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Smart Surfaces – from form to content and back again
by Silke Gehrmann-Becker | 10/24/2009

Books on design and about design as a theme have an especially tough time of it. They are assessed not just by their content, but also by their form. Indeed, the subtitle here is "Intelligent Surfaces and Their Application in Architecture and Design", meaning that the reader can really expect to be greeted by a veritable fireworks of innovations and images, with the papers overflowing in 3D and taking us swiftly into their depths.

The publication "Smart Surfaces" by Thorsten Klooster (born 1966), who studied architecture at Berlin's Technical University and set up his own office in 2001, is dedicated to the subject of surface (technologies). "The book sets out to encourage the design of new wraps" - or so we read in the foreword to the Birkhäuser publication that presents the new materials and their potential applications. On first leafing through the 184 pages, form becomes the subject matter: Changing fonts and font sizes, a predominating version bold for the captions and project descriptions, page numbers to the right of the center, and even for eyes with 20-20 vision an almost illegibly small two-page bibliography - this may all leave you with furrows on your brow initially. Text blocks are set wide and both the headers and footers are printed very close to the edge of the pages, which in some parts generates a surfeit of letters and thus a felt excess of information. Inset black-&-white images, some in small formats as links (duplicating the color image tableaus), some in larger formats as technical explications, round out the explanations as do the footnotes and quotes that are inserted as modules in their own right.

The structure is intended to follow cross-references: By way of introduction there are 48 pages with colorful images on the overarching themes of the book. "Nano", "Energy", "Light", "Climate" and "Information" are the key words that recur later in the chapters. Some images are grouped, others stand alone - and each image bears a caption assigning it to the particular key word. Some photos come with a cross-reference to the "Project" index at the back of the book, in which there are references to the respective field of application or actual results and products. The overall subject of "surfaces" is discussed at the beginning in a brief section that addresses different ways of seeing and approaching surface intelligence - there are references here to Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes and Werner Sobek.

The respective overarching themes then follow, initially in the form of a "discourse" on them, then by way of "Technical Explanations", whereby the dividing line is sometimes blurred, as when the author refers to Nanotubes or Buckyballs in the "Nano" chapter that "play a role in the conceptualization of self-healing materials as the basis for repair materials". Given the focus on the (building) technological applications in architecture and design, the potential risks or risk categories of nano-technology for humans (the users of architecture and design) are not explicitly mentioned, and the author relies solely on references to secondary literature, e.g., Nils Boeing. This is regrettable as many people seem firmly convinced that nanotubes are the new asbestos and have a toxic impact on the human body, a subject of some controversy.

All the chapters offer references to illustrations and to explanations relating to other key words, and this always disturbs the flow of reading if, as in the chapter on "Information Discourse" one sentences is followed by as many as four references, and the individual key words are not listed in a comprehensive index.

The topics addressed are all written in great detail, have been closely researched and, as it were, networked at the multi-tasking level. Thorsten Klooster, who did research at Brandenburg Technical University in Cottbus from 2011 to 2007 among others in new materials, with a focus on functional surfaces, has written a specialist work that offers more than an overview of existing (surface) technologies, as it provides a very scientific account of them.

The starting point of this scholarly achievement is, however, problematic: What do I expect the designers and architects to already know? At what point is the presentation of the materials and surfaces too detailed, the drive to get to the very bottom of things so great that the bigger picture gets lost from sight? The chance to find inspiration and the great longing to be given an insight into actual projects (with the related transfer of knowledge into the everyday life of designing) is only to be found in a 20-page excursus.

To summarize: A marvelous book for engineers, those well-versed in the subject and seeking in-depth information; but too detailed to serve as an overview or a source of inspiration.

Klooster, Thorsten
Smart Surfaces - Intelligente Oberflächen und ihre Anwendung in Architektur und Design
Birkhäuser Verlag
2009; 184 pages
EUR 44.90