Virtualization of the Form

With special gratitude for the translation to Valeria Sorokina

DSC_7140_edModern technologies allow for implementing virtually any fantasy of a designer and architect. However, an organic connection between a crafts worker and a result of his creative activity abates with the advance of technological progress. Attention to materials used, refusal to sacrifice expression for the sake of form perfection, and identification of a speaking surface code help maintain unity of a creative idea and its material embodiment. It also contributes to creation of genuine, not imaginary works of art.

Contemplation of the world implies an ability to recognize objects. At first, we perceive the world through a surface ? smooth or rough, soft or hard, cold or fluffy. Then our eyes help us to understand and systematize our tactile sensations by means of summarizing and synthesizing subjective experience into a set of rules. As a result, starting with the role of a passive recipient, our eyes turn into the main information center for our judgments about the world. That very vision as related to personal experience becomes our main “informant”. Almost unconsciously, we begin to form an opinion whether a sweater is new by the absence of pellets or identify a type of cereal in a bowl by its color and surface texture.

Feeling Material

Stone, iron, brick or wood were heartfelt by old generation architects and used in accordance with their individual characteristics. One cannot possibly confuse an old-time brick building with the modern one because its shape (drawn in the pre-design era) fairly testifies to its content. Moreover, houses, painted in imitation brick under Peter the I in Saint Petersburg, Russia, were still structurally executed as wooden ones. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, AustraliaThe world of modern man, emerging with a wave of a mouse, differs from the world’s picture of the past. New buildings and objects are no longer drawn in pencil; they are created on computer and planned by the template specified by programmers. Due to transfer of the shaping process to a virtual reality, the appearance now is much less conditioned by construction techniques. Often they do not relate at all. In modern architecture pr design, one does not focus on correlation between a carrier and carried parts; innovations applied that our predecessors could not possibly imagine in their wildest dreams. Modern materials allow for implementing of the most incredible solutions and fantasies. Just give them a project! It would seem that the time of grace for architects and engineers has arrived ? instead of architecture, which had to be well thought out and verified on paper, a “city of the future” is built with a few clicks! In a matter of hours, template blocks and planes grow into virtual models of the future real objects. However, a trick and a concurrent a trap of a computer simulation is that a virtual world of the monitor represents objects with a certain degree of reserve. If on paper drawing, this convention is physically connected with the person and his or her tactile sensations in the material world; in case of the mouse (or any other electronic means of input) everything is created in the projected and conditional world, which is not physically associated with the architect.

“Plain Surface”

Unfinished building at Raz'ezzhaja 38, St. Petersburg, RussiaIn my opinion, the revolution of space formation principles has begun with the design era, - end of XIX – beginning of XX centuries. At that very point, object design turned into a process of searching for forms, not harmony of beauty and functionality. Since then the appraisal scale for the result has shifted from practicality and aesthetic values to effective implementation. In this context, it becomes less and less important what the thing is actually. It is more important the way it looks. Or rather ? what does it look like? Architecture and interior construction are mostly concerned about surfaces, not materials. What material is used for wall finishing? What is the combination of colors and textures? No one really (except for technical engineers and installers) cares about the way the structure is fixed, and how it goes with the appearance of a building. A new type of surface, which instantly won unconditional popularity in the design era, can rightfully be called a “plain surface”. The form design object does not tell us anything of its structure (or construction), nor about materials. A project designer works only with the configuration of facets and the object is evaluated accordingly. A bet is made on a successful form, and how it will be then painted or coated, not so important.

From Concept to Completion

Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia For any illiterate artisan in the pre-industrial era the surface of a manufactured object was a natural way of expressiveness, crowning the whole work. Material and structure, creative solutions and technical parameters are complete only after they have been formatted, summarized by the surface that acts as a part of a well thought-out whole. There are no exceptions. For our ancestors aesthetic qualities of the objects were as important as technical specifications or cost. Having conceived a majestic building or a miniature pin, the artisans of the pre-design era reflected on the subject, taking into account all its pedigree from mining components to surface finish. Speaking of the glassblower, Theophilus The Presbyter, an author of “List of Various Arts” writes, “If you are going to cook the glass, the first thing is to chop a large number of beech wood and let it dry well ...” Numerous similar texts have been preserved since the Middle Ages. Each of them permeates the idea of a close relationship between the quality of a raw material, manufacturing process and the appearance of the finished product. The material acts as a “crude” component, and the process of making things (or buildings) is a series of difficult, sometimes bizarre and confusing (occasionally deliberate) transformations. These treatises do not mention preservation of some special qualities of the source material in the final product. Nevertheless, one can always “read” these materials (or the imitated ones) in the results of our ancient colleagues’ labor. Pre-design stone carving cannot be confused with wood, and even a reinforced concrete building constructed the beginning of the XX century is not trying to imitate brick. Production material ? manufacturing? decoration (giving a final form) were natural principles for the artisans of the past. Semi-precious stones: Minerals - Lapis Lazuli, Azurite, Malachite

