DECIPHERING THE PLASTIC SPECTACLE

“Plastic is basically a spectacle that has to be deciphered: the spectacle of its final products. Looking at the different final shapes (a suitcase, a brush, a car body, a toy, fabrics, tools, bowls or plastic film); the matter presents itself unceasingly as a picture puzzle in the mind of the observer”.

Plastics, Roland Barthes, 1957.

Barthes’s observation compels us to action, to decipher plastics. He makes a list of simple objects and asks the obvious question: How can one material, plastic, permit such a wide variety of form and function?* In the context of architecture the material tetrad, wood, masonry, concrete and steel garners structural and aesthetic attention. But, ironically, plastics could be the material most familiar to an architect’s fingertips. They are consistently handled, in our work, home and play environments. In fact, an architect might have an easier time describing the attributes of a plastic water bottle – its texture, softness, hardness, thickness, durability – as opposed to a W12 X 24. Yet, as consumers of this material, we are mostly unaware of plastic, where it comes from, its chemistry and processing protocols.

Advanced design students at The University of Texas at Austin tracked plastic objects for forty-eight hours, documenting each plastic object contacted (which numbered over a thousand) and selecting eight to track across the following criteria:


OBJECT SPECIFIC

  • OBJECT DESCIPTION
  • BRAND
  • MANUFACTURING PROTOCOL
  • TYPE OF POLYMER USED

POLYMER SPECIFIC

  • POLYMER PROPERTIES
  • PROCESSING PROTOCOL
  • MICROSTRUCTURE
  • NATURAL RESOURCES
  • EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

Students generated a graphic dictionary that could be “played” to find commonalties among plastic objects, ultimately developing a plastic vocabulary as they associated everyday objects with chemical and manufacturing protocols. Deciphering the Plastic Spectacle is then a process of inquiry promoting the tracking of plastics in one's daily routine and the subsequent decoding of plastic objects through research.

Presented here are thirty plastic objects found by the studio and categorized according to plastic type.

 

Photos by: Catherine Hudak, Kelly Kosar, Melinda Lee, Jeanne McCorquodale, Adam Martin, Kate Schwamb and Hale Youngblood.

 

 


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