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Feature article




Image courtesy of Gwyllim Jahn.

WORDS BY Mark Raggatt

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.

Image courtesy of Gwyllim Jahn.

Image courtesy of Gwyllim Jahn.

Image courtesy of Gwyllim Jahn.

The leftist architecture of modernism removed ornament, condemning it as improper or criminal or elitist. The manufacturing process Gwyllim and Roland are pursuing put the means of fabrication back in the hands of the many; digital fabrication is the leading edge of the zeitgeist. Even the silly renovation competitions and dream home variety shows are evidence of a revived DIY culture.

Roland’s most recent efforts shifts from attempts to build the complex surface toward ‘building the line’, the cloud becomes a ‘deep lattice’.

In 519 robot hours, a thin plastic skin is printed, a formwork into which concrete is poured creating a complex filament of fine concrete structure closer to a textile than a masonry building.

Gottfried Semper argued that the knot was the heart of human artistry, that the weaving of textiles coincides with the beginning of building and that this represents the beginning of architecture. Semper’s insight reveals something about the theory of making – it suggests that the making of architecture is like weaving together a fabric from an unravelling spool, the fabric emerges as the product of a process comprised of internal forces managed by the weaver. Unlike the building blocks of our childhood or even the complex conglomeration of components that is contemporary process, Semper’s conception doesn’t see independent and discrete components but a complex process. The practitioner must work with and understand those forces – the tension and friction of the thread – and simultaneously make decisions about the pattern, form and size. There is no discrete end, only the decision to stop.

In the basement of RMIT’s Design Hub there is a home for robots. Like the robot arms you see in auto factories (though not in Australia anymore), these are tools that can be programmed to perform manufacturing tasks with precision and freedom of form. “Can you imagine,” asks Roland “a car being built by people? It would be insane and yet with buildings it’s normal. The construction industry is slow to innovate, no one working on a building site today is going to lose their job to a robot, but it will happen.”

“The robot arm is a generic thing,” says Roland “it needs a hand.” Gwyllim has designed and built a the ‘hand’ to fit the robotic arm. “Tools have a big impact on the character of the things we make, so just as we’re interested in writing code we’re interested in designing the tools to make these things in the world.”

Robert Morris argued that design and production ought not be divorced but that the maker and the designer should be one and the same. Where Morris taught himself embroidery, textiles, hand dyeing et al. Snooks and Jahn are designing their own tools, both digital and physical. They have an obsessive dedication to the bespoke, not willing to accept off-the-shelf software, they have developed their own, not willing to accept generic tooling, they have designed and built their own. These tools, both digital and physical are integral to the final product but, more than this, the conceptualising, development and refinement of these tools is integral to the design process. Architecture is most often an art of description; we plan, elevate, detail and document something for others to build. Digital architects are returning architecture to bespoke construction, an alternate world from material substitutions, standard details and ‘design by specification’ they are simultaneously seeking to evolve construction technology.

The ‘hand’ Gwyllim has made extrudes 3kg of hot plastic an hour, laying down a sparkling thread, weaving a silvery net. The rig is part salvage, part precision engineering. It is a product of an enthusiast’s obsession; “One of the unfortunate realities of learning to write code,” Gwyllim tells me “is that you spend a lot of time in a dark lab on your own, but the process of designing these robotic tools is incredibly collaborative, I’ve spoken to so many experts from many fields and that is a very rewarding creative experience”

The purpose of all this effort is to observe behaviour of a material and to use that behaviour as the expression of design; to allow for the gestural in fabrication, or rather to reveal the gestures inherent to fabrication. Gwyllim has reduced the movements of the robot arm to the simplest of paths, the liquid plastic is drizzled back and forth onto a conical mould, slight inconsistences and eccentricities in the material are magnified with repetition. If a brick wants to be an arch then hot plastic wants to be ornamental structure. Like Semper’s thread a structure is formed that is somewhere between textile and building, the material and method of production generate their own style. The fabrication process, while wholly robotic, is gestural.

So it’s not really a return to craft; it’s not a celebration of the craftsman. Gwyllim Jahn and Roland Snooks are not like Webb and Morris, reviving ancient crafts; rather they are pursuing new technologies as to develop a new mastery offering freedom of form and manufacture.