Persistence of Plastics at Columbia′s GSAPP

Dean's List, East
Friday, April 1, 2011
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Monsanto's House of the Future for Disneyland. Courtesy Yesterdayland.

The first panel of this week’s conference at Columbia’s GSAPP, “Permanent Change: Plastics in Architecture and Engineering,” got down to business a few minutes late on Thursday morning. After a brief welcome, Dean Mark Wigley ceded the floor to Michael Bell, the first speaker in the line-up for “The Emergence of Polymers: Natural Material–Industrial Material.” But the pace picked up as Bell and subsequent presenters took listeners on an intense romp through the role of plastics in architectural history, providing background for the nine panels to follow through Friday evening.

Mark Wigley, dean of the GSAPP at Columbia, launches the Fourth Columbia Conference on Architecture, Engineering and Materials, "Permanent Change: Plastics in Architecture and Engineering."

While each presentation had a distinctly different focus, there were a few standby slides that popped up in more than one powerpoint. The Vinylite House from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 made repeat appearances, the Smithson’s House of Tomorrow got props from more than one presenter, and Mansanto’s House of the Future at Disneyland took the prize for most mentions. We got a chance to sit down with one presenter after the panel discussion.

The Smithsons' House of Tomorrow. Courtesy Weareprivate.net.

Billie Faircloth is the research director at KieranTimerberlake in Philadelphia. In her presentation she discussed sifting through more than 75 years worth of architecture journals. “I was interested in understanding how a material emerges as a building material,” she said. “And with plastic it was possible because of its relatively short history, unlike masonry.” Faircloth scoured library bookshelves and her own collection of trade journals. She used a “transect” method of collecting data. For a scientist studying a particular species in the field, transecting means that the researcher maintains a fixed path to observe the number of times the species appears. In this case, the path was paved with twelve architectural journals. “The only way to track this was through the architectural press and journals,” she said. “I thought of them as a set of evidence. One can get a front row seat to a very narrow venue.”

The first mention of plastic was in a journal from 1933. Journals from 1954 to the early 1960s yielded the most data, as by that time the National Academy of Sciences was pushing for research on plastic use within the field of architecture. MIT, the University of Michigan, Illinois Institute of Technology and Washington University in St. Louis all held conferences on the subject and the architectural press was on hand.

The variety of plastics in Faircloth’s study included dozens of trade names and distinct chemical compositions, but all fell under the deceptively simple moniker: plastics. “They’re really thousands of materials, but for convenience we use only one word,” she said. For the early period of the study, only 25 varieties of plastics were named; by the early 21st century, that number ballooned to 134. But alongside all the cross-references and transects (all beautifully mapped), Faircloth began tracking repeated words and phrases. She compiled yet another list. “Three phrases were repeated, no matter time or disposition of the author,” she said. “’Plastics are difficult to decipher.‘ ‘Plastics are not substitute materials.‘ ‘Plastics are the future.‘”

2 Responses to “Persistence of Plastics at Columbia′s GSAPP”

  1. TrashMan says:

    Did you know?
    The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean. Even when they photo-degrade in landfill, plastics never goes away, and toxic particles can enter the food chain when they are ingested by unsuspecting animals. Some estimate a plastics may take one thousand years to decompose. That means a bag thrown away during the crusades, the birth of Constantine, or at the signing of the Magna Carta would just be finishing its decomposition now. Plastic is getting into the food chain. Even the finest particles of plastic represent a threat to creatures at the lowest level of the food chain in the marine environment, the filter feeders. Then, toxins in filter feeders are passed up the food chain to fish and other marine animals, which humans then consume. Did you know?

  2. Tom Stoelker says:

    Hey TrashMan, thanks for the post. I only sat in on one of the panels, and though the focus of this particular panel was on the history of plastics in architecture, one panelist did delve into the environmental effects. Cooper Union’s Lydia Kallipoliti mentioned the Mid-Pacific’s “plastic soup” during her presentation–and not just in passing. The panel that followed included Rita Schenck, executive director at the Institute for Environmental Research and Education. That panel, called “Permanent Change: How Long Does a Flexible Material Last”, probably expanded on the subject, but, unfortunately, I did not have time to sit in on that one too. If and when GSAPP posts any video from that discussion we’ll be sure to add the link here.

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