It has been said of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Britain's favourite engineer, that even his disasters were impressive. His bridges did not fall down, but he took colossal risks with innovation and business ventures that did not always pay off, such as his attempt to use air pressure to power locomotives. Brunel's iron-hulled SS Great Britain would surely have never left the dock if Brunel had been working in today's culture of design and engineering, for the simple reason that it is doubtful anyone would have insured it.
That is the conundrum faced by modern architects who wish to use new materials. It is an irony that, while the range of potential materials available today would surely have been envied by Brunel and his contemporaries — shape-changing alloys, thermochromic polymers, transparent ceramics — it seems harder than ever to put such innovative fabrics into buildings.
As Irish architect Niall McLaughlin explained at a recent meeting of artists, scientists and engineers*, the problem is not that these substances are inappropriate or untrustworthy — it is simply that, if no one has used them before (or not in this particular application), it is all but impossible to get the building approved or insured.
This has forced McLaughlin in the past to jump through hoops in order to introduce new materials. To be allowed to use 3M's dichroic Radiant Light film — a metal-oxide-coated plastic sheeting intended as a fashion fabric — for the frontage of a building in east London, McLaughlin's team had to mount the material on separate, removable panels so that if it were to 'fail', it wouldn't degrade the 'performance' of the building.
New materials typically have to be certified for a life expectancy of 30 years before they can be used in architecture. If, as in this case, the manufacturers did not develop the material with such uses in mind, they are usually uninterested either in conducting the necessary tests themselves or in providing the data needed to make an assessment. There is nothing in it for them. But who else can carry out such tests? McLaughlin says that most architectural commissions allow neither the time nor the budget for testing. Small private clients might be prepared to risk innovative designs without such guarantees, but for most institutional or commercial projects it is out of the question.
“It's harder and harder for architects to use materials rather than products”, he says. In other words, one must build with a fixed set of standardized parts, and architecture becomes a process of arrangement and assembly rather than a creative activity.
The forbidden word is 'failure'. “To innovate, you have to be allowed to run the risk of failing”, says McLaughlin. Engineering history is littered with failures like Brunel's. Some were catastrophic and fatal, of course, but architectural failure today is not generally about catastrophic structural collapse. It simply means that some component didn't quite fulfil its job of, say, insulating or waterproofing.
It seems natural that clients want to avoid failure. But failure is widespread in the arts, in making movies and books and music. In architecture, however, a component that proves demonstrably unfit for the purpose exposes the architect to the risk of litigation. That is likely to be compounded by public ridicule — McLaughlin comments on the “strange public appetite” for deriding failed innovations such as the initially wobbly Millennium Bridge that spans London's river Thames.
What we need to get more new materials into architecture is a less risk-averse culture that accepts occasional failure as the cost of innovation, along with enlightened clients that can make accommodation for research, and perhaps sources of funding that will support small-scale experimental projects. And others can surely learn lessons from countries such as Switzerland and Japan that somehow find ways to incorporate inventive fabrics into their buildings.
*Engineering Art, Tate Modern, London, UK, 15 April 2005.