use of Nano materials in Architecture

NASA is counting on smart materials to spearhead the first major change in aeronautic technology since the  development of hypersonic flight, and the US Defense Department envisions smart materials as the linchpin technology behind the ‘soldier of the future’, who will be equipped with everything from smart tourniquets to chameleon-like clothing. At the other end of the application spectrum, toys as basic as ‘Play-Doh’ and equipment as ubiquitous as laser printers and automobile airbag controls have already incorporated numerous examples of this technology during the past decade. It is the stuff of our future even as it has already percolated into many aspects of our daily lives. In the sweeping ‘glamorization’ of smart materials, we
often forget the legacy from which these materials sprouted seemingly so recently and suddenly. Texts from as early as 300 BC were the first to document the ‘science’ of alchemy.1 Metallurgy was by then a well-developed technology practiced by the Greeks and Egyptians, but many philosophers were concerned that this empirical practice was not governed by a satisfactory scientific theory. Alchemy emerged as that
theory, even though today we routinely think of alchemy as having been practiced by late medieval mystics and charlatans.

Throughout most of its lifetime, alchemy was associated with the transmutation of metals, but was also substantially concerned with the ability to change the appearance, in particular the color, of given substances. While we often hear about the quest for gold, there was an equal amount of attention devoted to trying to change the colors of various metals into purple, the color of royalty. Nineteenth-century magic was similarly founded on the desire for something to be other than it is, and one of the most remarkable predecessors
to today’s color-changing materials was represented by an ingenious assembly known as a ‘blow book’. The magician would flip through the pages of the book, demonstrating to the audience that all the pages were blank. He would then blow on the pages with his warm breath, and reflip through the book, thrilling the audience with the sudden appearance of images on every page. That the book was composed of pages alternating between image and blank with carefully placed indentions to control which page flipped in relation to the others makes it no less a conceptual twin to the modern ‘thermochromic’ material.

What, then, distinguishes ‘smart materials’?
This book sets out to answer that question in the next eight chapters and, furthermore, to lay the groundwork for the assimilation and exploitation of this technological advancement within the design professions. Unlike science-driven professions in which technologies are constantly in flux, many of the design professions, and particularly architecture, have seen relatively little technological and material change since the 19th century. Automobiles are substantially unchanged from their forebear a century ago, and we still use the building framing systems developed during the Industrial Revolution. In our forthcoming exploration of smart materials and new technologies we must be ever-mindful of the unique challenges presented by our field, and cognizant of the fundamental roots of the barriers to implementation. Architecture heightens the issues brought about by the adoption of new technologies, for in contrast to many other fields in which the material choice ‘serves’ the problem at hand, materials and architecture have been inextricably linked throughout their history.

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