SYMPOSIA: “Design Technologies as Agents of Change,” with Bock, Seletsky, Oxman, Rocker, and Bechthold.

“Design Technologies as Agents of Change,” with Thomas Bock (TU Munich), Paul Seletsky (ArcSphere New York), Rivka Oxman (Technion Haifa), and Ingeborg Rocker (GSD). Moderated by Martin Bechthold (GSD). Three Germans tonight!

6:32: It’s still a little quiet in Piper. Maybe people are still in studio? I just got out of a desk crit myself.

6:34: Martin Bechthold makes introductions. Whereas the first event in this series focused on life cycle design, tonight we’re looking at technology more broadly, in terms of its ability to effect change. “Computation seems to take on an increasingly important role…while at the same time…becoming more taken for granted. …I’ve argued before that technology has had a formative role in the changes in design over the past [several years], and I’m happy to put that to the test tonight.”

Thomas Bock is a robot guy, and earned a PhD in Japan. He is the “Chair for Realization and Robotics in Construction.”

6:37: TB: “…Most of the time, I compare with other industries; I think construction needs more performance [measures].” Example of the automobile industry: steady cost reduction through better production processes.

“You know the movie, Transformers? Maybe the building becomes like a transformer in the future.” Although the USA has high immigration and it’s less of a problem here, in Japan and Germany (and even China, with its one-child policy), care for the aging is a problem.

Strategy 1: Example of a robot-centric hospital design. The circulation is organized around the robot’s circular path, as it carries out a series of tasks for residents.

Strategy 2: From Products to Services. Example of high-tech toilets with medical diagnostic capabilities.

Strategy 3: Distributed Mechatronics/Robots. An airplane is kind of a robot, when it has autopilot.

Strategy 4: Extension of Architectural Language

Strategy 5: [Organized around activities]

Time for projects.

Project: Example of a sensing chair, and of a chair that would encourage exercise (inspired by Transformers.)

Project: For existing buildings that don’t have technology, they’re thinking about modular systems. They have age-simulation suits that the graduate students go in, in order to test different scenarios during the design process. The system they designed includes furniture to help people to sit down gently to put on and take off their shoes, things to carry shopping bags within the house, and some communications things.

Project: PASSAge (Personalized Mobility, Assistance, and Service Systems in an Aging Society.) Transitions are the problem: getting out the door, or into a car. The project has many parts, including various devices, from autonomous wheelchairs to augmented reality applications. One problem with these devices is that they’re often ugly, and they signal that “someone who lives here has a problem.” So they work on designing things that look good. Modular interior components that are wheelchair-accessible. “Here is a toilet that’s more designed like a motorcycle…inspired by toilets in Islamic countries or Japan” that is easier to slide onto from a wheelchair.

Project: Ceiling-suspended system with infrared sensors to help people get around at night. Nighttime injuries are common and deadly for seniors, especially those who live alone.

“Everything is modular.” This is a big theme that Bock keeps coming back to.

Bock takes inspiration from airplanes; there’s a “Robotic Cockpit Kitchen.” He’s showing a component that is cylindrical and he explains it in an almost whimsical way, saying something like “I thought it would be interesting if it were shaped like this.”

“In Germany, the cost of building is very high; every second Euro goes into building and infrastructure projects.” So pre-fabrication makes sense.

7:07: Martin Bechthold. “Thank you, Thomas, for this preview of aging. I already feel a little better about it.” MB introduces Rivka Oxman

RO: “The most important change…to me…is the change in the profession.” Changes in our knowledge base and skills is “the most exciting.” Collaborating with engineers and with construction. Oxman’s talk is called “Informed Tectonics.”

7:11: …Due to design technologies, architects are involved in material and fabrication processes from the beginning of the design process. “…Digitally informed tectonics is a proposed term to describe these emerging practices.”

Example of traditional Japanese houses using the structural potential of the material (wood). Example of gothic construction. “The material systems are gradually transformed into formal systems that express both the material and construction process.” Example of Gehry’s Bilbao as an early example of digital tectonics. Example of Gaudi’s hanging models to find funicular forms for arches.

