One of the common aspects of many of us architects is having a certain obsession for the authenticity of the material, at the expense of all industrial technical inventions which replicate natural elements.

It is really complex to motivate a customer why we answer “no” in front of a fake wood or a fake marble: behind this no, there is no superficial attitude or snobbery in search of the most expensive solution, but a vast world made up of years of studies academics, debates of past architects, examples of bad achievements and objective factors that still require sensitivity / attention to be understood.

one of the probable answers to the “why not?” it would probably look a lot like Meryl Streep’s monologue about cerulean in “The Devil wears Prada”

“Architect, all beautiful and intelligent, but what changes after all?”.
Whether or not you care about respect for the material, cultural background etc., it goes without saying that any imitation … remains an imitation. Let’s get to the point of objective data: compare two materials – one fake and one real – and observe them.

Graphic definition

Of course, there are very high definition plates – which probably cost more than the natural material – but in most fake-something products you will notice a sort of “print” effect, as if you were looking at a fantasy, a graphic, and the resolution is limited.
In fact, it is just like that, because a print is applied to the product, and the cheaper the material, the more repetitive it is and the less defined in detail.

the “print” effect: on the top an imitation grit stoneware. Under it, a compacted quartz with flakes of stones and pearls. To see them on video, here is the link

Touch, smell and hearing

The most popular argumentations, easy and immediate: they leave no doubts and immediately reveal the “trick”. When you touch it with your hand, something will be missing, the veining will not match any ripples, it will always seem too smooth and plastic and, even worse, it is warm instead of cold (e.g. faux-marble), cold rather than hot (e.g. faux-wood). A tap on the fake stone top makes a rumble, as for an empty box, no dull sound. A blow on the stoneware is certainly not like tapping on wood. The smell? If everything goes right… no one.

left: wood-effect stoneware tile, right: an oak parquet plank. To see them in video, here is the link

The installation, applications

Let’s think of a parquet: the natural one has fissures, between one board and another, which the eye perceives as deep, black, and never identical. Sometimes some boards, even in recent parquets, are a little more raised. Obviously, as mentioned before, color, veins and knots are always different.

The stoneware tile parquet, on the other hand, must be laid with grout joints, which, although minimal, will still be visible, not at all deep and always the same. No tile will lift and the floor will be all flat, or even worse with a “rounded” effect on the sides of the tile. Then, consider the natural variety of the wood, contrasting with the limited graphics of the stoneware… The difference is abysmal.

In the furnishings, the faux wood-marble etc. it is perceivable (in addition to the graphic and tactile factors already described) in the edges of the panels. Because in many cases there is a rounded monochromatic plastic fillet, or the line of the plastic sheet (sometimes black, sometimes golden, however always flat).

esempi di pannello laminato (o melaminico) in finto legno, dettaglio della costa

The time factor

Needless to say, plastic materials are unlikely to age well without flaking, wearing out, getting stained. Repairing them often makes no sense and the aesthetic appearance suffers.
On the contrary, natural materials will change over time, acquiring greater charm over the years. Their appearance will change depending on the areas that are the most illuminated, used, the wettest, the most stressed by weight and rubbing.
Each space, each surface will have its own story, aging very well.

ph. credits: Cottonbro

The economic factor

Natural materials may be more expensive (but not always, believe me), but in the long run they will reward the owner. If any defects or changes occurred over time should make it excessively worn and messy, just sand / lead / plane / putty etc., and it will be as good as new. Renewing a floor or a real stone-marble-wood surface is not only possible, but it costs less than demolishing and redoing even with the worst of materials.

Two conclusions

All this explanation serves to define a very simple concept: as soon as you start to perceive things in a certain way, there is no turning back. You will begin to see the fake material as a crooked painting, something you are not happy with. In addition, an imitation is still an imitation, so no matter how much the hi-tech material that perfectly reproduces the veins may cost, once discovered it will always seem a bit of a cheap choice.

Does all this mean that you necessarily have to spend a fortune to have something beautiful? No, for two different reasons.
First, there are also other materials than wood and marble, which in their true nature are very beautiful, they know how to give the right atmosphere, and in fact they have also been used in sophisticated and refined projects. Ceramics, concrete, metal, glass, recomposed materials, osb, enamel, plastic (without camouflage) … the possibilities are endless.
Second, sometimes the economic difference for small surfaces is very few. So you can dedicate a detail or a portion in the natural material, and then combine it with other elements.

A bit of history?

I’m sorry, but I’ll be brief, just to sate some curiosity. The topic is vast and perhaps an academic thesis would not be enough. The reason is obvious: the fight against the “counterfeiting” of the material is part of a greater battle, which involves architecture as a whole and not just the material, and every architect, artist, restorer, intellectual has had their say.

It can be said that the roots of this debate go back to the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century – as it was easy to assume. The general line of conduct that can be traced, now part of our cultural background, is the promotion of a rigorous, moral approach towards architecture. And what would it consist of? In applying intellectual honesty throughout the entire process, from the design to its realization. So no to everything that is fake (false historians, fake materials, fake columns, etc.), not coherent (not practical, not functional, improper), superfluous (ornaments not adhering to the compositional principle, concealments, excesses).

Augustus Pugin, one of the first – Herbert, John Rogers: Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin; ph. credits: Parliamentary Art Collection

Each architect-designer-intellectual then declined these maxims in favor of their own arguments: the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris and John Ruskin promoted the return to craftsmanship; Alvar Aalto tried to establish a new relationship between man-building-nature; Pier Luigi Nervi exalted buildings born from static-structural reasoning; Renzo Piano creates a new dialogue between technology and nature; Le Corbusier exalted the material of his time, the concrete; Frank Lloyd Wright brings these reflections to the concept of organic architecture and so on …

The choice of a material, in the history of contemporary architecture, has therefore had strong aesthetic, communicative, functional, cultural and ethical implications. Choosing one material rather than another means giving a certain type of message, it could be a subversive, reactionary gesture or linked to innovation.

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