Expressiveness of the Image

However, it would be wrong to say that our predecessors have never tried to give one material over another. For example, in “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder, we find ways to replace precious materials at a low cost. Such substitutions were often adopted as “official” ones: in a large number of ancient temples the walls by the floor were painted in imitation marble or brick. However, these replacements often took place in order to refine or take a selected surface to a higher level of expressiveness, not to give it a more accurate look. In the times of ancient constructing, brick and stone were not ashamed to look like brick or stone. Even under a layer of plaster, many old buildings reveal their “brick-hood” or uneven brickwork due to semiconsciously identified irregularities. Wrought chandelier never tried to look like a cast one or wooden carving even under a layer of gesso and gilt never pretended to be made of plaster. I may suggest that in our predecessors’ minds an object and its form could not possibly exist by themselves. It was impossible to build a “plain relief” or a “plain wall” not because medieval or the modern era vocational schools failed to teach their apprentices to plaster and carve properly but rather because the end process consisted of surface making by which the entire object or building could be recognized later (though). Plasterers and carpenters, jewelers and glass blowers ? representatives of several thousands of different professions tried to choose a form, which was not only practical, but also able to express better the quality of the material used from an aesthetic point of view. In the era of pre-serial labor it was permissible to leave barely visible, but subconsciously decipherable instrument marks on the treated surface. These tracks could tell to the eye accustomed to recognizing various surfaces how the work on the material went on and by what means it was mastered. "Jewelry" from a "Dollar Store" Following this path, the artisan develops an infinite variety of tactile and visual sensations that God has given us. It never bothers a professional that his forged items do not compete with the cast ones, or wooden objects do not argue over their perfection with the plastic ones. It would be wrong to say that working on the surface implies giving the object a special look. In labor culture, with its respect for the material, finishing is not perceived as a minor operation of giving a neat appearance, but rather as a means of achieving the full expression for each component of the future object. With a thought-out and heartfelt finishing, the object’s image is completed with the strokes that will not only ensure its integrity at “reading” (i. e. the first impression of reality), but also ascertain its properties and qualities firsthand.

The foregoing is equally important for all sizes, both small and large. Therefore, a visible “brick-hood” of an ancient structure by no means diminishes its merits. In relation to church, if we want sanctuaries, icons and all other material components of our church life to create an authentic impression, we should think about not only contours and colors, but also the expression of technologies and materials that is the fullness of their images. If the exterior of the church looks like a wooden made, it would be strange to see plasterboard walls with false arches and pseudo arches inside. If we decide to put gold on an icon and make it as perfect as a mirror, we must first ask ourselves a question ? how the icon will be perceived with it? As painted on a sheet metal, a yellow mirror with a recess, or as anything else? Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Fe, NM, USA I am confident that the tradition of comprehension of the quality of materials should be reconstructed entirely. We see not only what we see. Our brain in the blink of an eye correlates everything that is in the visual field with already known facts and arrives at clear conclusions based on the difference it has observed. If we see something resembling a diamond or a ruby in a decent frame, we will certainly believe it is genuine, while on denim, it is not: our experience will suggest it is strass. If something made of marble carved and cut in a way that it does not feels like marble, should one call “it” marble or other versions are worth considering:
a) casting resin or plastic;
b) polished sandstone;
c) Venetian plaster?

How can we believe in “marble-hood” of the product, if it looks like a molded plastic? Such tremendously expressive raw materials as wood, gold, brick, or even a simple plaster in the era of computer design lose their qualities and turn into a virtual shadow. In the crafted, but un-manifested object, we are likely to identify an original project, a template or a blank, not the material embodiment. If the “materiality” is unconfirmed, we get the appointment of two disjoint realities. A man, with his earthy, tactile and visual confirmation of the reality finds himself in a perfectly planned and materialized, but “quality-less” setting. This “environment” simply falls out of our sight and no longer perceived as informative, as it was not there initially. If we do not inform our eyes of its nature, we hereby say that the object is either nonmaterial, or we deal with its shell, which does not show any properties and qualities and says nothing about it's inner being. Eastern wall of  Mariinsky Theater New Stage Building. Saint Petersburg, Russia Eastern wall of Mariinsky Theater New Stage Building. Saint Petersburg, Russia[/caption] Office space with its feeling of anonymity where the walls and objects look like a combination of “plain surfaces” can be intentionally planned this way. In the church the same material environment has a very special meaning. The way we construct a church building and form its interior space, not only determines feelings of an incomer, but and shows our attitude towards him. The transformation of space does not abstract us from the outside world; it disables our main source of information, our eyesight. Without understanding of the nature of the created environment, a person cannot know how he should feel himself there, in what way to conform to it. As far back as the Old Testament description of the tabernacle, we come by an extremely detailed listing of materials and their properties. Like thousands of years ago, our worship services continue to be officiated by men in earthly reality, using utensils and vestments, with the smell of incense and burning wax. Despite all the physicality and tangibility to the above, it is meant to reveal us the image of the Invisible. Moreover, the power of the image does not depend on its compliance with any standard, spectacular presentation or perfection of forms, but on its expression.


Living Sculpture. Melbourne, Australia Bringing surfaces and materials to perfect smoothness gives a formal advantage. However, if we sacrifice their expressiveness in favor of the “perfect form”, the latter will be fully dematerialized without tangible signs back up. Take modern wood, stone, glass and concrete, perfection of the surface equally leads to a complete denial of reality. Being too perfect for the real world, they “fall out” of our field of vision due to the absence of visual qualities. While thinking over and creating a work of art, an author works with respect to its content, he provides the final product of his labor with a code of the speaking surface. Besides, if in every material used we will be able to read its nature ? individual, earthly, God given and treated by men ? then, by detecting it on the surface we will preserve and multiply the variety of the created universe.

Philip A. Davydov,
March-April 2015