Plastic Imagination

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen

Reviewed by David Ruy

03 Jul 2015

This essay con­nects a mate­r­i­al sub­stance — plas­tic — to a par­tic­u­lar kind of cog­ni­tive process — imag­in­ing. It cites texts that reveal how plas­tic, now a ubiq­ui­tous mate­r­i­al, rep­re­sent­ed some­thing unre­al to many peo­ple when first intro­duced to the gen­er­al pub­lic in the 1950s, trig­ger­ing a cog­ni­tive response that hov­ered between the empir­i­cal and the imag­i­nary. Fur­ther­more, the mate­r­i­al was asso­ci­at­ed with a par­tic­u­lar type of aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence, name­ly wonder.

Roland Barthes must have been the first to engage the mate­r­i­al from a deeply philo­soph­i­cal stand­point. He wrote an essay enti­tled Plas­tic” some­time between 1954 and 1956, after see­ing a trade show where he wit­nessed per­fect­ly formed nov­el­ties emerg­ing from an injec­tion-mold­ing machine”1 and became mes­mer­ized by the trans­mu­ta­tion of mat­ter” from a heap of green­ish crys­tals” into the fin­ished, human object.“2 Through injec­tion mold­ing and oth­er process­es, par­tic­u­late plas­tic could become suit­case, brush, car-body, toy, fab­ric, tube, basin, or paper.”3 “[P]lastic is the very idea of its infi­nite trans­for­ma­tion,” Barthes con­tin­ues, and the fact that he saw noth­ing but tran­sit” between the two states caught his atten­tion. Mil­lions of pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions of mol­e­cules pro­duc­ing end­less new forms seem­ing­ly with­out human inter­ven­tion con­vinced him that plas­tic was a mirac­u­lous sub­stance” and that the process could not be explained by rea­son alone.4

Photo: © David L. Hays.

Writ­ten in a style more poet­ic than descrip­tive, as if to mim­ic the pli­a­bil­i­ty of the mat­ter in ques­tion, Barthes’s essay draws our atten­tion to one of the cen­tral ques­tions sur­round­ing plas­tics, name­ly the fact that the mate­r­i­al seemed to embody pure spon­tane­ity with­out obvi­ous intent. This kind of cre­ation with­out design chal­lenged man’s rela­tion­ship to nature and, by exten­sion, to art. The result­ing ques­tion, how to make sense of some­thing that we can’t quite see and under­stand, lies at the heart of Barthes’s inquiry. By deny­ing the read­er a visu­al descrip­tion of the objects he saw, Barthes seems to imply that that the phe­nom­e­na was not pre­sentable through rea­son alone.

Here­in lies the cru­cial para­dox of Barthes’s essay: in con­ven­tion­al aes­thet­ic par­lance, plas­tic arts” refers to the process­es of mold­ing raw mate­r­i­al, such as stone or clay, into visu­al, plas­tic” forms. Yet, unlike mate­ri­als such as stone or clay, plas­tic does not exist in chunks of raw mat­ter wait­ing to be worked with human hands. Indeed, plas­tic is in many ways unique in this regard: as a syn­thet­ic mate­r­i­al, it retains its mol­e­c­u­lar pro­to-state and is thus able to meta­mor­phose into any form with­out mate­r­i­al fric­tion. In the case of plas­tic, form and mate­r­i­al are insep­a­ra­ble; rather than being imposed from with­out, form is gen­er­at­ed by a sin­gle ges­ture, or what Barthes calls a trace of a move­ment” with­in the mat­ter.5

What inter­ests me here is how the absence of agency leads Barthes to chal­lenge the tra­di­tion­al cog­ni­tive par­a­digm cen­tral to mod­ern aes­thet­ic the­o­ry, which assumes that we first per­ceive some­thing pri­mar­i­ly through vision and then process the sen­su­ous image in our mind’s eye. Barthes con­vinces us that, as our eyes feel hand­i­capped in the pres­ence of plas­tic, all we can rely on is imag­i­na­tion. He talks about the per­ma­nent amaze­ment, a rever­ie of man at the sign of the pro­lif­er­at­ing forms of mat­ter, and the con­nec­tions he detects between the sin­gu­lar of the ori­gin and the plur­al of the effects.” While draw­ing our atten­tion to the end­less mor­ph­ing of the mat­ter, he also draws our atten­tion to a cog­ni­tive con­di­tion. Barthes was sure­ly aware that neu­rons in the brain boast an amaz­ing plas­tic­i­ty, with hun­dreds of bil­lions of pos­si­ble con­nec­tions, not so dif­fer­ent from how the mol­e­c­u­lar string-struc­ture of poly­mers can be recon­fig­ured again and again. Indeed, Barthes draws a par­al­lel between the activ­i­ty of the mat­ter and the activ­i­ty of the mind. In that way, his essay is as much about the move­ment and plas­tic­i­ty of the mind as about the move­ment and plas­tic­i­ty of the matter.

