Croatian-born architect and designer Igor Siddiqui identifies with the “not everything” approach to architecture—the notion that architects can make small, incisive contributions to larger projects rather than focusing solely on the big picture. Siddiqui speaks here about his latest innovation, the use of bioplastics in creating his architectural work, which is the focal point of his latest exhibition, “Igor Siddiqui: Protoplastic,” on view at TOPS Gallery, Memphis, from January 31 to March 29, 2014.
I COOK MY BIOPLASTICS at home, which might seem to be a domesticated way of producing work, but it’s more complicated than that. All the materials I use are edible. I have even licked the liquid bioplastic to see if it was cool enough to pour. That is one of the most enlightening parts of this practice—that you can use your sense of taste, employing your mouth rather than your hands to handle the material. Taste is perhaps the only sense that is ordinarily excluded from the experience of architecture. Although this work is not designed for consumption, the thought that a building is actually edible changes how we perceive the boundaries between our bodies and the surrounding built environment. You never think about tasting concrete when you are mixing it to cast a multistory structure.
The work in the exhibition is a result of research that considers the relationship between digital fabrication and made-from-scratch biodegradable plastics. A sculptural treelike volume made from tailored sheets of translucent bioplastic is suspended from the ceiling and serves as a proof of concept. Surrounding it are six sheets of double-sided acrylic formwork that I used to cast the homemade plastic. The acrylic is white to match the gallery’s floor and is supported by custom concrete blocks that reference the surrounding walls. The overall arrangement of the work in the gallery encourages an immersive experience rather than simply a didactic one.
I am aware that my bioplastic work exists in the same food-obsessed culture that has celebrated chefs like David Chang and the world of molecular gastronomy. Home-cooking my materials not only complicates the macho stereotype that comes with carpentry and construction; it effectively slows down the process of creation. Unlike most design production that relies heavily on digitally automated technologies, this work revisits some older, currently underexplored methods of making custom materials. Like cooking food, the process is a mixture of control and discovery. The bioplastic recipe is quite simple: Proportions of gelatin, water, glycerol, and starch are combined depending on the amount of pliability desired. Adding more glycerin, for instance, relaxes the plastic molecules and allows for more flexibility.
The goal for me was not to invent a new material; rather, it was to take something that already exists in the world and modify it enough that I could figure out the limits of its aesthetic behavior. Bioplastics have many of the same properties as synthetic plastics: fluidity and malleable transparency, for instance. They also have a similar look to their often-toxic predecessors. The amber glow of the latex sculptures of Eva Hesse, for example, is not unlike that of home-cooked bioplastics. This type of natural material resembles candy or aspic, and thus establishes a nourishing and mimetic rather than harmful relationship to the human body. The bioplastic architecture that I build, if composted, will degrade in six months—and with increased moisture, perhaps even faster.