You Look Worn-Out

A Belgian collective examines how architectural materials degrade as they age.

One of the best exhibitions at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale was the Usus/Usures show, curated by Rotor, a six-member Brussels architecture collective. Worn-out fragments from a variety of public buildings, as well as stained carpets, banisters with chipped paint, and scratched wooden floors, were displayed like minimalist works of art in the Belgian pavilion. “We got interested in wear because of a research project we did on postconsumer building and demolition waste,” says Maarten Gielen, one of Rotor’s founding members. He and his colleagues have spent years documenting and collecting materials, focusing on how they showed signs of wear through effects like abrasion, scratching, erosion, deposits, stamping, and fatigue. “Wear is a reaction on use,” Gielen says. “In that sense we found it a very interesting vehicle for looking at architecture.”

To accompany the exhibition, Rotor also published a catalog with the results of its research. Instead of thinking of architecture as timeless—or as an object to be replaced at the first hint of deterioration—the designers argue that wear is an agent that can influence user behavior and even become an invitation for further use (just think of a footpath, for example). It isn’t a problem but an inevitable process, and instead of obsessing over the new and the perfect, designers should begin to reflect on the implications of how objects wear over time.

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