The word won­der,” which Barthes uses to describe the cog­ni­tive state, cap­tures the amaze­ment he felt at the sight of the poten­tial­i­ty unfold­ing in front of his eyes. Impor­tant­ly, by refer­ring to the term, Barthes elim­i­nates the pre­ten­sion to know­ing, unleash­ing, instead, the pow­er of not-know­ing. Barthes’s beau­ti­ful prose bears wit­ness to the plea­sure of being on the thresh­old of knowl­edge; the text allows us to enter his mind at the moment when it enters a cre­ative realm where imag­i­na­tion and real­i­ty form a con­tin­u­ous topology.

Barthes is not alone in cel­e­brat­ing this plas­tic state of mind. For Aris­to­tle, won­der marked the begin­ning of knowl­edge and the impulse to gain deep­er access to the per­plex­i­ties of the world. He writes:

For from won­der men, both now and at the first, began to phi­los­o­phize, hav­ing felt aston­ish­ment orig­i­nal­ly at the things that were more obvi­ous, indeed, amongst those that were doubt­ful; then by degrees, in this way hav­ing advanced onwards, and, in process of time, hav­ing start­ed dif­fi­cul­ties about more impor­tant sub­jects […].6

We can also asso­ciate won­der to the dis­cov­ery of ter­ra incog­ni­ta. In his book Mar­velous Pos­ses­sions, his­to­ri­an Stephen Green­blatt describes the state of won­der ear­ly voy­agers to the Amer­i­c­as expe­ri­enced in the pres­ence of natives in a man­ner sim­i­lar to how Barthes describes the con­tin­u­um between exter­nal stim­uli and cog­ni­tive response:

Won­der will link what­ev­er is out there with inward con­vic­tion. For the ear­ly voy­agers, won­der not only marked the new but medi­at­ed between out­side and inside (Milton’s One sees/​Or dreams he sees’). Hence the ease with which the very words mar­vel and won­der shift between the des­ig­na­tion of the mate­r­i­al object and the des­ig­na­tion of a response to the object, between intense, almost phan­tas­magor­i­cal inward states and thor­ough­ly exter­nal­ized objects that can, after the ini­tial moments of aston­ish­ment have passed, be touched, cat­a­loged, inven­to­ried, pos­sessed.7

Sim­i­lar­ly, in his last book, The Pas­sions of the Soul (1649), René Descartes uses the con­cept of won­der to denote respons­es caused simul­ta­ne­ous­ly by exter­nal stim­uli and bod­i­ly sen­sa­tions. Won­der marks a state where knowl­edge is based on an instan­ta­neous con­vic­tion of the sub­ject more than on the objec­tive qual­i­ties of the object.

What is thus so fas­ci­nat­ing about Barthes’s essay Plas­tic” is how an obser­va­tion of some­thing as banal as a plas­tic object can lead us to recon­sid­er the age-old dual­i­ty between real­ism and ide­al­ism. On that point, Barthes was cer­tain­ly influ­enced by Hen­ri Bergson’s huge­ly influ­en­tial book Mat­ter and Mem­o­ry (1896), which estab­lished over­com­ing that divide as one of the main ambi­tions of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry philo­soph­i­cal as well as aes­thet­ic thought. We can cred­it Berg­son also for intro­duc­ing the notion of image and, by exten­sion, the notion of imag­i­na­tion to archi­tec­tur­al thought as a third cat­e­go­ry between rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the thing, as a site where ideas fold into real­i­ty, and vice ver­sa. Barthes’s indebt­ed­ness to Berg­son is obvi­ous. Like Berg­son, he acknowl­edges that mind is not a sta­ble enti­ty but responds con­tin­u­ous­ly both to exter­nal and inter­nal stimuli.

