October 8, 2020
The Surface May Not Be As It Appears
Investigations by architects and scientists may cause us to reconsider two familiar surface qualities: opacity and porosity.
Surfaces of all kinds are top of mind these days, so we decided to look at all aspects of them, in these articles, from A to Z. Thinking of surfaces less as a product category and more as a framework, we use them as a lens for understanding the designed environment. Surfaces are sites of materials innovation, outlets for technology and science, and embodiments of standards around health and sustainability, as well as a medium for artists and researchers to explore political questions.
Studies suggest what you see is not always what’s in front of you.
Surprisingly, vision scientists have only recently explored why surfaces look solidly opaque or translucent. That’s because what the eyes see isn’t determined by just the physical materials before them, but by how the brain processes them.
“Our visual world consists of coherent objects and surfaces distributed in a three-dimensional environment. The inputs to our visual systems, however, contain no such objects or surfaces. As a result, identical surfaces can project very different images onto our retinas under different viewing conditions,” wrote researchers Manish Singh and Barton L. Anderson in a 2002 article, “Toward a Perceptual Theory of Transparency,” in the journal Psychological Review.
Fifteen years later, a study of opacity, coauthored by Anderson and researchers Phillip J. Marlow and Juno Kim, suggests an optical system can be tricked into judging a surface as opaque. In the 2017 study “Perception and Misperception of Opacity,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, subjects were shown bumpy surfaces with “identical luminance gradients” but reported seeing them as both opaque and translucent, depending on how the re- searchers illuminated them.
Under a diffused light the surface appeared “very translucent and glossy,” while in a natural light field, which flattened out its intensity gradients, it turned opaque, the authors reported. The effect is perhaps obvious to engineers of glass privacy walls (and the person who broke the internet in 2015 with the puzzle of a color-shifting dress), but it may be a provocative material consideration for designers.
A visionary architect and urbanist believes permeability should be embraced.
It is easy to see why hard, nonporous surfaces feel secure, protective, and durable. But porosity also has its benefits, and for more than 30 years Australian architect and urbanist Richard Goodwin has researched how buildings could take advantage of that idea on a grand scale. In his 2011 book Porosity: The Architecture of Invagination he challenges the “urban expectation of a closed architecture and provokes the connection of claimed internalities between urban structures.” Goodwin’s career, lectures, and performance art point to, as he says, “the vulnerability and plasticity of architecture.” And given that, his life’s work has been about imploring the architecture community to follow the stronger impulses and ability of art to achieve social change—before such views were widely in vogue. In that context, porosity describes an urban experience that turns architecture inside out and de- emphasizes the obsession with facades. The result could be a radically reimagined city with permeable boundaries between public art and private space. Given the current social climate, his ideas are a sign of the times.
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