Materiality is simply a function of interpretation, and people interpret their environments constantly. Old/new, tough/delicate, cheap/dear, simple/complex, strange/familiar – subjective evaluations based on empirical observations. Light/dark, rough/smooth, clean/dirty, soft/hard. Materials are invested with meaning, and this interpretation takes place on three levels:
First, the instinctive. This is the level on which dark is threatening, and dirty is off-putting, and smooth is appealing. They are un-considered un-negotiated reactions.
Second, the cultural. The learned level, reactions with roots in experience. Rain-scoured stone, cloth on skin, polished wood. Familiarity with certain textures, forms – an understanding of them, their strengths and weaknesses. A feeling for how things came to be, a recognition of their histories and the forces, human or natural, that have shaped them.
Third, the considered. This is the level that is not experienced first hand but extrapolated. It is the application of intelligent consideration to the knowledge of the other levels – not just how things came to be, but why.
The architect must be aware, in the consideration of materiality, how these levels interact. Materiality within built environments can be pulled to the forefront of perception or pushed back, but it cannot be escaped: people are always interpreting.