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.


Block Ma­ga­zi­ne Lon­don
Fa­ça­de 2
  • Thorsten Klooster
  • Heike Klussmann