by STIRworldDec 17, 2019
'In the future, digital tools will come… closer to our human bodies, enabling us to more conveniently access and utilise digital information in our daily lives,' says architect and designer Soomeen Hahm. The excerpt, published in the report 'The Digital in Architecture', authored by architectural theorist Mollie Claypool and produced by Copenhagen-based research and design lab SPACE10, traverses the journey of how digital found its way into architecture and turned things around. With a diversity of voices and contexts, it looks backwards in order to look forward into the future.
In the previous article, we delved into the report to understand the origin of digital thinking in architecture and its evolution over the years. Here, we continue filtering through the status of things that took place much recently, and anticipate what is coming next. This includes insights on the boom of parametric architecture, augmented reality, digital fabrication and the use of robots in construction.
Below are the excerpts from the report 'The Digital in Architecture'.
1. PARAMETRIC EXPLOSION
Perhaps one of the more important moments in the evolution of digital design tools was the release of the tool Grasshopper.
Designed by David Rutten in September 2007, it is now a plugin for a common design software called Rhino. Grasshopper uses a visual, node-based component interface to create generative algorithms that can be used to create 3D geometry and other functions. The simplicity and ease of the Grasshopper interface in comparison to other available programming languages quickly appealed to many digital designers for its drag-and-drop, on-and-off, input-output system. Grasshopper instigated an explosion in generative design tools: Ladybug, Honeybee, Geco, Kangaroo Physics, Karamba, BullAnt, Hummingbird, Heliotrope-Solar, Mantis (yes, almost all named after animal species).
While these tools are excellent for form-generation, structural and environmental analysis and the simulation and optimisation of forms, they cannot be the main driver for an architectural project — they are only a component of what a building is comprised of.
‘Parametricism has no sympathy to local culture until the local culture becomes part of the parametric system,' - Lei Zheng, architect at ZHA.
Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects is one of the more prominent voices arguing for what he named in 2008 as ‘Parametricism’. According to him, parametricism is ‘the great new style after Modernism’, a paradigm emerging ‘from the creative exploitation of parametric design systems in view of articulating increasingly complex social processes and institutions’.
Indeed, these ‘parametric’ buildings cannot use existing prefab methods of construction: they need entirely bespoke production chains, which renders them extremely expensive, one-offs. As a result, many of these buildings have been commissioned by wealthy patrons who wish to have iconic buildings to represent their companies, or even their countries. This creates an oxymoron: despite the ethos of parametricism being rooted in democratisation and collaboration, the buildings it has resulted in aren’t all that accessible for many everyday people.
2. AUGMENTED REALITY
As technology became more accessible in the 2000s, particularly hardware and sensor technologies, so did the sense that architecture could physically be as performative and vibrant as the algorithms and simulations that architects used in the design process.
One of the first interactive walls developed was the Aegis Hyposurface by dECOi architects, made in collaboration with architect Mark Burry (of Sagrada Família fame) in 2001. The project used almost 900 pneumatic pistons to control metal components in a wall that moved in real time according to changing environmental conditions such as movement or light.
Within the decade, however, technology became much more lightweight, effective and affordable. Spaces could become embedded with technologies that were activated by human presence — either by touch, movement, or sound.
The work of Canadian architect and academic Philip Beesley, particularly the project Hylozoic Ground for the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010, utilised components that were laser cut out of lightweight plastic and hung in a mesh from the ceiling of the installation. As one moved through the space the installation would ‘create waves of empathetic motion’ that ‘shivered’ through the installation, pulling visitors into a spatial experience that responded to their interaction with it in an almost human-like way.
3. DIGITAL FABRICATION
The Columbia University Professor Hod Lipson gives an account of a possible future of digital fabrication technologies, describing a world where they pervade every aspect of one’s daily life:
Place: Your Life
Time: A few decades from now
… even in the future, it is hard to get up in the morning.
The smell of freshly baked whole wheat blueberry muffins wafts from the kitchen food printer. The cartridges to make these organic, low-sugar muffins were marketed as a luxury series. The recipes were downloaded from different featured artisan bakers from famous restaurants and resorts.
The first time you showed the food printer to your grandfather, he thought it was an automated bread machine — an appliance from the 1980s that took foodie kitchens by storm. He could not understand why you wanted to print processed food until his anniversary came. To celebrate, you splurged on deluxe food cartridges and printed him and your grandmother a celebratory dinner of fresh tuna steaks, couscous and a wildly swirled chocolate-mocha-raspberry cream cake with a different picture within every slice.
A shift from consumerism to prosumerism — where the consumer is also the producer — enables a vast transformation to take place in how we make the objects around us. This transformation is on its way to meeting its full potential because of a revolution in digital fabrication.
WikiHouse (2011-present) is one of the more well-known architectural projects to harness the potential of distributed manufacturing using digital fabrication technologies. Started in 2011 by Alastair Parvin, Nick Ierodiaconou and Indy Johar of UK-based practice Architecture 00, WikiHouse aims to put 'low-cost, low-carbon buildings into the hands of every citizen, community and business.' Architecture 00 has proposed that digital fabrication can enable houses to be fabricated and assembled much more efficiently and cheaply than what is possible with typical methods of production. To achieve this, they introduced the WikiHouse building system: using Creative Commons licensing and a single CNC-milling machine, it requires little knowledge of how to design, fabricate and assemble small homes. All that is needed is internet access — to download the user manual files — and some training in using the CNC-milling machine to mill timber sheet material. The resultant CNC’d building parts are then fit together very simply, using pegs.