“Informed Tectonics.” Rationalization model: interdependence between shape structure and material fabrication. Example from Helmut Pottmann. Example from Martin Bechthold [wheee!] and students at the GSD: robotic bending of sheet metal.

Example from Shigeru Ban with Fabian Scheurer for the Nine Bridges Golf Resort Yeoju in South Korea. “In this project, woven timbers represent craft-like tectonics.” Intersecting girders (glulam) are CNC fabricated.

7:26: Example of Yves Weinand’s “Textile Project,” twisting and weaving “timber sheets.” “A structural principle emerged.”

Example of “Digital Materiality” from Gramazio + Kohler at ETH Zurich. Example of “Digital Material – Variable Properties. Neri Oxman from MIT Media Lab. Lots of examples.

7:33: Martin introduces Paul Seletsky, former technology head at KieranTimberlake and SOM.

Seletsky: “I hope you will not see my presentation as antithetical to the first two.” He says that it’s not as visually stimulating; it’s more of a social discussion. Anecdote about [a professor from Yale?] who said that architecture students are being trained on very high tech systems but that when they go into practice, they’re given the equivalent of a hand drill. So how do we bridge between “this wonderful world of academia,” to practice, in a way “in which you won’t be let down”?

“If I told you to leave your cars running 24h/day, for weeks on end,” we’d think it was crazy. But we do this with buildings. [Chuckles. Not at the GSD, where it gets cold at 2am.]

“We have the technology that enables us in many ways to monitor what’s going on. But the problem is…we’re doing this in a post-rational, post-morphological manner…to validate what we’ve designed.” “We have our heroes, certainly, and I’m going to digress” to consider where they have taken us. “I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have our heroes, but…”

Not to denigrate these practitioners, but, Seletsky argues, we should consider how these technologies can be used in ways other than the pursuit of formal themes. “When do we begin to embed the technology into the design process itself?”

How can we use this technology “so it’s not an answering machine,” but something that helps us produce more possibilities in less time?

Comparison between Corb and Meier. First he describes what modernism meant for Corb. “No disrespect to Meier, but the modernist [for him] is now aesthetic billboard or advertisement, not a polemic as it was for Corb.”

What did the fins (on classic muscle cars) do?

The orange is a metaphor for BIM. We don’t have to draw every plan or section to create drawings or to do an exploded view, but we still don’t really know about the building’s performance.

We don’t have any means to look at a design and synchronously get feedback on its environmental performance. The shape comes first and performance comes later. We haven’t studied big box stores. Apple stores are the most profitable retail environments in the world; they’re not so much about an (architectural) design process as about selling products in a controlled environment.

“The loss of the tactile relationship, of hand-eye coordination—we’re lamenting it” but we haven’t really considered how digital products can augment it.

“I believe we have a serious problem with multimedia digital problem.” He’s less interested in lamenting the loss of the pencil than in thinking about how we’re going to publish our work.

“We talk about immersive environments, but most practices can’t afford this.” Video of large touch-screens, with people manipulating and moving objects on wall-sized screens. [Video similar to this.] “But if you go into any office, you’re unlikely to see any of this happening.”

“The typical design process is all centered around paper [conceptually and organizationally, even though much of the work is digital]. It’s like the final scene in Reservoir Dogs when everyone shoots each other to death.” BIM 1.0. Many inefficiencies with interoperability. “I can track where my shoes are that I’ve ordered from, but I have no idea where my building components are.”

“Let’s re-think our paper documents in a purely electronic form.” Can we give a digital document over [for construction as well as throughout the life of a building]? “I’d like to have the lightbulbs tweeting me, telling me that they need to be changed because they’re being burned out.”

Seletsky recently moved to Philly with his family. He encourages us to make these kinds of choices when we’re in our 50s, because this challenges us. He noticed how awkward and inefficient realtor websites are; instead of disembodied photographs that are difficult to decipher, could they give us a 3D model and integrated information about lifecycle analysis, etc.?

