Technical & Practice: Steve Parnell reports back from the Bartlett’s Fabricate conference on how new technology is reinvigorating architectural practice
There is no shortage of debate on the merits of digital, or computational, design, but the fabrication side of the CAD/CAM duality has been advancing just as quickly with much less attention from the architectural press.
Fabricate, a recent two-day conference at the Bartlett set out to redress this imbalance and attracted an interesting array of international speakers who are exploring such technologies in engineering, art and architecture.
Most publications concentrate on how this technology affects the tectonic and aesthetic aspects of architectural design because these are easier to transmit. For the same reason, the majority of the Fabricate conference also concerned these aspects.
There are currently two broad approaches to using computer-controlled fabrication technologies. The first is to design a shape and then use analysis software to make it work. This approach was demonstrated by speakers from Amanda Levete Architects, Price & Myers engineers and Buro Happold, who are working with Ateliers Jean Nouvel on the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
It can generate novel-looking objects, but while the fabrication methods are more advanced, methodologically it is no different from traditional design: the architect dreams up a shape and employs an engineer to make it work. This formalist, image-driven approach is the method of the icon-maker and is essentially the same model used by Renaissance architects, who represented a building using geometry and employed a craftsman to build it. The schism remains between the drawing and the building, between the ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’.
The other approach is more joined up in that it generates form from the inherent properties of the material, which is, after all, how nature works (as pointed out by D’Arcy Thompson in 1917 in On Growth and Form). Talks by speakers interested in this approach proved to be the most interesting, and this is surely the way computational design will develop. Instead of envisioning a form and making it work, designers such as keynote speaker Neri Oxman of MIT’s Media Lab ask what the materials can do then use those properties to generate form – the ‘real’ is brought closer to the ‘ideal’.
For example, Achim Menges of the Institute for Computational Design at Stuttgart University showed a pavilion designed around the bending properties of plywood. In other words, he was investigating the computing potential of materials, or in his own words, ‘focusing design on material behaviour rather than geometry’. Furthermore, they altered the cellular structure of the plywood in order to change the mechanical (and therefore computational) properties of the wood.
There is another barely mentioned but far more profound type of impact that this technology can have on the role of the architect in the design process, and on society.
First, the fact that the architect (or engineer) can now produce shop-floor drawings for fabrication by machine moves the emphasis from the maker to the designer. The Modernists’ machine fetish has moved from the building object to the building process – from the noun to the verb. Whether delivered via the eternal promise of prefabrication, or on-site, building-scale robots which could become as commonplace as today’s cranes, it is not difficult to envision a distinct shift in the division of labour that many of these processes involve, leading to a much-reduced role for the tradesman. This comes with associated risk and insurance premiums, of course, but also potentially higher fees.
Secondly there is a distinct lack of consideration of the bigger picture in all this research, both at this conference and more generally. Almost without exception, technology is prioritised over society’s needs, in contrast to the Modern movement’s egalitarian hope to utilise it to improve society. Even sustainability is an afterthought rather than a driver. However this point was only brought up at the end of the first day and was proving to be the day’s most interesting discussion when more pressing concerns (the event’s barbecue) took priority. Only the immensely likeable Enric Ruiz-Geli of Barcelona’s Cloud 9 seemed comfortable addressing the political issues broached by Jon Goodbun, who characteristically quoted from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital: ‘Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from these relations’.
Tellingly, in response to a question after her keynote speech, Neri Oxman had previously also quoted a Marx, but this time Groucho: ‘If you don’t like my principles, I have others,’ and of her work boasted, ‘Nike has shown an interest’.