Digital architecture has been with us for several decades; it’s entered the canon with its own tropes and obsessions. New tools have brought a profusion of new methods forms and theories, and with this, new anxieties and ideologies.
In its infancy, digital architecture was often labelled unbuildable and digital architects uninterested in building but, as we all know, complex forms have become common place; proof that digital architects still like to put their designs out in the rain and a sign that digital architecture has been accepted by clients and industry alike.
What next? Contemporary digital architecture is tackling the theory and practice of making directly; not just struggling to find ways to build complex form but developing methods of manufacture and digital design in tandem.
Here in Victoria we are contributing to innovations in digital architecture and fabrication. Two architects at the forefront of this research are Roland Snooks and Gwyllim Jahn of the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT. The RMIT architecture school has a mature programme in digital architecture, exposing students to new tools; robots, 3D printers and laser cutters but more importantly providing students with the opportunity to work with architects researching new methods and expressions for architecture.
Roland and Gwyllim are practising architecture once removed from commercial industry. When asked why they choose to pursue their practices in the academy Roland’s answer is pragmatic; “An architecture practice can’t support research.” For avant-gardist architects the academy can provide the opportunity and the resources to research new methodologies free from the strictures of commercial practice. The question for the industry is; are we paying attention?
The building industry is constantly evolving —it is a strange beast— at once innovative and primitive; like a lung-fish or egg-laying mammal. We know this to be true of our own industry in Australia, even just from this issue of Architect Victoria. So what might our future hold? For Gwyllim Jahn and Roland Snooks it could be robotic gestures, deep lattices and plastic extruders.
“The last two years have been working out how to build this one algorithm” says Roland. The virtuosic forms scattered around the room do share a familial resemblance; that of a cloud trying to become something solid by way of foam and fibreglass, sheet steel, 3D printed plastic.
Pinning a cloud down is more than rhetorical flourish, the algorithm Roland is working with looks at a cloud of agents in space, each one trying to become flat and to form a manifold surface. Each agent has a ‘body’, two ‘arms’, and two ‘legs’, they grab each other to form a complex surface. So the cloud becomes an object, no longer a floating miasma of disparate bodies in space but a coherent form – digitally speaking.
Roland has developed several methods by which to translate this geometry into built form; flat sheets of steel have been cut to shapes such that when they are riveted together they from complex double curvatures. In another, foam worms are vacuum sealed between fibreglass sheets, forming a strange composite panel. Independently, neither the foam nor the fibreglass has structural value but combined they become a self-supporting structure. They are a combination of structure and ornamental gesture – this they share with the late Gothic cathedrals.