“All of this is dealing with the practicality of practice. It’s not the sexy part of practice that we all believe we should be a part of. But it’s giving us a certain credibility.” IKEA and Home Depot let you build your own 3D model; why are we not providing similar services as architects?

Example of Brunelleschi, who gave his client a sectional model so he could see his dome. Now, that’s service.

“Engineering is in many ways the new architecture, and we’re going to have to deal with this.”

Examples of information and systems that could be embedded: energy efficiency and remote control of building systems, security and building models for first responders, elder care.

8:11: Martin introduces Inge.

IR: “Technologies as Agents of Change? Searches into Serial Multiplicities.”

Versioning. Gregg Pasquarelli asked IR to develop this notion.

Example of Greg Lynn and the generation of architects at Columbia in the 1990s, reading Deleuze on Leibniz. Deleuze’s idea of folding was interpreted by Lynn in this diagram. The forms of car fins may have their origin here.

Versioning: Systems of Multiplicity I. “Versioned objects” might be considered as stateless objects that are overwritten when they’re replaced. A revision history is embedded in each object. “Within this reckless proces of becoming differentiated…the object’s versions appear as temporal stabilizations.” “Differential calculus presents a challenge, if not a catastrophe.”

Younger architects (IR includes her own firm here) have obsessed with differentiation and surface effects. She’s showing her own work; the versions have to go in a matrix in order to show the differences between them. IR describes this as a “fetishization” and reduction to the surface.

IR is presenting GSD student work: On the Brin(c)k. The brick is on the brink of becoming obsolete. Now she gives a short history of brick-making from hand-made to industrialized, and traditional techniques for building a wall. Mass-customization, versioning, and digitization: examples of Gramazio-Kohler’s work on positioning the brick, and Lynn’s work on changing each individual brick.

GSD project from 2009: Aggregating mass-customized bricks to create curved surfaces. How does the brick remain legible as a unit, rather than being subsumed into the surface? Use of Axel Kilian’s catenary software.

GSD project from 2012: Limaçon Pavilion. She notes that by the end, they wondered how much the continuous differentiation (of bricks made of chipboard) was really helping them [as opposed to being simply a hassle in production, I suppose]. I love the above image, which is from a short video that Inge showed of the pavilion in our school’s “Pit.” It’s weird to see such a digital-looking form sitting physically in this familiar sp

Rocker-Lange projects. 2009 Street furniture project for Shenzhen Biennale.

Second: 2011 project for Venice Biennale. “Looking at the monotony and…suicide rate…in Hong Kong” they wanted to introduce some variation into their tower typology. Grasshopper. “It’s a method, not to be taken as an actual piece of architecture, or urbanism.” They examined different parameters, including apartment types, exposure to sunshine, etc. “You can also see how ridiculous the project turned, where at the top, one unit was literally reduced to its load-bearing wall.”

Elevations. “Obviously, they are a commentary on the monotony we saw [in the Hong Kong Towers]. I would not say that we have avoided that monotony; it’s just a more erratic monotony.” IR reiterates that this is a search; the projects are not yet where she would “be happy to see them built tomorrow.”

IR closes with a slide showing this text:

More recent inquiries begin to critique such formal and tool-reliant efforts. There is an increasing alertness to the opportunities, and to the deficiencies, engendered by dependency on the tools and the processes they allow for. This alertness is paralleled by an increasing interest in the power of computation for a critical analysis and synthesis of design. Parametric architecture has thus recently involved projects centered on typological redefinition. Parametric types are developed to revisit traditional architectural types.

Essential to the envisioning of the future and a rethinking of the present will be a constant recalibration of the relationship between tradition and imagination, knowledge and imagination, presentation and representation, the analog and the digital.

8:50: The speakers take their places at the table. It’s getting late!

8:51: Martin (MB): The building industry is “not the most sophisticated.” Why is this?

Paul Seletsky (PS): The feedback is slow (e.g. as compared with a bakery, which can cycle through a product each day). We’ve also lost our link to tools. “My problem is…why would we give away the creative part of design to algorithms?” He’d rather give more space to creative design and automate only the repetitive work.

