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Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World
Mark Miodownik
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Reviewed by Elizabeth S. Padjen FAIA

In 1985, a British teenager was stabbed on a London subway platform. Of all possible outcomes, no one could ever have predicted the effect on the victim. Young Mark Miodownik became immediately and weirdly fixated on the razor that had sliced his skin and on all its metallic relatives in the world around him: his ballpoint pen, the family car, his soup spoon. And thus was a career in materials science born.

We owe a thanks to Miodownik’s unknown attacker. His actions produced a leading scientist who may well have established the gold standard for science writing for a general audience. Stuff Matters is a genial, often entertaining presentation of a little-recognized corner of the scientific world through an examination of 10 materials. Miodownik employs a simple organizing device: a photo taken on his rooftop as he sits at a table drinking tea. The image reappears at the beginning of each chapter, annotated to introduce the subject — paper, plastic, porcelain — and its manifestation in such a familiar, banal environment: book, flower pot, tea cup.

Miodownik knows that most people are intimidated by talk of atoms and such. Instead, he expands his focus beyond science to human history, demonstrating the influence of specific materials on societies and cultures, even civilization itself. The Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age — each represents an era defined by an evolution in materials knowledge.

And so we learn that the explosion in popularity of billiards and pool in the mid-1800s led to a race to provide an inexpensive substitute for ivory balls. Happily for elephants, success was at hand in the form of celluloid, an early plastic. Applications soon abounded, from jewelry to photographic film, contributing to the burgeoning consumer culture and spawning further developments such as Bakelite, nylon, and vinyl.

Other romps through materials history are similarly enlightening: the cross-marketing gambit of trade in porcelain and tea; the development of glass as a necessary precursor to scientific inquiry. Glass is also discussed through the lens of “psychophysics,” which Miodownik defines as the study of sensual interaction with materials. That Bud Light in your fridge is a descendant of clear beverages introduced when inexpensive glassware replaced pewter and ceramic tankards. We might all otherwise be drinking Guinness.

Architects will certainly perk up with interest in the concrete chapter. Miodownik describes the chemical marvel that is concrete, neatly describing why “cement” is not its synonym. The literal foundation of the Roman Empire, concrete mysteriously disappeared from common use until the development of reinforced concrete in the mid-19th century. It now constitutes half of the world’s structures, but designers will soon see the venerable material with fresh eyes. Concrete with embedded bacteria that can purify water and allow selfhealing cracks is already here, as are self-cleaning concrete that also cleans the air, and concrete cloth — a durable textile that will attract the attention of sculptors and disaster-relief agencies alike. Chapters on graphite / graphene and foam / aerogel offer similar glimpses into future building materials.

Architecture may be the Mother of the Arts, but it is arguably also the Daughter of the Materials Sciences. The genetic resemblance is certainly strong: Both disciplines require the ability to work fluidly at multiple scales, from the most minute component to the scale of humans, buildings, and even cities. As with any parent and child, the relationship has had its issues. The disappointments and dangers of miracle materials (asbestos, Dryvit) and failures in detailing (galvanic action, mold) all establish a case for caution. But what designer doesn’t light up when presented with a new material? Imagining possibilities is the essence of creativity — and the shared passion of both the materials scientist and the architect.

Elizabeth S. Padjen FAIA is an architect and writer. She was the founding editor of ArchitectureBoston.

A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future
Jonas Salk and Jonathan Salk with David Dewane
City Point Press, 2018
Reviewed by Jim Stanislaski AIA

An S-shaped line called the sigmoid curve is the central character in this accessible explanation of our unique point in history. Half a century ago, vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk realized that human population growth could not continue its steep upward trajectory; that it would likely slow and reach a plateau. When graphed, this takes the shape of a curve: slow increasing growth, then rapid growth, an inflection point followed by declining growth, and finally a horizontal line of near zero growth. You and I have recently lived through such an inflection point — this statistical flip of the arc — where the population growth rate slows and then eventually stabilizes to a pace our planet can sustain. A New Reality illustrates a sigmoid curve via a simple experiment of fruit flies housed in a closed chamber; their population increases, hits an inflection point, and then stabilizes.

In 1981, Jonas Salk and his son Jonathan explored these ideas in World Population and Human Values: A New Reality. Architect David Dewane is credited with the inception of this 2018 update, which was sponsored in part by the Design Futures Council. The authors consider the inflection point in the sigmoid curve as an “epochal transformation” that will drive major changes in our behavior, social systems, institutions, and the very nature of human life.

