Material Dialogues: The Iron Column in the Work of Labrouste, Wagner and Lewerentz

Research output: ThesisDissertation (external)


How can materials generate meaning? As most architectural research focuses on the formal and conceptual, it reduces matter to a passive recipient of form. Could this perspective be reversed, given the growing realisation that material resources are finite? And what would a material lens reveal about the roles materials play in the creative process? To this end, the dissertation develops a material lens, drawing on recent theories that challenge an anthropocentric view. By looking at the design process as a dialogue between the architect and the material, it 'activates' materials. The material lens is tested as it carefully traces the design process of three canonical projects where, it is argued, materials play a larger role than commonly thought. The first part of the thesis explores the idea of a dialogue between material and designer while it considers how their conversations can be captured. New materialist theories allow to see materials as active participants or agents in the design process, and to recognize how they perform through transformation and resistance. James Gibson's theories on dynamic perception and material affordances help build an analytical viewpoint that elevates the perception of materials to one that encompasses its meaning as structure, detail and spatial formation. Next, two practice-based ways of interpreting archival material set materials in motion. The first method reveals the development of a project, using the literary technique of genetic criticism to arrange archival documents. A second tool builds on the archaeological technique of seriation by drawing and thus re-enacting decisive moments in the design process, revealing underlying motivations. The idea of a material dialogues as a thinking exercise is always considered within a prevailing material regime, as attitudes towards materials change significantly over time. A separate chapter is dedicated to the main witness of the material dialogue: the architectural drawing. Until the advent of the computer, drawings on paper were the dominant medium of conversation between material and architect. Both the abstraction of the drawing and its conventions modulated and sometimes even distorted this interaction. Drawings from the three case studies expose the intricate relationships that were played out. Their study unfolds how the medium of drawing determines the tone and themes of the conversation and how it benefits the process of creation. The second and largest part of the study is devoted to an in-depth reading of three canonical public buildings. Through their innovative use of iron, each project represents a key moment in the public acceptance of iron as a building material. Starting from an epistemic building element - their iron column - the research reveals iterative processes of structural, material and spatial innovations. Each case chapter culminates in the formulation of a specific 'material motive', or decisive material rationale of the conversation. The first motive is the idea of material transfer that conceptualizes the use of iron in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1857-1868). Here, architect Henri Labrouste subverted Beaux-Arts traditions as he reinterpreted existent building cultures of stone in his cast and wrought iron structure, resulting in an unprecedentedly elegant iron roof design. Assembly is the second motive, as Otto Wagner exchanged cast iron for steel columns during the design of the Postsparkasse banking hall (1902-1906). The assembly logic of the steel profiles ushered in a new formal abstraction while the speed of the manufacturing process returned in the nervous rhythm of the rivets. The last case returns to the origins of materials, as the Cor-ten steel in his St Petri Kyrka (1962-1966) afforded Sigurd Lewerentz to develop a handling of building materials that considered their entire life cycle. This dissertation reveals just some of the myriad ways in which materials can generate and innovate meaning. The three proposed material motives suggest that material 'action' becomes decisive for the design only when it addresses or challenges prevailing theories and discourses. While the idea of material dialogue makes materials visible in their dynamic manifestations, the dialogue reveals among architects individual attitudes, arising from their material knowledge and personal experience. The material focus proposes an alternative historiography that interprets a building from its genesis and situates it within existing building cultures. Together, the approach, methods and case studies allow for a critical conceptualisation of materials, providing a basis for addressing challenges currently facing the discipline.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
  • Universiteit Antwerpen
  • Voet, Caroline, Supervisor, External person
  • Schrijver, L., Supervisor
  • Rinke, Mario, Supervisor, External person
Award date15 Sept 2023
Place of PublicationLeuven/Antwerpen
Publication statusPublished - 2023
Externally publishedYes


I thank funding for this thesis to KU Leuven, U Antwerp and the Académie d’Architecture de France. Anne-Sophie Lehmann of OSK Leiden was generous enough to allow me into their course. Lotte Tavecchio raised my English to a new level through her excellent English courses, in which I was allowed to participate even though I was not exactly enrolled at UVA.


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