Gagan Chandhoke. BArch: Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar, MSD: Arizona State University.

In a world where ‘honesty’ and ‘truth’ are difficult traits to find in humans, it is even more difficult to find truth in materials. In architecture school, we were taught about this simple ‘funda’. This phrase was associated with the ‘arts and craft movement’ and in the 20th century. It caught on with varied design fields including architecture. Basically it meant to use a material for what it really is, what it really looks like. So using stone for a pavement, because of its strength and its rustic feel, is an example of ‘truth of material’. Using real wood as flooring for the warmth it brings in interiors and probably its local availability is another example. But these days, the world doesn’t want the truth or the reality. We want a tile that looks like wood, and plastic to look like stone. The funny part is, we are actually in awe of the fake. I hear my clients often say ‘wow, a tile that looks like wood’ or ‘what a cool idea’. But the truth of material like any other truth, finally does reveal itself. When you walk on a surface that pretends to look like wood, you know it’s a lie. When you see a building that is partly clad with wood, you know that part of t house wasn’t made of wood. A tile pretending to be Italian marble can be recognized by the repetition in pattern. I can go on.

Somewhere I feel, we owe it to the material and to our deeper soul to speak the truth. We need to use the material for what it really is. Let a tile look like a tile, and stone feel like a stone. Let a wallpaper look like one and not give a three dimensional brick effect.

This concept dates way back to Ruskin’s (1819-1900) time, where he wrote “The true colours of architecture are the natural stone ones, and I will like to see them thrive as much as possible (…)…this is the fair and true way to build.”* The best part of using a true material is the final perception. The outcome is perceived as ‘elegant’, ‘solid’, ‘bold’ and ‘real’. Pick any interior designing or architecture magazine. Pick a photo you truly like. Analyse ‘what’ in that design is imparting the appeal. I guaranty it will be a real, truthful material.

There are some exceptions though. Sometimes you want to give fake feel. You want a place to be perceived as ‘not real’. There the use of true material loses its significance. For example, a casino in Vegas looks like a roman palace. There it is necessary to use fake stone, fake gold or fake paintings. An amusement park can be another example. It would be impossible to use real ponies, real castles or real people for that matter. There the environment is meant to look un-real, out of this world and thus you might spot a Micky mouse or Marilyn Monroe. But one must note that even in Vegas, or an amusement park, the viewer or the user is absolutely aware of the un-real environment. He or she is evidently not cheated and therefore, truth is maintained.

“Truth of material” is a modernist approach towards architecture or interior designing. In post-modernism, it is okay for a material to not represent its true self. I personally feel that it will be very difficult to strictly adhere to the material’s truth in today’s world. Because then every house will look like a brick and concrete house. But a line can be drawn. Although it will vary from person to person, but definitely an effort made to maximise the truth will make an overall difference in the final design perception.

1. Ruskin J., 1985 The seven lamps of architecture, Alta Fulla, Barcelona, 2000, pp. 216, ISBN: 8479001224.
2. Juan Serra, Jorge Llopis, Aitziber Iraisarri, Ruskin Revisited: “Material Truth” and Color in contemporary architecture,