A New Reality splits time into two major epochs on either side of the inflection point of population growth. On the upturned side, Epoch A was a period of unlimited growth, resources, and available energy. It was a period of larger families, colonization, industrialization, and resource extraction with little concern for the effects of consumption and waste disposal. In our current downturned side of the curve, Epoch B is defined by an awareness of earth’s limited resources, driving smaller families, conservation, and sustainability.

The more interesting part of the book focuses on the human behaviors and values for each time period. Shortrange benefits, profit, and material value characterized Epoch A. Conversely, Epoch B behaviors will reward long-range planning, human value, collaboration, and interdependence. Our largest human problems of poverty, climate change, public health, and feeding a projected 10 billion people will require “B values” of global cooperation and recognition that we are not just individuals but parts of a larger interconnected ecosystem. Our world looks very different to a Depression-era baby, a baby boomer, and a millennial, as each of us is born into unique circumstances that affect our epochal thinking and values.

The book stays high-level, almost to a fault. Data lovers will want more evidence while those in a hurry will be pleased to finish the book in two hours. The design has the feel of a children’s book at times, containing two-page spreads with only two lines and fewer than a dozen words. Short paragraphs and declarative statements appear opposite full-bleed photos, and simple graphs with low-information density support the ideas.

In this complex world, there is a thirst for simple explanations, and though I liked the book, I found A New Reality a bit short on illustrative examples. Other than the Paris Climate Accord and interdisciplinary university research, what are other instances of global cooperation and the advent of Epoch B values? The Salks’ predictions are believable, and I long for a change in our social systems and institutions that embrace Epoch B values because we are, as the book notes, a “fruit flies in a bottle” experiment. Although our lives are longer and generations pass more slowly, we also live in a closed system with all the water, sunlight, and nutrients we are going to get. This is an immutable reality, but it’s certainly not new.

Jim Stanislaski AIA is an architect at Gensler and leads its regional design resiliency group.

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman
Peter Korn
David R. Godine, 2015
Reviewed by Sam Batchelor AIA

Engaging in the long-established tradition of extolling the spiritual virtues of manual arts with references to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, Peter Korn adds a twist. He links his search for the good life to design as much as making, and renders the role of creative thought as inseparable from the act of making. This is a critical distinction, one I greatly appreciated as Korn eventually expands his definition of making from objects to the making of communities and institutions.

Although Korn touches on clichéd notions of craftsmanship and its intrinsic rewards, he also supplies the perspective of a mature pragmatist who addresses the need to balance enlightenment with paying the rent. Further, he acknowledges that his life of relative privilege enabled this exploration and that his battles with cancer influenced his perspective and choices.

Equal parts philosophy and memoir, the book follows his path of discovery, beginning with an ideal yet naive approach and building to a more nuanced reconciliation. He describes constructing a reality “independent of intrusive narratives” and then traces how maturity and confidence eventually diminish his need to remain apart and allow the value of collaboration and community to emerge. Without becoming dogmatic, he articulates the time and the place for each approach based on career, experience, and personal need.

Korn is measured when he addresses the pressures of economic stability and efficiencies of production. Although he is clear that commercial success is not a perfect nor singular mechanism to gauge the value of made objects of all types, he concedes that commercial viability does impart a “discipline of relevance” on the maker.

The message I found to be a consistent arc throughout the book was Korn’s distinction between happiness and fulfillment: “[They] feel like two distinct states of mind to me, and of the two I find happiness greatly overrated by those who present it as life’s ultimate goal... . However recalcitrant the universe may be, when I am creatively engaged I have a sense of purpose and fulfillment that makes happiness seem like a bauble.”

This approach is one that he delineates early in the book and returns to at each phase in his journey as a maker. About his transition from a craftsman to teacher to administrator, he says, “The raw material with which I work as an administrator changes, too. Instead of being wood or words, it is human nature.”

Although the title of the book focuses on making in craftsmanship, the content is more about the value of the creative process. For Korn, this process is rooted in making because it is where he began, but the values he extols as critical to the achievement of fulfillment as opposed to happiness center more around creativity and creation than around the making of physical objects. This distinction dramatically increases the relevance of the book to anyone in the creative fields.

Sam Batchelor AIA, a partner at designLAB architects, founded and directs the MassArt Community/Build Studio.