STIRring Together: Achim Menges and Jan Knippers on material culture

Debuting at the biennale, Maison Fibre is a scaled habitable installation made using computational design, and the first multi-storey structure of its kind.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Jun 18, 2021

While a lot of the response to Hashim Sarkis’ question, ‘How will we live together?’ at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 postulates the coexistence of future social, ecological and spatial factors, one wonders what the spaces of this co-existence would look like. Where will these lives be together? Maison Fibre explores an alternative approach not only to the design but also, and more importantly, the construction of future habitable spaces. Conceptualised by the Institute for Computational Design and Construction (ICD) and the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE) of the Cluster of Excellence IntCDC at the University of Stuttgart, Maison Fibre is a scaled habitable installation made entirely from robotically produced, fibrous building elements. Making a debut at the biennale, this installation is the first multi-storey structure of its kind.

  • Maison Fibre: Perspective/Rendering | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
    Maison Fibre: Perspective/Rendering Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart
  • Maison Fibre: Section A-A | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
    Maison Fibre: Section A-A Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart
  • Maison Fibre: Section B-B | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
    Maison Fibre: Section B-B Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart

The installation, Maison Fibre is actually the central display of their project on “Material Culture''. With a particular interest in questioning the building models of the 20th century that continue to be prominent as both typologies and methodologies. This is translated into a tactile experience that explores materiality and a spatiality. In a joint interview Achim Menges, Professor at ICD University of Stuttgart and Jan Knippers, Professor at ITKE University of Stuttgart, elaborated on the ecological and technological impact of their installation.

Maison Fibre: Plan | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Plan Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart

Devanshi Shah (DS): Can you elaborate on what makes this particular fibrous building element unique?

Achim Menges and Jan Knippers (AM-JK): This is the very first multi-storey structure made entirely from robotically produced, fibrous building elements. The fibrous wall and ceiling elements were manufactured using the coreless, robotic winding process developed by the project team, which allows for locally load-adapted design and alignment of the fibres, thus enabling an extraordinary lightweight construction: The code-compliant, load-bearing fibre structure of the upper floor weighs just 9,9 kg/m².

  • Maison Fibre: Materialisation Perspective | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
    Maison Fibre: Materialisation Perspective Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart
  • Maison Fibre: Exploded-view Drawing | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
    Maison Fibre: Exploded-view Drawing Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart
  • Maison Fibre: Exploded-view Drawing | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
    Maison Fibre: Integrated Computational Design Model Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart
  • Maison Fibre: Structural Analysis Test Setup | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
    Maison Fibre: Structural Analysis Test Setup Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart

DS: How would you distinguish between material and spatial experience?

AM-JK: Maison Fibre shows the spatial expression and authentic architecture of a highly dematerialized structure, in which the reconfigurable building elements are made from just a few kilos of construction material. The two-storey, robotically fabricated, load bearing glass- and carbon fibre composite structure is made of 23 km of glass fibres and 20 km of carbon fibres total with a material volume ratio of 1,9% material volume per slab volume.

DS: What is the importance of being able to create building elements?

AM-JK: The building elements of Maison Fibre are robotically prefabricated, which enables a quick and straight-forward assembly process onsite. The fabrication of one load-bearing element required less than two percent of the component volume as material volume. This extremely low material consumption coupled with the very compact, robotic production unit could in the future make it possible to carry out the entire production on-site without a significant amount of noise or waste, not only during the initial construction process, but also during expansion or conversions. As a result, architecture built using this method will remain adaptable and flexible in the long term.

Maison Fibre: Fabrication Setup | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Fabrication Setup Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Christoph Zechmeister

Ds: How does the project speak to both the subcategory and the larger theme of the exhibitions?

AM-JK: In response to the exhibition theme “How will we live together?” We present a full-scale inhabitable installation that explores an alternative approach to the design and construction of future habitable spaces on the level of the “household”.

DS: What is the importance of the central display ‘Material Culture’ compared to the rest of the installation?

AM-JK: Maison Fibre, the central display of the exhibition, is both a full-scale architectural installation and an open model for the cultural change being postulated. It deals with the departure from pre-digital, material-intensive construction using mostly heavy, isotropic building materials such as concrete, stone, and steel—which are often extracted in faraway places, processed into building elements, and then transported over long distances—to genuinely digital construction methods with locally differentiated and locally manufactured structures made of highly anisotropic materials: an architecture made of fibres.

