From a Composite Culture–Corcrete
by Purva Chawla
An Age of Composites
Nothing is generating more interest and witnessing more diversity and experimentation in the world of materials today, than composites. Designers, makers, manufacturers, and scientists are combining material ingredients (those familiar and not), to create more aesthetic, more sensory, more resistant or robust, more pliable and formable, more recyclable, and indeed, more sustainable results.
Multiple motivations are driving this composite culture.
First, there is a collective pull to creating valuable, attractive materials from industry waste–think Ariane Prin's RUST material (a blend of Jesmonite and mixed metal dust from London's metalworking shops) and ALUSID's SilicaStone material, made from crunched up landfill-oriented ceramic and glass objects like sinks and TV screens.
Second, and equally catalytic, for the making of today's composites, has been the desire to achieve strength, rigidity, and form where there wasn't before. Thin sheets of fabric or clusters of natural fibers and weaves are being combined with resins (or bio-resins) to create stiff and strong materials that can serve as interior surfaces, and take on the shapes of furniture and products. Japanese designer Jin Kuramoto's Flax Fiber chair, beautiful and strong, seen at the Stockholm Furniture Fair, is a fitting example. The gently curved chair was molded from a layer of densely packed Flax fibers, coated with bio-resin. Malai–a composite of grown bacterial cellulose and natural fibers–is strong and somewhat flexible, occupying the territory between paper and textile–and is far stronger than any of its original components.
Thirdly, a vast number of new composites today are aimed at biodegradability, low or no carbon footprint and the ability to contribute to the circular economy. Bioplastics and grown biomaterials are composites of natural and living ingredients and are increasingly ripe for use in products, garments, and packaging, capable of substituting unsustainable staples. Chip[s]Board–made from starchy potato waste from the food industry–is a robust, and biodegradable substitute for MDF.
Finally, there is the very elemental, and joyful draw to making composites–the thrill of mixing conflicting ingredients, of arriving at unexpected results and properties, of visual and haptic surprise, and arriving at an original solution, or just a 'happy accident.' Several inventive materials we see today have emerged from this spirit of experimentation.
The material in question today, Corcrete–a composite–is representative of several of these motivations. A fusion of ordinary concrete and recycled cork, the textured, terrazzo-like material is a tantalizing blend of hard and soft. The creators of Corcrete–German designers Studio Niruk–were strategic in bringing together one material known for its hard-lined coldness, with another known for its warmth, stretch, and pliability.
The resulting sensory potpourri is easy to discern to the viewer or user of surfaces and objects made from Corcrete and is responsible for the pleasurable haptic experience the material offers. Despite the end result being ground and polished, the role of cork in making the surface of the material attractive, extremely pleasurable to touch, and memorable in the mind's eye is clear for anyone to perceive.
Studio Niruk created Corcrete from shredded recycled cork, cement, and bamboo fibers as reinforcement for the concrete– the result being a composite material that is lighter than concrete, and more insulating. While ordinary concrete generates very little insulation of its own, relying instead on thick slabs and thermal mass to achieve this result, Corcrete gains from the inherent insulating properties of Cork and fares much better in this regard.
The use of a recycled, discarded material–Cork–which is renewable and healthy in itself, along with natural formats of reinforcement gives this material an edge over other composites. It can also easily take the form of modular tiles or be cast as furniture, both of which are more lightweight than their pure-concrete counterparts.
Motivated by haptic experimentation, in search of better technical qualities (such as weight and insulation), and with the aim of incorporating recycled, discarded materials like Cork, the making of Corcrete is extremely representative of our composite-making culture as a whole.
Composites and the Anthropocene:
While a culture of making composites prevails, composites are by their very nature complex, and distant from mono-materiality. This complexity often poses a challenge at the end of life of a material, when we must solve for break-down, reuse, and recycling.
The Anthropocene–the Age of Man– looks upon composites in two ways. The first–the thoughtless plastics and various composites of the past, whose amalgamation of ingredients makes them impossible to biodegrade, or breakdown, reuse and recycle, and plants them squarely in our landfills and oceans instead–these are certainly a class of composites frowned upon in the Anthropocene.
On the other hand, are new composite materials born from 'mining' today's waste which are starting to substitute all of their ingredients slowly. While these materials are far from perfect, and their own recyclability and ease of remaking are still being understood and evolved, they hold a promise for the future, and are armed with the right attitude.
Corcrete belongs to this latter class, and as creatives in the Anthropocene, we hope that this composite, like other promising products, continues to develop further, so that its end-of-life becomes the starting point of more, zero-waste material development.