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.