The Secret Language of Surface

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The super smoothness of contemporary architecture often makes it feel frictionless – as though you are skimming across its slippery surface. When you try to look at it, it simply confronts you with a reflection of something else – your own reflection peering back at you.

Shininess is a quality applied to a material, rather than a material itself, and has become the dominant sensation of contempory-ness. We’re drawn to shine with a narcissistic fascination – as though we were gazing at attributes of ourselves or at least our ideals reflected back. Somewhere in that sheen is the feeling that we have escaped the more gritty, earthly attributes: it transmits a sense of streamlined, dissolved materiality which approximate the liberated, weightless sensations of late capitalism.

Finish lays a narrative of treatment over a materials inherent qualities – a process of etching refinement into unrefined material. Cultural meanings and value are applied by the techniques of production. Stone is cut by the sharpest blades, at the highest RPM, polished faster and flatter than it has ever been before. In comparison, the tools and techniques of other cultures and other times form very different qualities. None more so than blocks of rusticated stone, which reveal a wholly different set of concerns through the modulation of lumps of geology by chisels and mallets to form a gestural, textured surface.

Rustication is all about roughness, a careful and precise kind of roughness, codified to represent aspects of the natural. In Renaissance buildings the ground floor is often faced with rusticated stone, with the piano nobile emerging from this rock-like plinth as though the architecture was a half finished sculpture. Rustication is rock-like, primitive, and base in comparison to the civilised architecture of the upper floors.

Rustication takes a block of stone and carves it to make it look like a block of stone – a kind of logic that turns you inside out then spins you around for good measure. It artificially articulates an idea of stone – constructing meaning through its sculpting in a way that is both synthetic and real. The material is warped into form through mythological meanings of stone. Rustication takes narratives of origin and fate, of nature and culture, myths of creation and dramatises them into a building material. Ironically, that what looks natural is more constructed – more artificial – than the smooth dressed stone.


There are many forms of rustication, differentiated by different decisions about how to manifest rustic-ness. Sometimes its a block with rough hewn surface, sometimes bordered with a flat-cut trim, and most strangely, vermiculated rustication. Defined by The Encyclopedia Britannica as “the carving or finishing of building stones with irregular grooves intended to resemble worm tracks, full of worms, or appearing as if formed by the motion of worms”, rustication here becomes more fantastical. It becomes a cartoon version of stone, over-graphic and blow-up. The narrative of worm-eaten rock begins to suggest something horrific and grotesque – a fallibility undermining any pretensions stone architectures might have towards eternity.

Though it is a part of a historical language of architecture, rustication shares a sensibility with certain kinds of contemporary culture. Think of fine arts interest in making the right thing out of the wrong material (or is it the other way round?) or furniture designs propensity to remake historical things in unlikely materials. A sense of perversity links these unlikely allies, along with the idea that surface carries with it stories and meanings beyond its physical properties.


Historical viewpoints can open up vistas into contemporary practice that we didn’t quite know existed. We could, for example, consider material experiments such as OMAs ‘Prada foam’ is a kind of futurist-rustication. Smooth, perforated and complex, it approximates something you might see through an electron microscope. Perhaps this micro-biology aesthetic is a high-tech re-mapping of Vermiculated Rustications morbid-anthropomorphic-narrative building material. Suggesting dissolution and decay in a boutique concerned with bodily beauty acts as a kind of ironic scenography – or a morality tale told through high-spec partitions.


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