Even though nei­ther Barthes nor Berg­son addressed archi­tec­ture per se, both of them help us con­cep­tu­al­ize the encounter with the mate­r­i­al world in gen­er­al, and archi­tec­ture in par­tic­u­lar. Their empha­sis on imag­i­na­tion as an inter­phase between mind and real­i­ty sug­gests a new type of archi­tec­tur­al expe­ri­ence, one where we are both con­stant­ly shaped by and shape real­i­ty. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Barthes’s Plas­tic” appears in his book Mytholo­gies (1957), in which all includ­ed essays com­mu­ni­cate the same mes­sage that the world pos­sess­es mean­ing beyond what is vis­i­ble to the eye. The essay con­vinces us that every­day objects, in this case those made of plas­tic, do not exist only to ful­fill func­tion­al tasks, but also speak to us some­times in sur­pris­ing and uncon­scious ways. Barthes wrote Plas­tic” not sim­ply to inform his read­ers about new mate­ri­als, but rather to enjoy, and to help his read­ers enjoy, even if momen­tar­i­ly, a more active and pas­sion­ate rela­tion­ship to the sur­round­ing world.

For this abil­i­ty to trig­ger seam­less topol­o­gy between appear­ance and imag­i­na­tion, plas­tic occu­pies a par­tic­u­lar place in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry archi­tec­tur­al thought, par­tic­u­lar­ly that of the late 1960s — a peri­od par­tic­u­lar­ly prone to utopi­an thought. As Barthes teach­es us, when it comes to plas­tic, the imag­ined counts as much as the real. A Paris-based group con­sist­ing of intel­lec­tu­als, artists, and archi­tects called Utopie, active in the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s deserves cred­it not only for actu­al­ly using but also for artic­u­lat­ing their attrac­tion to syn­thet­ic” and ephemer­al” mate­ri­als like plas­tic in the mag­a­zine bear­ing the same name. That inter­est in new syn­thet­ic mate­ri­als cul­mi­nat­ed in the 1968 exhi­bi­tion Struc­tures Gon­flables (Musée d’Art Mod­erne de la Ville de Paris), which assem­bled var­i­ous inflat­able prod­ucts, from high alti­tude weath­er bal­loons to beach balls, demon­strat­ing in tan­gi­ble ways how the mate­r­i­al was shap­ing the aes­thet­ics of the every­day, cre­at­ing, in so doing, a new reality.

Like Barthes, the mem­bers of Utopie were inter­est­ed in every­day phe­nom­e­na and, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Berg­son, their main goal was to cre­ate an embod­ied, respon­sive sub­ject to counter the state of alien­ation that plagued the every­day life of the mod­ern urban dweller. They, too, believed that imag­i­na­tion count­ed as much as the real. Cit­ing Bachelard — not exact­ly the philoso­pher we now asso­ciate with the Euro­pean avant-garde — their ide­al was to over­come the pure­ly mate­r­i­al def­i­n­i­tion of archi­tec­ture. The mag­a­zine Utopie cites Bachelard fre­quent­ly, not least because he pro­motes the idea that all archi­tec­ture, and par­tic­u­lar­ly domes­tic archi­tec­ture, is expe­ri­enced both in its real­i­ty and its vir­tu­al­i­ty, through [the person’s] thoughts and dreams.”8 Like Barthes, Bachelard and mem­bers of Utopie want­ed to ren­der the mate­r­i­al world as a repos­i­to­ry of imag­i­na­tion and wonder.

In their essay Untime­ly Con­sid­er­a­tions of Inflat­a­bles,” mem­bers of Utopie write about how the new tech­ni­cal trend’ has giv­en birth to a well defined cat­e­go­ry of the imag­i­nary.” The text begins by trac­ing the Indo-Euro­pean root of the word pneu­mat­ics” to bhel,” mean­ing infla­tion, and cel­e­brates how the bal­loon con­fers its vis­i­ble form to the breath it con­tains,” as if being swollen with vital­i­ty […].” Accord­ing to the authors, the human body is framed by some mytholo­gies as a bal­loon for the soul: It is, for the myths, the soul which, by enter­ing the body’s enve­lope, bor­rows a shape which it keeps through­out life.” The goal, very much in the spir­it of the 1960s is to feel more alive, to be blown away,” as it where.9

