Veneers and Laminates; Objects and Subjects
Yale College, 2021
November 15, 2018
The image of authenticity reigns supreme in architecture. Be it a particular material, or even an architect’s entire body of work, the concept weighs heavily. Architecture is still thought to occupy an object status, and thus, the fulfillment of authenticity can determine the worth of architectural space. Value is truth and truth is value.
I grew up in a home where the elements, from cabinets to light fixtures, were almost all built in. On each of these surfaces some sort of wood grain gives the appearance of unquestionable, authentic wood. Last year, a broken edge of a shelf revealed otherwise. Below lay inelegant, ungrained particle board, inauthentic wood. The shelf had been covered not by wood, but laminate. My home was one of those spaces I thought I fully knew, that was totally true in the sense I had imagined it. In this moment, I questioned the truth of the materiality that had come to define my home. I felt betrayed, that somehow I’d been cheated. But in the year since this realization, I realized what I missed. In this experience of material betrayal, it mattered that someone had tried to make the material look convincing. Someone had cared enough to trick me.
That care had little to do with the affirmation of the authentic image I had preserved in my mind. It, instead, was about an interaction between two people, mediated through object. There is a whole body of philosophical and anthropological literature devoted to examining this type of interaction, and while I’ve only begun to learn it and will, without a doubt, think and rethink these same ideas, two specific concepts have given me the tools to make sense of this change: sincerity and authenticity. The variation of these concepts I now employ is one developed by anthropologist John L. Jackson in his theorization of race and racial performance. In his writing, authenticity is constructed by the characteristics and behaviors each person believes to be true; it is how an object is interpreted by a subject. The subjective interaction between people introduces sincerity, which is the interpretation of how well someone acts out what others consider to be authentic. Sincerity changes how the authentic is interpreted.
The interpretations and re-interpretations that result from our daily interactions with architecture complicate these object and subject relationships, and these complications, strangely enough, helped me understand my relationship with wood veneer and laminate.
The materials have questionable authenticity in many ways, but they commit to their lies. That commitment makes a difference. There is a person with intent behind the deceit: the material itself cannot take that action. It is acceptable, maybe even desirable, to show the observer of a space that they are in a world created by people who occupy the same baseline subjectivity as them. Sincere designing acknowledges that buildings are navigated, not only as objects, but as subjective expressions imbued with the agency of both the creator and the perceiver. Architecture need not cling to the authentic. Though it will still interact with notions of the authentic, these notions will always be navigated through sincerity. Architecture isn’t just about people, or built by people, it is people.
Next time I’m home, I won’t pick at the worn edges of the laminate lining our countertop. I won’t tap on the cabinets to see if they’re plastic or wood. Rather, I will think about the choices that made this space: the tactical placements of couches to hide stains, or paintings to cover dents in the wall. All of this change and trickery is the care in which we live. Sincerity opens up a new way of navigating and learning from architecture. Laminate and veneer become something that doesn’t just cover up particle board, but something creative and productive. There is value to falseness. I’m still not sure which surfaces in my house are laminate, which are wood veneer, and which are plain wood. But when I’m at home, running my hand over the wood grain along our kitchen shelf, it doesn’t matter.