Material as a Process, Not a Product 

Materials as a process, not a product

Architects seem obsessed with building new. On the other hand, it’s no secret that the most sustainable way to build is not to build. With this knowledge, as an industry, we have a responsibility to invent new methods of making that shift our thinking around why we build, how, and what with.  

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The Futuro Pronto pavilion (in collaboration with Space Saloon) in the context of the industrial shipyard it was born from, Fano, Italy

What would happen if our material choices were governed by foraging instead of fabrication, and by what is available instead of what we can afford? Could we throw away the catalogues and off-the-shelf schedules and instead look to invention, creation, and craft as the means to shape a new and sustainable future for our built environment? For the last six years, we have dedicated a third of our studio practice to try and find out. 

Fresh out of university in 2016, The MAAK opened shop with an experimental design+build agenda. From day one, we were adamant on forging a new space in our industry for explorative thinking and alternative architectural outcomes. We wanted to promote and create: 

  • A return to making, where materials are given as much agency as the architect. 
  • A space free from convention and the numbing worry of ‘consequence’.  
  • An opportunity to make mistakes while ‘learning-through-making’.  

All of this energy was channelled into our annual design+build programme called ‘Follies in the Veld’ (FITV). Each year we collaborate with willing participants (architects, doctors, farmers, food activists, etc.) to explore the spatial potential of alternative building materials. Without a handbook or any precedent to follow, FITV became a testing ground for the studio to explore new means of architectural pedagogy and new ways of making. ‘Design-roulette’, ‘smell chambers’, ‘wild cards’, and ‘charrettes’ became the order of the day, as we fundamentally asked ourselves:  

‘What do materials want to be?’  

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FITV (in collaboration with Our Workshop and Amy Rusch) close up detail of TetraPak tensile structure and building components, Langa, Cape Town. Photograph courtesy of Elena Balestri

In the pursuit of uncovering unique material intuition, we embraced the idea of ‘The Thinking Hand’ and prioritised play and prototyping over computer programmes. Over the years, FITV has birthed a vibrant collection of hands-on spatial experiments and has helped us see the value of engaging with material as a process rather than a product. 

The MAAK FITV 2019

Seven years ago, we built a top-hung building that considered whether the experience and form of a space could be shaped by the elements (i.e. sun, shadow, wind, etc). In 2017, ‘Hanging Delight’ explored the untapped potential of Agave as a lightweight timber resource. 2018 saw us build with hundreds of locally sourced (within a two-kilometre radius) glass bottles and mud harvested from a nearby river bed. And in 2019, we worked with Tetra Pak overruns to give new life to an unused public space in Langa, Cape Town. What started out as a once-a-year creative outing, has since become an attitude towards making that now informs all of our studio work.  

The freedom and success of FITV made us question widespread (and outdated?) material conventions, and kept us curious about new ones. We recently collaborated with international design studio Space Saloon with this as a focus. Last year (2022), we were invited to Fano, Italy, to imagine new architectural narratives for its rapidly changing port area (which is becoming less industrial and more social/pedestrian).  

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Futuro Pronto at dusk (in collaboration with Space Saloon), Fano, Italy. Photograph courtesy of Gian Maria Socci

Instead of sourcing new material from catalogues, we used a method of urban mining to harness the richness of forms, textures, and intelligence already present on site. We gathered materials that were on hold, surplus stock, and found objects (all within walking distance from our site), and used them to inform unique building components and new material gestures. The eventual pavilion structure, titled ‘Futuro Pronto’ (meaning ‘The Future, Now’), stands as a provocation towards the potential of hyper-contextual building aesthetics and the value of simply building with what you’ve got. 

Both FITV and ‘Futuro Pronto’ form part of an evolving body of work that advocates for rethinking the role of resources and agency in architectural production. It prompts us to re-learn an architecture of availability that looks at found objects and building rubble in the same light as milled timber or standardised steel. It ultimately asks, if the materials around us have shaped the form of ancient vernaculars, how can today’s found materials (including waste) help invent new ones? 

The MAAK headshot

Ashleigh Killa & Maximillian Melvill  



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