Bachelard’s dis­cus­sion of the pro­duc­tive inter­play between image and imag­i­na­tion returns us what Barthes’ saw in plas­tics — that is, a realm of per­pet­u­al move­ment and inno­va­tion — when he writes, images do not adapt them­selves very well to qui­et ideas, or above all, to def­i­nite ideas. The imag­i­na­tion is cease­less­ly imag­in­ing and enrich­ing itself with new images.”10 Mat­ter occu­pied a par­tic­u­lar posi­tion in this equa­tion as some­thing that could nev­er set­tle for rep­re­sen­ta­tion; instead, all mat­ter was con­stant­ly alive and evolving.

Imag­i­na­tion thrives in mat­ter and in the real; hence, mate­r­i­al imag­i­na­tion,” which Bachelard dis­tin­guish­es from for­mal imag­i­na­tion.”11 Mat­ter kept the imag­i­na­tion in per­pet­u­al motion.

Per­haps for this very rea­son, plas­tic fas­ci­nat­ed avant-garde groups dur­ing the late 1960s. Ant Farm, Haus-Ruck­er-Co, and Coop Himmelb(l)au are just some of those that took an inter­est in pneu­mat­ic struc­tures. In many images of their work, the sub­ject is pre­sent­ed inside a plas­tic mem­brane, which becomes con­tin­u­ous not only with the body but also with mem­o­ries and desires trapped in the body. Those groups and oth­ers did not con­ceive archi­tec­ture as pri­mar­i­ly func­tion­al or for­mal, but rather invest­ed the whole dis­ci­pline with a man­date for over­com­ing the alien­ation and dis­con­nec­tion of peo­ple from the world. With­out imag­i­na­tion, the world would cease being what it was meant to be: an end­less process of becoming.

This essay has been mod­i­fied from a paper deliv­ered at Plas­tics and Archi­tec­ture: Mate­ri­als, Con­struc­tion, and Design,” a pan­el at the Soci­ety of Archi­tec­tur­al His­to­ri­ans Annu­al Con­fer­ence in Buf­fa­lo, NY, in April 2013.


By David Ruy 

In the Great Pacif­ic Garbage Patch, a colos­sal accu­mu­la­tion of debris con­tin­ues to rotate around the North Pacif­ic. Though it is still unclear exact­ly how big it is and just how much debris is actu­al­ly there, it is very big — unimag­in­ably big. As you might know, almost all of the float­ing objects are plas­tic objects. In the var­i­ous eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phes to be found in the world, plas­tic remains a pri­ma­ry pro­tag­o­nist despite all efforts to recy­cle, com­post, or incin­er­ate. It turns out, plas­tic is not so plas­tic after all.

Recent­ly, it has been inter­est­ing to see the nar­ra­tive of PLA plas­tics being incor­po­rat­ed into 3d print­ing tech­nolo­gies. The old mag­ic of see­ing plas­tic pel­lets being formed into bot­tles by machines is get­ting a refresh through the mag­ic of extrud­ed plas­tic fil­a­ments being melt­ing and deposit­ed in micro lay­ers by robots. We’re told that PLA is made not from bad petro­le­um, but from nice bio­mass (starch­es from corn, pota­toes, or beets). Though this sto­ry con­jures an image of a reha­bil­i­tat­ed plas­tic return­ing gen­tly back to the soil (not unlike a corpse), the real­i­ty is PLA is also quite resis­tant to los­ing its form (not unlike a soul). Most of it will still end up in the land­fill where it will be stored for some unknown future.

As these awful cir­cum­stances accu­mu­late, at some moment you may notice that form does not enter nor exit from name­less mat­ter so eas­i­ly. Whether it’s plas­tic, met­al, or even flesh, name­less mat­ter is not so eas­i­ly man­u­fac­tured. Form has to be forced onto mat­ter, and even more force is required to remove it. Whether it is a lit­er­al forc­ing via grind­ing, shred­ding, or incin­er­at­ing machines or a con­cep­tu­al one via ontolo­gies of pure becom­ing, objects tend to stay objects until they turn into oth­er objects when the human being is not there.



