Surfaces, Membranes and Boundaries

The sur­face was in­vent­ed by the dev­il: mem­branes, sur­faces, boun­daries - cre­at­ing in­ter­s­tices

‘God made the bulk, the sur­face was in­vent­ed by the dev­il.’ Wolf­gang Pauli, quan­tum physi­cist, 1900 – 1958

Boundary sur­faces de­ter­mine the re­al­i­ty of the world we live in. They define and ca­t­a­lyze the pro­cess­es of life, as cel­lu­lar mem­branes, skin, the im­mune sys­tem, or be­tween dif­fer­ent eco­log­i­cal fields. Pheno­m­e­na at ma­te­rial boun­daries play a role in many im­por­tant ar­eas, whether vis­i­ble and us­able in dai­ly life or re­moved from sight in the ap­plied na­t­u­ral sci­ences, nan­otech­no­log­i­cal ma­te­rials re­search, or at the lev­el of biotech­no­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal pro­cess­es (ca­tal­y­sis, fil­tra­tion, elec­trophore­sis). Con­nec­tions to the pro­duc­tion of art and ar­chi­tec­ture show up in the ma­te­rial ap­pear­ances of sur­faces, in their me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tions in pho­tog­ra­phy, film, and dig­i­tal im­age me­dia, but al­so in ex­pe­ri­ences of in­d­if­fer­ence like Duchamps’ con­cept of in­fram­ince, which is the al­most im­per­cepti­ble se­pa­ra­tion (or ‘si­mul­ta­ne­ous de­lay’) be­tween two ad­ja­cent events or states.

In ar­chi­tec­ture, terms like façade and shell desig­nate many-facet­ed si­t­u­a­tions. With his state­ment about the house as a se­cond skin ex­tend­ing our sen­so­ry sys­tem, Michel Ser­res has been one of the clear­est in ex­press­ing the idea of the en­ve­lope or shell of a build­ing as a sig­ni­f­i­cant syn­thet­ic ex­ten­sion to our bodies, that aids us in re­lat­ing to our sur­round­ings. Here, con­cepts of the mem­brane and the sur­face stand for a sys­tem’s open­ness, while con­cepts of the boundary stand for its clo­sure. In fact, the perme­a­bil­i­ty of the shell is an es­sen­tial mea­sure of the re­la­tion­ship to the en­vi­ron­ment. Our fun­da­men­tal abil­i­ty to live is de­ter­mined by this de­gree of con­nec­tion, quite apart from the state of tech­nol­o­gy, cul­ture, and mas­tery of na­ture: we main­tain our­selves as closed sys­tems by be­ing open sys­tems.

In the de­sign of ob­jects and spaces, con­sid­er­a­tions con­cern­ing sur­faces are gen­er­al­ly un­der­s­tood to be a de­ci­sion on ma­te­rial­i­ty.

Ac­cord­ing to the words of No­bel Prize Win­n­er Wolf­gang Pauli: ‘The ma­te­rial is di­vine’. With cur­rent de­bate, the de­sign and de­vel­op­ment of so-called ‘di­vine’ ma­te­rials based on the prin­ci­ples of bi­o­log­i­cal growth, or the si­m­u­la­tion of the phys­i­cal forces that act up­on them, en­ables us to pro­duce com­plex ge­ome­tries that re­call myri­ad liv­ing sys­tems – on which they were of­ten mod­eled in the first place. This can of­ten ap­prox­i­mate to liv­ing sys­tems’ ways of func­tion­ing, with­out ac­tu­al­ly achiev­ing it. Hence there is some­thing here of an un­ful­filled promise, but one which the in­vesti­ga­tion of sur­faces touch­es up­on – with the in­her­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties of “en­liven­ing” ma­te­rials by tak­ing the sur­face as a start­ing point both con­cep­tu­al­ly and tech­ni­cal­ly.

At pre­sent, ma­te­rials re­search has ar­rived at the molec­u­lar lev­el, on which elec­tro­stat­ic na­t­u­ral forces dom­i­nate over the forces of grav­i­ty and in­er­tia rel­e­vant on the macro lev­el. Many new ma­te­rials are there­fore de­ter­mined now by their mi­cro and nano scale prop­er­ties as well as by their vi­su­al and phys­i­cal macro ones. In de­sign and the arts, de­sign the­o­rist Ramia Mazé de­scribes this ‘strat­e­gy of en­liven­ment’ as a change of fo­cus from the ap­pear­ance of a ma­te­rial to the per­for­mance of sur­faces: ‘As struc­tu­ral, chem­i­cal and com­pu­ta­tio­n­al prop­er­ties are in­te­grat­ed at nano-, mi­cro- and macro-scales, even the most tra­di­tio­n­al ma­te­rial might be­come more dy­nam­ic.’ Along with the Italian ma­te­rial re­search­er Ezio Manzi­ni, we can speak of a tech­nol­o­gi­sa­tion of ma­te­rials, which in­creas­ing­ly al­lows de­sign­ers to de­ter­mine their be­haviour in ad­vance, rather than sim­p­ly tak­ing it in­to ac­count.

In seem­ing so­bri­e­ty, ma­te­rial tech­nol­o­gy re­search is con­cerned with what it sim­p­ly calls the func­tion of a sur­face. In a tech­ni­cal re­spect, we are pur­su­ing the ap­proach of a func­tio­n­al­iza­tion of sur­faces. This could for in­s­tance be a pro­tec­tive func­tion, but could al­so re­fer to an en­er­gy-gen­er­at­ing func­tion, or to light-gen­er­at­ing or in­for­ma­tion-pro­vid­ing sur­faces. Out of this, a clas­si­fi­ca­tion struc­ture for sur­faces di­vid­ed in­to the cat­e­gories of Nano, En­er­gy, Light, Cli­mate and In­for­ma­tion could be de­duced as a next step. Th­ese terms al­low the tech­no­log­i­cal char­ac­teris­tics to be or­dered in a mean­ing­ful man­n­er, whilst at the same time de­scrib­ing their cur­rent ap­pli­ca­tion prospects for both re­search and de­sign. De­sign strate­gies that are ap­pro­pri­ate for sur­faces arise from this con­gru­ence. A dis­cus­sion of sur­faces per­mits in­clu­sion of the term skin, to­gether with the prin­ci­ples, ma­te­rial con­cepts and philo­so­phies on which it is based (from an en­gi­neer­ing sci­ence, build­ing con­struc­tion and de­sign point of view).

For the sig­ni­f­i­cance of the term ‘sur­face’ is the same as far as tech­ni­cal re­search and de­sign are con­cerned, and on ac­count of this ver­satil­i­ty, the word lends it­self par­tic­u­lar­ly well to mak­ing a broad spec­trum of cur­rent de­vel­op­ments in other dis­ci­p­lines ac­ces­si­ble to de­sign.

Help­ful­ly al­so, the con­cept of sur­face fur­ther­more has a mean­ing in the hu­mani­ties, and in the arts, thus mak­ing im­por­tant, yet dis­parate con­tents ac­ces­si­ble. Sur­face has be­come the are­na in which both the sta­tus quo and the im­prove­ment of sub­s­tances can be rep­re­sent­ed. It has be­come an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary space of ne­go­ti­a­tion.

About the Magazine

Block Mag­azine Lon­don
Façade 2
  • Thorsten Klooster
  • Heike Klussmann