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The Weight of Materials

Mar 03, 2017 09:15AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Housing and clothing share a common purpose; both strive to give shelter from the elements, the natural world. Ever since humans took their first steps inside or clothed their bodies, we enhanced our comfort and made our environment more tolerable, facilitated by a distancing, a separation, leaving the world outside.

However, by doing so, we soon forget the warmth of the sun on a bare back or the sense of grounding felt by the earth giving way to the imprint of bare feet. If we happen to find ourselves outdoors without shoes, we rarely step off asphalt or concrete onto the soil for fear of getting dirty. This tactile existence to the natural world is avoided, replaced by the firm, clean, controlled floors of our home.

An awareness of gravity is disguised by all these trappings. The ground floor of our homes is still rooted in the earth, maintaining a relation to the landscape. But when we ascend the stairs to our bedrooms on a second floor, atop a bed further elevated in the air, the realm of clouds and dreams, we are attempting to defy gravity by leaving the ground below.

When dining, working or unwinding at the end of the day, we sit on chairs that elevate us. Most of daily life is disconnected, so it is no surprise to find the cultures that do maintain a connection are rooted in the ancient practice of sitting directly on the ground. The separations we create through proximity or by physical constructs have an impact on us, alter our experiences, and influence our perceptions.

For example, the shoes that we wear and the surfaces on which we step affect the way we walk. Every woman remembers the first time she put on a pair of heels. We step cautiously when footing is unsure, the sensitivity of our toes heightens to a level more accustomed to our fingers as we feel our way across rocky terrain. A late night trip to the bathroom, half asleep in the dark, may not be in tune, but we quickly become aware when something unexpected is stumbled over in our path.

In the bathroom of my own house, I tried to address this dislocation of the body from the ground. A mosaic of broken tiles covers the floor and turns up the walls in a rounded transition that pays homage to Antoni Gaudí – an architect from the turn of last century who perfected the study of gravity by creating inverted architectural models to calculate the naturally forming profiles in the catenary curves of his buildings. However, it is the irregular shard edges of the broken tiles on the floor, varying in the tilt and level of their setting, that enhance an awareness underfoot. 

In considering such a floor, my first thought and concern was possible injury to bare feet. After the grouting was complete, I was pleasantly surprised by the invigorating feel, a sort of foot massage at the start of each day.

We insulate our feet from the ground by layers of socks and shoes, just as we do our bodies from the outdoors by layers of clothing and the walls of our home. The ground becomes a projection beyond our feet, as socks and shoes become an extension of our body. When we walk, we feel with the bottom of our shoes, not our toes and by doing so, our perception is something altogether different than a perception with bare feet.

Our homes do the same; the ground is projected through the elevated floors on which we step. A stability is transferred to us through the flooring underfoot. We are reminded of its presence in the weight of our body, drawn to the floor, a seat or bed—the continual fatigue of muscles and bones to resist the ever present force of gravity. We construct these furnishings and structures, a layering to provide separation, offering relief, escape from the relentless demands of the natural world.

However, as in my own bathroom, I prefer that these layers we are in contact with routinely to be surfaces that speak to the gravity of the situation. A door knob or cabinet pull with an unmistakable weight when taken in hand expresses a sense of solidity; does not let us forget we are a participating in a world that is real, one that necessitates an interface.

A house filled with surfaces that accentuate the tactile experience keeps us present in the moment as we go about our living. This weight of materials, layer upon layer, reminds us that we are still biological creatures, interacting with our surroundings physically. We seek a sensual authenticity, in an ever increasing artificial existence.

It is through the materiality of these fixtures and surfaces we touch that we may find reassurance. It is a subtle thing—gravity is not seen or heard; it operates directly on the body, subliminal. But, it is there nonetheless and relentless in its pursuit to wear us down.

The houses we inhabit and clothing we wear silently isolate us from a connection deep in our evolutionary history. These things we have created bring bodily comforts but can weather away a metaphysical fullness dependent on a grounding within our environment. Yet with some thoughtful consideration, the right materials can restore a meaningful tactility; a genuine connection.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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