Jef­frey L. Meik­le, Intro­duc­tion: A Mat­ter of Def­i­n­i­tion,” in Amer­i­can Plas­tic: A Cul­tur­al His­to­ry (New Brunswick, NJ: Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1997), 3. See also Jef­frey L. Meik­le, Mate­r­i­al Doubts: The Con­se­quences of Plas­tic,” Envi­ron­men­tal His­to­ry 2: 3 (July 1997), 279.


Roland Barthes, Plas­tics,” in Mytholo­gies (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1972), 97.








Aris­to­tle, The Meta­physics of Aris­to­tle, trans­lat­ed by John McMa­hon (Lon­don, UK: Hen­ry G. Bohn, 1857), 9.


Stephen Green­blatt, Mar­velous Pos­ses­sions: The Won­der of the New World (Lon­don, UK: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1991), 22.


Gas­ton Bachelard, in The Poet­ics of Space, quot­ed by Jean Bau­drillard in The Ephemer­al,” reprint­ed in Utopie: Texts and Projects, 1967 – 1978, eds. Craig Buck­ley and Jean-Louis Viloleau (New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 2011), 81.


Claude and Leon Gaigne­bet, Untime­ly Con­sid­er­a­tions on Inflat­a­bles,” reprint­ed in The Inflat­able Moment. Pneu­mat­ic and Protest in 68, ed. Marc Dessauce (New York, NY: Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 1999), 29.


Gas­ton Bachelard, The Poet­ics of Space (Boston, MA: Bea­con Press, 1994), xxxii.


Bachelard intro­duces the notion of mate­r­i­al imag­i­na­tion first in his book L’eau et les rêves (1942).



Eeva-Liisa Pelko­nens schol­ar­ly work focus­es on twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Euro­pean and Amer­i­can archi­tec­ture with inter­est in the gen­e­sis and mean­ing of archi­tec­tur­al form with­in var­i­ous nation­al and his­tor­i­cal con­texts. She is the author of Achtung Architek­tur!: Image and Phan­tasm in Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tri­an Archi­tec­ture (MIT Press, 1996) and Alvar Aal­to: Archi­tec­ture, Moder­ni­ty and Geopol­i­tics (Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009); a co-edi­tor of Eero Saari­nen: Shap­ing the Future (Yale, 2006) and Archi­tec­ture + Art: New Visions, New Strate­gies (Aal­to Acad­e­my, 2007); and edi­tor of Kevin Roche: Archi­tec­ture as Envi­ron­ment (Yale, 2011). Her essays have appeared in Daida­los, Log, Per­spec­ta, and 306090. Pelkonen’s book on Saari­nen received the Philip John­son Award (Soci­ety of Archi­tec­tur­al His­to­ri­ans) and the Sir Ban­is­ter Fletch­er Award (Authors’ Club of Lon­don), and her book on Aal­to won the Alice Davis Hitch­cock Award (Soci­ety of Archi­tec­tur­al His­to­ri­ans). Before com­ing to Yale, Pelko­nen prac­ticed archi­tec­ture in sev­er­al Euro­pean firms, includ­ing Reima and Raili Pietilä Archi­tects (Helsin­ki) and Volk­er Gien­cke Archi­tects (Graz, Aus­tria). She is cur­rent­ly an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Yale School of Archi­tec­ture and a design asso­ciate with Turn­er Brooks Archi­tects. Email: eeva-​liisa.​pelkonen@​yale.​edu

David Ruy is an archi­tect, the­o­rist, and co-direc­tor of Ruy Klein, an exper­i­men­tal design office based in New York City and one of the most respect­ed spec­u­la­tive prac­tices in archi­tec­ture today. With spe­cial inter­est in the over­lap­ping of arti­fi­cial and nat­ur­al regimes in an increas­ing­ly syn­thet­ic world, Ruy Klein explores con­tem­po­rary design prob­lems at the inter­sec­tion of archi­tec­ture, nature, and tech­nol­o­gy, includ­ing top­ics such as inde­ter­mi­na­cy, the merg­er of com­pu­ta­tion­al and eco­log­i­cal move­ments and fer­al tech­nolo­gies. Ruy is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Grad­u­ate School of Archi­tec­ture at the Pratt Insti­tute, where he is also the direc­tor of the Net­work for Emerg­ing Archi­tec­tur­al Research (NEAR). Ruy received a B.A. from St. John’s Col­lege, where he stud­ied phi­los­o­phy and math­e­mat­ics, and an M.Arch. from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. Email: david@​ruyklein.​com