Book Review: Material Operations

Forty years after inaugurating their now eminently successful architectural practice, John and Patricia Patkau are “beginning again.” So they happily declare in their new book Material OperationsThis unique survey features eleven experimental works, from their 2010-11 Skating Shelters for Winnipeg’s frozen Red River, to the nearly complete Temple of Light overlooking BC’s Kootenay Bay. Each work is presented more as research than resolution. Initiated in response to competition calls, serendipitous opportunities, and sustained architectural questions, these projects are largely free from the usual client-driven constraints, and share a freedom to fail constructively. Released from normative expectations, these projects embrace idiosyncrasies and mistakes as possible beginnings. Eschewing conventional methodologies, they revel in rigorous play.   

Material Operations, by Patkau Architects
Material Operations, by Patkau Architects

While this research may be open-ended, certain premises are definitive. As the book’s title suggests, each project begins with a material substance. Indeed, the authors seek to reposition materiality as foundational to design: “a source of discrete challenges to apparent possibilities that spur the will, seed the imagination, and exercise critical attentiveness,” as they write. 

On the surface, the featured materials are basic: wood veneer, stainless steel, dimensional lumber and knit fabric. The enacted operations are likewise familiar: folding bending, binding, incising and stretching. Novelty arises in dynamic combination, when matter and action give rise to form.

The rubric “material operations” names a mode of practice, whereby forms of enclosure are found by releasing material potential. For instance, experiments with bending capacities of anisotropic veneers (which are stronger along the grain than across it) generated the self-stabilizing shell of the Skating Shelters. Though these anthropomorphic forms are diversely suggestive, their precise shape sprang from careful studies of deformation and equilibrium in divergently strained wood strands. Similarly, learning the logic of stainless steel’s crystalline microstructure led to the form of One Fold. After an iterative process of trial and error, this 5’ x 12’ sheet of 18-gauge stainless steel was bent in two directions by inventing a double-action folding/breaking machine. The resulting stable shape was a natural response to contending forces.  

Staff at Patkau Architects assemble a full-scale mockup of a skating shelter at the back of the firm's office in Vancouver
Staff at Patkau Architects assemble a full-scale mockup of a skating shelter at the back of the firm’s office in Vancouver

Material Operations groups these experiments according to morphological and relational operations. Whereas morphological acts transform a single flat material, relational operations configure material assemblies. Some projects, like the composite petals of the Temple of Light, involve a combination of both. 

Though the Patkaus are critical of the graphic production and consumption of architecture, Material Operations is teeming with images. Distinct from standard project photos, these images participate in what they deem a desirable shift from the instrumentality of visualization to the embodiment of building culture. Photographs capture not simply forms but processes of fabrication. We are taken into design studios, workshops and ad hoc assembly spaces to appreciate the many sketch models, jigs, full-scale mock-ups, prototyping tests and heuristic failures integral to design research. Other images reveal telltale marks of making and makers. Drawings depict not just outlines, but cut-lines, fold-lines, guidelines, and rule lines orienting linear members into fluid arrays.  

Illustration of (a) Morphological Operations (direct manipulations of individual surfaces) and (b) Relational Operations (manipulations of surfaces composed of multiple elements)
Illustration of (a) Morphological Operations (direct manipulations of individual surfaces) and (b) Relational Operations (manipulations of surfaces composed of multiple elements)

Rule lines permeate the projects in Material Operations. Those governing the curving shell of the Daegu Gosan Library are reinterpretations of triangulated truss lines in the undulating formwork of Rift, a speculative earthwork. Rift’s topography springs from the prior discovery of a straight rule line implicit in the curvature of Cocoons—stainless steel dressing rooms that in turn rework the lines found in the wood Skating Shelters. Each material operation provides a working premise for the next. This reinforces the idea of these architects as perpetual beginners, while suggesting their rule lines linking project to project are tracking lines of thinking as much as making.  

Especially illuminating is Mirrorfold, an installation made of polished stainless steel surfaces. Here, the rule line of preceding mechanical operations probes melancholic depths. Approaching a philosophy of reflection, the designers invite readers to imagine walking along a beach on a moonlit night, and to see the shimmering silver line of the moon’s reflection on the black waters as an ephemeral link to the moon.  

The projects gathered in Material Operations are the products of curiosity about worldly phenomena, balanced by constructive doubt that status quo practice can release the full potential of making and dwelling. If this reviewer has any doubts about the book, it is that it’s research downplays circumstantial and cultural contingencies. As beautiful as Rift is, there is no clue offered as to where this earthwork is formed; as stunning as the Daegu Gosan Library may be, its setting in South Korea is not presented; and as compelling as these material operations are, there is no explicit acknowlegement of their artistic influence or the rich history of this kind of work. Knowing how well the buildings of Patkau Architects do respond to contextual circumstances, the omission must be intended to intensify the focus on tectonics. Perhaps broader lines of questioning are worth pursuing – “beginning again” with a subsequent book.  

—Lisa Landrum is Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Research) at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture.