Sticks and Stones and: An Atlas of Heterogeneous Constructions On Display

Sticks and Stones and is the culmination of a year-long research project conducted by Aaron Forrest (RISD) and Yasmin Vobis (Harvard GSD) of Providence-based architecture and design firm Ultramoderne, and structural engineer Brett Schneider (RISD) of Guy Nordenson and Associates. In their study, Forrest, Vobis, and Schneider examine historical and modern construction techniques around the world that, instead of prioritizing single-material construction, employ multiple, complementary materials in both structural and aesthetic roles.

Explains Vobis, “We had noticed that most modern Western construction emphasizes an ideal of material purity—all wood, all steel, or all concrete, for example—even though the reality is that most constructions are made up of many layers of different materials. We felt that we were missing the potential for those layers to work together in more profound ways, and started looking to vernacular and industrial examples where that way of working is much more common.”

To begin, the team assembled a photographic atlas cataloging over 92 historical and contemporary examples of material innovation into 6 categories: stacks, sandwiches, wraps, fills, collages, and scaffolds. This unique classification system challenges the traditional convention of the categorization of buildings by shifting the focus from materials themselves to the relationships between materials.

Alongside the atlas, which is pinned-up on the gallery walls, are a series of 36 full-color analytical drawings of twelve exemplary buildings which highlight a selection of projects across a wide range of epochs and global cultures; and a trio of experimental building prototypes that bring lessons from the research into dialogue with contemporary construction methods. “The prototypes we built,” says Vobis, “drew on our observations; and we asked ourselves how our locally available materials (from the nearby hardware store) could contribute to building elements where functions between materials are less discrete and more ambiguous, and how the attitude of combination may have something to offer aesthetically as well functionally.”

For Ultramoderne, these prototypes begin to uncover and develop heterogeneous materials and ways of working that could be applicable in a building at multiple scales: of the building element, demonstrated in the prototypes, or beyond to the whole building. Says Forrest, “The project represents a deeper inquiry into a set of questions that were latent in many of our projects, where we have been trying to tease out new and unconventional relationships between standard construction materials and their impacts on the space as a whole. The research has both broadened and deepened this line of inquiry, and opens up many new areas of exploration at the building scale. More so, the lens of heterogeneity offers opportunities to reconsider the way we build, how we source materials, and for making use of the local and the found in a more meaningful way.”

Sticks and Stones and: An Atlas of Heterogeneous Constructions is on view by appointment only through October 15, 2021 at BEB Gallery at RISD in Providence, RI. To schedule an appointment, please reach out to archdept@risd.edu.

Prototype photography by Naho Kubota, gallery photography courtesy of Ultramoderne.

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