Techne and the Indexical

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Objects often bear traces of their being-in-the-world. Viewed through the lens of techne, the object indexes its origins and life cycle. Creators may use this process consciously to embed meanings in aesthetic objects.

In addition to phenomenology, Techne has an unacknowledged link with another paradigm of architectural theory – linguistics. Charles Peirce’s categories of signs included the index – a sign in which the signifier visually resembles signified. An example of an index is a footprint in sand. The signifier’s form – an impression of a foot – visibly corresponds to the signified – the foot which made the print.

Footprint as Index (Photo: Robert Lawton)

Footprint as Index (Photo: Robert Lawton)

Viewed as techne, a building material reveals – indexes – certain things:

  • The raw materials of which it’s made
  • The process which made it
  • Transformations in its form once in use

For example, a handmade brick indexes the properties of the clay from which it’s made, including the processes used to extract the clay from the ground. The brick indexes the processes used to make it – tempering the clay, molding it into a “green brick” and firing the brick in a kiln. Once laid in place in a wall, the brick over time indexes the forces which act on it and change its formal properties – the roughening effects of weather and staining effects of rainwater.

The brick becomes more perceptibly heterogeneous in each step – its coloration, topography and perhaps its overall form become more complex. Congruently, its power to signify meaning grows – the brick gathers an increasing number of phenomena outside itself that it points to as an index:

  • Geological processes of clay formation
  • Social processes of mining clay and making brick
  • Climate processes of weathering and social processes of wear and maintenance

As Norberg-Schulz would put it, the brick “gathers” meanings related to the specificities of place and milieu.

Handmade Brick (Photo: David Hawgood)

Handmade Brick
(Photo: David Hawgood)

Compare this example with a brick made through the techne of manufacturing – a modern manufactured brick. In the case of the latter, material becomes less perceptibly heterogeneous at each step:

  • Rough clay – impure in color and texture – is mechanically processed until its “impurities” are erased, perhaps with chemical admixtures added for color or texture, to simulate “nature”
  • The brick is formed into an exact shape and fired under controlled conditions, eliminating any chance of the “accidents” which gives each handmade brick its singular identity
  • The brick is “designed” to resist weathering and, with maintenance, looks the same decades after put in place
Manufactured Brick

Manufactured Brick

Remember, techne is not a process or a product but a way of looking at creative processes and their products. By viewing an aesthetic object as a product of techne, we seek to decode its messages about its socio-historical context.

When we view a building material as a product of techne, we see the truth of the material – its genealogy in raw matter, its midwifery as a material unit, its seasoning once in place. More significantly, we come into contact with our own truths and deepen our understanding of our world.

Brick Making, India

Brick Making, India

How have you taken the indexical nature of material into account in your creative work?


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013




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