Maison Fibre: Building Components | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld\
Maison Fibre: Building Components Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Christoph Zechmeister

The building methods investigated in this project can be used for a variety of materials. While Maison Fibre still largely makes use of the currently available glass and carbon fibre systems, there are already signs of a considerable expansion of the material spectrum in the near future, ranging from mineral fibre systems that can withstand extreme temperature stresses, to natural fibre systems that grow within an annual cycle. These approaches to the materialization and materiality of architecture, which differ significantly from established notions of building, are explained to visitors in the exhibition sections “Materialisation Perspective” and “Materiality Perspective” housed on the upper floor of Maison Fibre.

Maison Fibre: Test Assembly | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Test Assembly Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Rob Faulkner

DS: The spatial form moves away from popular 20th-century icons, namely Le Corbusier, and reinterprets the footprint, could you elaborate on this transformation?

AM-JK: Maison Fibre is the first multi-storey architecture of this kind, featuring inhabitable fibrous floor slabs and walls. The entire structure consists exclusively of so-called fiber rovings, essentially bundles of endless, unidirectional fibres. To underline the model character of the project, a system of reconfigurable wall and ceiling elements based on the 2.5-meter grid dimension typical of residential buildings was developed. The project's projective aspect is derived from its reference to a formative model of architectural history, Le Corbusier's Maison Dom-Ino. The floor area of the installation corresponds to the historical reference, as does the division over three floors and the versatile, expandable system. The radically different nature of the fibrous - compared to tectonics of the massive - can be experienced spatially and tactilely by the visitors. Another key difference is the possible adaptability and thus the interaction with the existing building stock, which will be decisive for future urban buildings. This is deliberately emphasized by integrating the existing columns of the Arsenale building into the installation.

Maison Fibre: Assembly at Arsenale | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Assembly at Arsenale Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Christoph Zechmeister

DS: The concept note makes a distinction between materiality and materialisation of buildings; within the context of this installation could you tell how this is expressed?

AM-JK: At the Biennale, we show two essential perspectives that are important for the conceptualisation of Maison Fibre: 

MATERIALITY PERSPECTIVE: Fibres are the fundamental building material of nature. Almost all load-bearing structures in biology are made from fibrous composites. This insight questions the modernist understanding of bones and skin, which is at the very heart of the skeleton concept expressed in the Maison Dom-Ino. In nature, both bone and skin are actually fibrous constructs with a complex inner architecture. This more intricate understanding of designed materiality is presented to the visitors by exposing them to the rich repertoire of materials suitable for such an approach, ranging from glass and carbon fibres used in the installation to bio-based fibres and ceramic matrix systems displayed in the exhibit.

Maison Fibre: Assembly at Arsenale | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Assembly at Arsenale Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Christoph Zechmeister

MATERIALISATION PERSPECTIVE: Fibres not only challenge our conceptualization of tectonics, but they also question current approaches to fabrication and construction – or, in other words, the materialization of architecture. Here are materials that weigh 1kg per km, that transform from being as pliable and soft as silk to becoming stronger and stiffer than steel when cured. The material installation is complemented by enabling the visitors to experience the innovative fabrication of the fibrous elements, as this trigger questioning the established, strict delineation between the phases of design, construction, and use: They can now be collapsed into one continuous and adaptive process of re-/de-/construction.

DS: Where does robotic manufacturing lead us?

AM-JK: We spend 87 percent of our lives in buildings. Construction has become one of the most materially intense and environmentally detrimental human activities. The per capita consumption of construction materials for load-bearing structures alone, which account for more than half of the materials used in buildings, has multiplied over the last century. Building in the present form, which prioritizes simple construction processes over saving material and resources, no longer seems sustainable. New approaches are urgently needed. Harnessing the full potential of digital technologies, including robotic manufacturing, provide this alternative approach to rethink design, fabrication and construction based on integration and interdisciplinarity.

Maison Fibre: Exterior | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Exterior Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Rob Faulkner

DS: The proposal postulated by this installation can adapt to existing structures, could you elaborate on that a little more?