One of the most revolutionary ideas about the future of digital fabrication in design can be found in the work of the architect and researcher Nadya Peek who studied, and works, with Gershenfeld at MIT.
Peek argues that if we want to ensure the promise of a digital revolution in fabrication comes true for everyone, digital fabrication tools need to be rethought of as machines that can make almost any other machine for a much lower cost.
This would enable a diversity in tools to be produced and become accessible to more people. The distribution of manufacturing tools once silo’d into institutions into the lives of everyday people holds huge potential for the future.
In the early 2000s, the highly competitive market around industrial robots lowered their manufacturing costs, which made them more widely available to architects and designers.
One of the first contemporary speculative architectural proposals to use an industrial robot arm was R&Sie(n)’s Olzweg, the second place winner in the competition for the FRAC Orléans courtyard in Orléans, France in 2006. This proposal took on aspects of British architect Cedric Price’s 1961 Fun Palace in its emphasis on an ever-changing space where technology and humans interacted together.
Although R&Sie(n) were unsuccessful in realising this project, its legacy was impactful and inspired a diverse body of work incorporating the industrial robotic arm into architectural design. Half a dozen years later, Gramazio Kohler Research from ETH Zurich began to physically test the potential of a robotic arm to achieve complex curvature. In The Programmed Wall (2006) an industrial robot was used to pick and place bricks in a distributed array to create porous, doubly curved surfaces.
Certain limitations arise out of design experiments using programmed industrial robots to assemble architectural elements instead of people. The first are the limitations of the machine itself. It cannot move without instruction — i.e. being programmed — and it is restricted to its radius and the number of axes it moves along.
The work of the Institute for Computational Design and Construction at the University of Stuttgart, led by architect Achim Menges, has developed what is referred to as a cyber-physical approach. Here, the relationship between virtual and physical data is interlinked using both robotic technologies as well as sensor technology.
Maria Yablonina, who studied under Achim Menges at ICD Stuttgart, has taken this approach one step forward with her 2015 project, Mobile Robotic Fabrication System for Filament Structures. In this project, she designed a series of mobile, task-driven, wall-climbing robots that operate semi-autonomously within a larger construction framework, weaving filament, or threadlike, material together to form structures.
5. RADICAL RETHINKING
All of this work exploring the potential of robots in architecture would be impossible if not for the revolution in information and data technologies in supercomputing and artificial intelligence in the last decade, or what has been referred to as the ‘Big Data’ revolution. Big Data, or using extremely large sets of data for computational analysis, has found kinship with the digital revolution of 2012 onwards in architecture. This has been referred to as the ‘second digital turn’, where a new scientific intelligence became embedded in architectural thinking.
This catalysed architects towards rethinking what buildings are made of (from their parts to their materials) and how they are interacted with (from design to production to how they are experienced). Architect Alessandro Bava writes: How could artificial intelligence including machine learning enable architects to design novel kinds of architecture that can better respond to the changing world around it? How can digital tools enable architects and designers to create better architecture for more people?'
6. THE DISCRETE
Integrating socio-political awareness and critique into architecture is important. And because digital technology is readily available, for very low costs, there is an entire generation of architects and designers who were brought up to be highly literate in these technologies. As a result, this is the first moment where social responsibility and digital and automated technologies have the potential to be accessible to everyone.
The Discrete is an emerging body of work that rethinks the basic building blocks of architecture. At the core of the Discrete is the wish to 'redefine the entire production chain of architecture by accelerating the notion of discreteness in both computation and the physical assembly of buildings'. The Discrete is catalysed by today’s ability to compute design possibilities through a finite set of rules more quickly than ever before, building in parameters that can be tectonic, environmental, material and importantly, socially-aware and participatory.
7. WHAT’S NEXT: CONSTRUCTION GOES DIGITAL
While architectural design practices have been using digital tools for over 30 years now, construction has tended to remain profoundly analogue, reliant on semi-skilled or unskilled manual labour on a building site. This means that construction is an industry ripe for the integration and use of more digital technologies.
Many of these innovations are centred around the replacement of human labour using automated technologies. AR (augmented reality) is increasingly used to deal with the imprecision inherent in construction.
Katerra, one of the first construction start ups to be an investment 'unicorn' (i.e. having received investment of over 1 billion USD), has developed a model of factory-made architecture. Parts are designed, manufactured and assembled by a single company in a factory, similar to Apple with computers or iPhones.
8. DIGITAL TRANSPARENCY
As architect and researcher Valentin Soana has stated, the digital in architectural design enables 'new systems where architectural processes can emerge through close collaboration between humans and machines; where technologies are used to extend capabilities and augment design and construction processes.'
As these tools become more accessible to the everyday person on a daily basis, it is important that designers and tool makers are open about the ways in which they are used — for what, and why. This transparency and openness about the power of digital technology and the production of the built environment is necessary for better serving all people and designing a more equitable world.