Material Histories of Architecture

Course Leader

Dr. Kim Förster

Teaching Assistants

Benjamin Blackwell

Dr. Brett Mommersteeg

Adam Przywara


Prof. Katie Lloyd Thomas (Newcastle University)

Prof. Hannah LeRoux (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)

External Links

AdobeAsbestosBrickConcreteGlassNanomaterialsPlastic IPlastic IIPortland StoneTimber ITimber II

Leaving aside the commonplace that architecture, by definition, not only offers shelter, but also requires, and even consumes materials, this research seminar was dedicated to material histories in a variety of architectural, cultural, political, geographical, anthropological and social respects.

Building materials were looked at in a transdisciplinary perspective, since the Anthropocene, as a challenge to the humanities and to practice, is about rethinking not only the relationship to energy regimes, but rather also to the material world. The aim was not only to research material conditions and constraints of architecture, the processes of production, objectification, and communication that inform traditional, modern and future-oriented materials. A material perspective, next to making commodity chains a topic, opens architecture's focus on broader political geological aspects such as extraction and sedimentation that shape and are product of material culture, and related aspects such as social and environmental justice.

In the workshop, in order to build historical awareness, methodological competence, and environmental literacy, students first in four sessions: read, discussed on current materialist, both vitalist and historical positions; compared different architectural historical positions on issues of architectural culture and urbanization, construction technology and aesthetics, management and labour in relation to concrete as a crucial, yet problematic building material of the 20th century; learned about diverse forensic approaches working on compliance with environmental and human rights, a postcolonial and post-humanist perspective, the preservation of cultures and landscapes, etc.; and finally were confronted with political approaches of governmentality and environmentality in the face of a continuing exploitation of both people and the planet, i.e. how Anthropos relates to Bios and Geos.

The students had the task of working in small groups on a material of their own choice—with research on adobe, asbestos, brick, concrete, glass, nanomaterials, plastic, stone, and twice timber—, i.e. analysing and presenting the commodity geographies in terms of their impacts on landscape and territories, as well as economic and ecological viewpoints, with the help of visualisation techniques (map, diagram, film).

During the workshop, which combined phases of research, presentation, critique, and production, the students acquired knowledge, skills, and abilities by:

  • conducting case-based research into a specific building material on the basis of a transdisciplinary perspective
  • applying and developing architectural skills of visualisation, combined with those of narration
  • reading analytically and critically seminal and contemporary architectural histories
  • mapping of material geographies, through online and text-based research
  • diagramming of stakeholders, human and non-human, in their relations
  • searching relevant literature, and producing an annotated bibliography
  • writing, editing, producing a video, which tells a material story, in a historical, critical, speculative, imaginative manner


Rayyan Amjad

Jakub Andruszkiewicz

Effimia Athanasakopoulou

Jemma Rose Baldwin

Sing Hong Chau

George Leon Cosbuc

Robert Crutchley-Macleay

Sophia Grabow

Haoran Jiang

Luvsansambuu Luvsansambuu

Farah Nadhiera Binti Mohammad Fuad

Cameron Hawkins

Iman Habib

Daniel Jarvis

Lon Y Law

Titiloreoluwa Naomi Olasode

Giorgos Porakos

Trisha Pradhan

Oliver Radcliffe

Tazeen Raza

Diana Savin

Oladipo Timothy Shobowale

Taiming Si

Jamie Talbot

Elliott Taylor

Jianyu Wang

George Williams

Alice Wilson

Jordan Hin Ho Wong

Yilin Zeng


Adobe is a material that is often forgotten and associated with values that are directly contradictory to its agency in the 21st century. Its primary constituent of hyper-local soil mean its aesthetic and structural qualities could change if the same building is built as little as 10km apart. By studying this material through the societies that use it, and how their identity is melded by it, is an illuminating story of how the history of globalisation has both damaged and benefitted vernacular communities.

Our installation ‘Asbestos: Life and Death’ focuses on the city of Asbest in Russia to raise awareness to the on-going mining and exportation of asbestos, which still thrives and is a large part of the Russian economy. The recent history of asbestos in Russia draws us into tensions at the heart of architecture's entanglement in the Anthropocene.

Over the course of the last 150 years, the humble brick has been a constant in the architectural realm. As technology has advanced and external actors have been introduced into the frame, the resilience of brick has been continuously tested; yet it has persisted to maintain its relevance. Using the case study of the Nori brick, we have observed the material perceptions of brick over this era and how societal changes have dictated the model of brick within the industry.

Beginning of the 21st century, within short time, China showcased a form of material excess, producing more cement than any country in the world, and more than the U.S. used in 100 years. The volume alone, consumed in the state capitalist system, makes the Chinese mode of concrete unique and critical. While the recent history of China can be read as a history of concrete, this was made possible by drastically changing material geography, of the Chinese cement industry, as much as the of sand mining, both locally, at the Yangtze River, and internationally, based on imports from abroad.

Glass since its widespread has become a ubiquitous material in today’s built environment. This research takes a close look at the history of glass at three moments in time and on three scales across three different geographies. It begins at the implementation of window glass in premodern times, triggered by the Little Ice Age, and follows the material’s rise to a global product, alongside the history of the British glass production company Pilkington Brothers that developed from a small family business in the early 19th century into a world player.

How do we tell the story of cutting-edge materials with limited histories? Can we rely on nanomaterials for a quick fix to societal issues? Using graphene as an entry point, "Nanoecologies" is a review of contemporary nanomaterial discourses. In a material ecology that is advocated by dominant utopian visions, it is precisely these visions that influences the development of highly advanced technologies, but the material is often realised in relatively rudimentary applications.

Plastic as a physical manifestation of embodied toxicity within a linear economy is indicative to the Anthropocene, forming the basis of our forensic claim that humanities reliance on plastic has social and urban consequences. This research is situated within an environmental justice framework of plastic production and waste management, emphasising legislation which affects vulnerable and marginalised communities.

Portland Stone is a building material ubiquitous to London. The Great Fire of London in 1666 caused a material change in the city’s architecture with a shift towards Portland Stone. Our research narrates the post-catastrophic urbanisation of London by tracing the history of the material it was built from, examining the first 50 years of processes and events, production chains and stakeholders.

Our study intends to raise awareness over the rising deforestation rates in the Amazon reserve of the State of Para, Brazil. By focusing on the ipe tree (one of the most valuable and cultivated in Brazil) we trace illegal logging activities that link to timber companies in the United States of America, thus using the High Line in New York as a case study.