Last edited 26 Mar 2018

Truth to materials

Truth to materials is an architectural theory based on the idea that materials should be used where they are most appropriate, and without their innate qualities being concealed in any way.

The sculptor Henry Moore, said:

“…one of the first principles of art so clearly seen in primitive work is truth to material; the artist shows an instinctive understanding of his material, its right use and possibilities.”

Examples of this theory in practice include:

  • Exposed concrete left unpainted, with shuttering marks unsanded.
  • Timber’s natural grain left unpolished, painted or stained.
  • Copper’s natural patina left untouched.
  • Steelwork left exposed.

As a theory, it is most closely associated with modernist architecture, although it originated in the Industrial Revolution, as a consequence of technological development, when it became increasingly possible, but perhaps not desirable, to adapt materials for aesthetic purposes.

In the early-20th century, the Bauhaus movement taught ‘truth to materials’ as a core principle, and held that materials should be used in their most ‘honest’ form, without changing their nature. This was seen to be in conflict with the large range of synthetic materials that were being developed at the time which, due to their inexpensiveness and advantageous properties, were increasingly selected as a substitute for natural materials.

In practice, truth to materials requires sensitivity on the part of the designer and the craftsman who works with the material. They should be aware of how a material can be drilled, sawn, shaped, etc., without damaging it, rendering it unsafe or unstable, but with a the sensitivity to how a it is most appropriately used and adapted.

Critics of the theory argue that this sensitivity to materials has to be balanced with the imaginative ‘vision’ or creativity of the designer or craftsman. They hold that the aesthetic potential of materials should not be foregone solely in favour of its utilitarian purpose.

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