Project (2017-2018)

Chemical Desires (1850–1929): Making the Architectural Materials of Modernity

A momentous change occurred within architecture after 1850: the chemicalization of modern building materials. This transformation emerged within nascent corporate chemical firms and resulted in an on-the-ground shift in available construction materials including coated wood, metal alloys, and synthetic products—the stuff of everyday buildings. While the change in materials was substantial, equally significant was the revision in how all building materials were understood anew through the lens of chemistry. Discoveries and advancements of the period in chemical technologies shifted how materials, old and new, were understood and seen—scientifically, aesthetically, and through their performativity.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Weyerhaeuser, BASF, Imperial Chemical, Wunderlich, Monsanto, and DuPont were the building market voices invested in chemical solutions to architectural problems. As a result, architectural discussions of craft and technique shifted into a world of specifications and chemical material mediation. This chemical turn not only impacted the construction of architecture and its products at a global scale, but it also shifted architecture’s global effects. At the same time, chemically-bound aesthetic desires were procured and produced through means of corporate advertising techniques and posturing on the international market. The co-constituted shifts towards chemical normalization occurred in a balancing act between the visible rhetoric of modernization and the resultant effects of embedding chemicals in the built environment. Here, chemistry’s visibility, engineering’s solutions, corporate mass-production, and modernity’s desires come together as a way to understand what has become modern architecture’s legacy, inextricably linked to the chemical world.

While at the MPIWG, Jessica Varner will focus on a chapter tentatively titled "Synthetic/Imitative/Artificial, Chemical Compounds and the Synthetic Debates." This research includes key German institutions involved in the production and advertisement of synthetic products including paints and dyes.