From the issue feature, "Authenticity: Navigating the Real in Cities, Design and Art."

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wood deck material authenticity

Photo: John Marx

“As far as building materials are concerned, you name it—and you can have it. If not the real thing, at least a substitute that resembles it. The result is a hash of countless combinations of materials in varying degrees of inappropriateness.” —Charles Eames, “Design: Its Freedoms and Its Restraints,” 1963

 

The topic of authenticity underpinned the work of the modern architects of the 1920s. “Honesty of materials” and “form follows function” were two commandments rising from a militant, monolithic understanding of authenticity founded on reclaiming a closer connection between what the building hosts and its translation in built form without extraneous formal references. We are now at a different place. Expressing function through form might be more allegorical than literal now because through that lens the object collapses the story of the process of its making with the narrative of its function.

While children of modern architecture were reared with an understanding of a clear divide between authenticity and its nemesis—namely, that tight fit between matter and its image—we now bump into blurred boundaries between the authentic and inauthentic. Today, a parade of mixed messages regarding authenticity surrounds us, delivered by design that trades original materials for those that resemble them, which stands in contrast to early modern architecture, with its strict doctrine about what was or was not proper design. Following the implosion of design languages in 19th-century eclecticism, changes in cultural context, design approach, taste and technological solutions, we’re seeing a broadening of that definition: inclusiveness, variety and diversity are the building blocks of our design zeitgeist. Now, each of us deals with the authentic/inauthentic antinomy with a personal, qualitative judgment. Our intuitive compass endows us with the capacity to discern between the authentic and the inauthentic, and we act accordingly.

Due to recent advances in modern material technologies and shifting attitudes toward design, the fake now replaces the original to the satisfaction of many, architects and nonarchitects alike. To illustrate our point: stone is found in nature; its appearance and matter are the same, and it is therefore authentic. As a building material, stone can be expensive and not always feasible. On the other hand, porcelain tile with a high-definition image of stone printed on it is now commercially available as “porcelain stone,” meeting numerous practical requirements and affordability. Its appearance (stone) and matter (porcelain) are fundamentally different, and hence, it is an inauthentic material according to modernist standards.

Weathering and material behavior are two devices that let us discriminate the truthful from the deceitful. But claddings, veneers, computerized imagery and virtual environments have hijacked our senses. Stone facades with no load-bearing capacity, GRFC hollowed columns, ornamental plaster crown molding and picture-perfect renderings in high-end real estate brochures point to a reality they represent without owning any of their apparent material properties. Further examples of this phenomenological confusion abound.

There are alternative materials that are entirely new in both form and substance, which borrow concepts from that which is familiar and yet do not pretend to be something they are not—for example, a material with a computer programmable texture that has stone-like characteristics but does not copy any stone found in nature, having its own unique look and feel. This new product classifies as authentic because it does not imitate an original source but, rather, embodies a new form, recognizable in type (it is rough like a stone, it is hard like a stone) but unique to anything in nature. This demonstrates authenticity rooted in the process of creating rather than referencing.

To embrace current technological advances in building materials and economic limitations while maintaining authenticity, we suggest invoking an aesthetic “suspension of disbelief” when encountering the new, synthetic materials described above, which vary in quality from those from the natural world but are designed in a creatively honest manner. Then, when looking at this man-made object with no specific referent found in nature, our emotional response to its occurrence in the world wins out over its natural implausibility. Because this new product is both comparable to a natural material in quality and has crossed the “emotional threshold of credibility/desirability,” we might embrace it in the built environment.

When we ask ourselves if something is authentic, and if it matters to us whether it is or not, our responses speak to the value we assign to authenticity. Failing the test of how the instance and the original relate to each other appears less compromising for an artifact’s integrity when we consider its overall acceptance within the built environment. In architecture, authenticity is rooted in adaption. Function is a quintessential prerequisite in the art of building: adaption is by default a structural condition of architecture, argued as an art in constant transformation. Freezing that element of change might be argued as inauthentic to the very task of architecture. Our response to the final result is tied to the “spirit of our time”: to be authentic is to work, and to maybe oppose, not just reflect that spirit; it is to operate in relationship to that set of cultural priorities—inclusiveness, variety and diversity—unfettered by physical determinism—the need to reference actually existent objects in design. This package of external conditions and internal beliefs is something emotionally meaningful to us.