AM-JK: For the fabrication of a load-bearing floor element, less than two percent of the component volume is required as material volume. This extremely low material consumption coupled with the very compact, robotic production unit could in the future make it possible to carry out the entire production on-site without a significant amount of noise or waste, not only during the initial construction process, but also during expansion or conversions. As a result, architecture built using this method will remain adaptable and flexible in the long term.

Maison Fibre: Exterior | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Exterior Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Rob Faulkner

DS: As educators could you tell us about how this project is viewed within academia?

AM-JK: As educators, we strive to prepare a new generation of students for the continuing advancement of technological and computational processes in development of the built environment through merging the fields of design, engineering, construction and natural sciences. Combining an intensive, critical and analytical approach to computational design, simulation and fabrication processes, our educational program ITECH is focusing on challenging the design space boundaries of current contemporary architectural and engineering practice. It seeks to provoke a re-examination of techniques, methods and theories of design in relation to the fields of engineering, robotics, digital manufacturing, material science and biology.

Maison Fibre: Interior | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Interior Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Christoph Zechmeister

DS: How important is it to test and physically present research ideas?

AM-JK: This highly innovative construction method is far ahead of existing building regulations. Nevertheless, all the typical functional requirements had to be obtained, which was only possible through extensive analysis and testing.

DS: How did the idea of this project begin? What was the inspiration?

AM-JK: The project is a response to the exhibition theme “How will we live together?” envisioned by Hashim Sarkis, the curator of the 17th International Architecture Biennale. Maison Fibre is based on a decade of research on robotically manufactured fibre composite structures and is the first multi-storey structure made entirely from robotically produced, fibrous building elements.

Maison Fibre: Interior | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Interior Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Rob Faulkner

Natures served as its inspiration as it provides a paradigmatic alternative and new approach to current construction processes. Almost all load-bearing structures in biology are fibrous systems, in which the fibre organisation, directionality, and density are finely calibrated with the occurring forces. The resulting high level of morphological differentiation, functionality, and related resource efficiency are emblematic of natural structures. The biomimetic principles of using “less material” by having “more form” have been investigated for many years by the project team at the University of Stuttgart. Fibrous construction offers a profoundly different material approach for building future human habitats.

Maison Fibre: Interior | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Bonus Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Rob Faulkner

DS: Could you tell us a little more about the collaboration between the two of you?

AM-JK: There are many reasons for us as architects and engineers to advance our research together. On the one hand, this cooperative approach is due to the academic environment of the University of Stuttgart, which we both consciously chose, and which is characterised by a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration between architecture and engineering sciences that has developed over many decades, whose outstanding representatives – Fritz Leonhardt, Jörg Schlaich and especially Frei Otto – are an inspiration for our work. Besides our joint appreciation for architectural research, an enthusiasm for the enriching moment of interdisciplinary work and a fascination with lightweight structures, another essential motivation for our collaboration is our conviction that digital technologies will significantly change architecture.

Maison Fibre: Exterior | Maison Fibre |Achim Menges | Jan Knippers | STIRworld
Maison Fibre: Exterior Image: © ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart, Christoph Zechmeister

Project Details

IntCDC / ICD University of Stuttgart, Institute for Computational Design and Construction: Achim Menges, Niccolo Dambrosio, Katja Rinderspacher, Christoph Zechmeister, Rebeca Duque Estrada, Fabian Kannenberg, Christoph Schlopschnat
IntCDC / ITKE University of Stuttgart, Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design: Jan Knippers, Nikolas Früh, Marta Gil Pérez, Riccardo La Magna
Lab support: Aleksa Arsic, Sergej Klassen, Kai Stiefenhofer
Student Assistance: TzuYing Chen, Vanessa Costalonga Martins, Sacha Cutajar, Christo van der Hoven, Pei-Yi Huang, Madie Rasanani, Parisa Shafiee, Anand Nirbhaybhai Shah, Max Benjamin Zorn
In collaboration with: FibR GmbH, Stuttgart,  Moritz Dörstelmann, Ondrej Kyjanek, Philipp Essers, Philipp Gülke with support of: Erik Zanetti, Elpiza Kolo, Prateek Bajpai, Jamiel Abubaker, Konstantinos Doumanis, Julian Fial, Sergio Maggiulli

STIRring Together:
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.

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