MB: Is there value in the kind of experimental practice, like at KieranTimberlake?

PS: I think they’re a very good example. They bring a methodical approach to design that many firms aren’t using. But to what extent are they codifying this and publishing it so that others can learn from it? They’re trying to publish so others can be inspired by it, but there’s no central repository of what we’ve learned.

“We very rarely get to experience architecture.” We do when we go into a Gaudi building, but not when we go into one of these Hong Kong Towers. We experience more architecture as a child when we cut and climb in a refrigerator box. It’s because of money. [Real-estate-driven architecture]. We want [financial performance] but now also want it to be interesting [and hence mass customization].

MB: But isn’t money driving every industry? We’re not unique in that, but in other industries things have moved along very quickly.

Rivka Oxman (RO): There’s a difference between a product and architecture. A product can have millions of copies but a work of architecture is one-off.

PS: To me, it is experiential; art is something that speaks back to me. Architecture makes me think of light and space and sends a chill down my spine.

RO: We can’t work with your definition; it’s subjective. [I wish she had said this in a robot voice, but alas, she did not.]

PS: I recall a dean of a very well known architecture school telling me that architecture is not about building. It’s about the difference between building something and the intellectual disconnect.

MB: Inge, can you help us with architecture? I mean you’re teaching it. [In a teasing way]

IR: …We’re putting our work forward as a [critical comment on architectural topics]. It’s discursive. But I wouldn’t put forward any of it as architecture; each one is an instantiation of a model. This is not a happy situation, let’s say; I’d rather produce architecture. I don’t think automation of the kind I presented tonight allows us to arrive at good architecture. Yet, I think this project has to do with architecture. Maybe that’s my way out of this question.

MB: That’s a pretty good way out.

Question from the audience: I’m Jason Lee, a practicing architect from the Netherlands. [The question was something like: what’s the model for integrating both engineering and artistic/architectural forms of knowledge and practice?]

RO: I believe the architect today should know much more than he was given ten years ago. We still work in silos. If we could get another BIM that really allows for communication across disciplines [it’d be better].

PS: We should be teaching students to develop new computational tools. We’re subjecting ourselves to certain software developers to produce our critical means of communciation. We need to re-examine this in a way that isn’t too complex for us, but allows us to communicate what we want to?

Lee: But what about the life-safety, liability issue?

PS: There needs to be an understanding that there are collaborative authors, not a single author.

Questions from the audience: Exactly which technologies were you referring to, when you were talking about what we have in academia but not in practice?

PS: Large shops, as at SOM or KieranTimberlake, do have laser cutters, and some 3D printers. But not robotics. Haven’t even managed double-sided plotting, which would cut down on the sizes of drawing sets and allow for footnotes to be referenced without flipping back and forth everywhere.

9:15: It’s been great. Good night, Archinect! Thanks for reading, as always.



Feb 26, 12 6:03 pm

To Seletzky’s note about “The typical design process is all centered around paper [conceptually and organizationally, even though much of the work is digital]. It’s like the final scene in Reservoir Dogs when everyone shoots each other to death.”:

“Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old. These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods. In late medieval art, for instance, we saw the fear of the new print technology expressed in the theme The Dance of Death. Today, similar fears are expressed in the Theater of the Absurd. Both represent a common failure: the attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.” -Marshall McCluhan, the medium is the MASSAGE.

The related, though seemingly inverted, posture that McCluhan sets up is the reductive positioning of potentially progressive technologies as means of reducing new problems to familiar ones. Seletky’s point about “paper and the digital” is the critique of transgressive replication . Rocker’s descriptive brick projects illustrates that this deference to familiarity far transcends issues of representation to actualities of design and construction.

We would be smart to give heed to McCluhan’s commentary , 46 years later, and “get on with it.” The problem, so deftly if not accidentally illustrated by this panel, is still the same now as it was then and is brilliantly illustrated by a Bob Dylan lyric in MASSAGE:
“Because something is happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?”

Source: Harvard GSD