Monthly Archives: September 2009

Book review: Digital Fabrications

The design and construction of architecture has progressed minimally since the early 20th century.  Architects and other designers created drawings representing the architecture in various two-dimensional views, sometimes clarifying the design with the aid of a three-dimensional scaled model.  The architecture, despite the level of customization implemented, typically required the use of standardized construction methodologies and off-the-shelf building materials.  The design and construction of our buildings have yet to evolve and embrace the use of three-dimensional design and fabrication that’s been used for creating almost every other technological advancement in society such as our phones, cars, planes, and even our shoes.

Digital Fabrications identifies and reveals more contemporary means for potentially constructing architecture based on the integration of digital design and digital fabrication.  The book focuses on design-build experimentation at a one-to-one scale, demonstrating how two-dimensional materials can be applied to create three-dimensional forms.  The digital fabrication techniques discussed in the book include sectioning, tessellating, folding, contouring, and forming.

Sectioning, the act of creating a three-dimensional form by connecting a skin (either actual or implied) over closely placed parallel ribs, has a long history in the construction of ships and airplanes.  Of course architecture is a static object compared to ships and planes, so the shape of a building is not nearly dependent on kinetic forces as much as the shape of a ship that cuts through waves and a plane needing to create enough lift to become airborne.  Digital Fabrications illustrates many projects including Digital Weave (University of California, Berkeley/Lisa Iwamoto) and [c]space (Alan Dempsey and Alvin Huang) where the utilitarian methods for sectioning provided a means for minimizing the amount of materials used and maximizing the strength of those materials, with the final result being a structure that’s elegant and fluid.

Tessellating, which aesthetically resembles a mosaic composition, is a collection of pieces that fit together without gaps to form a plane or surface.  To get a better visual of tessellating look at a soccer ball and see how the entire surface of the ball consists of pentagons (usually colored black) and hexagons (white).  By its very definition this method includes brick and stone walls, mosaics, stained glass – any surface consisting of smaller pieces.  The primary difference between historical and contemporary tessellating is that digital technologies give us the ability to create divergent doubly curved surfaces.  Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, created before computers, is a great example of a doubly curved surface but it’s also restricted to a uniform curvature based on the geometries of the smaller pieces.  Digital technologies allows for an architecture to consist of skewed planar and curved surfaces constructed of homogeneous parts.  Before computers a project like Helios House (Office dA and Johnson Marklee & Associates), because drawings and models would probably not be able to convey the exact measurements of certain angles and dimensions, would most likely require ad hoc design decisions at the construction site and its precision would be accidental at best.  The book illustrated many examples of the modulation of building materials being implemented by lesser known architects, and I was pleased that it did not include the more obvious examples by more well-known architects such as Gehry and Libeskind.

Folding, the simple act of turning a flat surface into a three-dimensional form, can be best described as an exercise in architectural origami.  The act of folding a material increases stiffness and rigidity, and in essence makes a surface more structural.  Of course the structural ability (including the elastic and plastic properties) for the surface relies greatly on the characteristics of the surface material.  The method of folding in and of itself is straightforward, but the examples from the book demonstrate projects that incorporate other methods such as tessellating and sectioning.

Contouring, unlike the other methods, is subtractive in nature.  This technique reshapes a surface and creates a three-dimensional relief by removing successive layers of materials.  But just like the other methods there are many historical examples of this method that include stone carvings and wood reliefs.  The method of contouring has not been fully embraced since the advent of the Industrial Revolution because the traditional practice of carving usually required more time and money than most mechanized processes.  Incorporating digital processes into the design and construction of contoured surfaces allows for a consistent form and quicker production, as well as control the type of texture on the surface.  Bone Wall (Urban A&O) is a great example of implementing contouring to create a highly complex and fluid form (2,592 control points, parametrically linked) constructed of detailed pieces of foam.  Contouring is inherently wasteful of material, and because of its subtractive quality it’s not conceivable to create an entire building by carving it out of a solid material.  What it does provide is the ability for creating unlimited types of physical and visual textures.

Forming is a ubiquitous method used for such things as packaging, cell phone, car bodies, and anything else made of plastic.  For architecture the method of forming usually was relegated to the use of concrete.  Digital technologies, as it relates to architecture, allows for the design of more intricate forms as well as the ability to better connect pieces created from multiple forms.  The examples in Digital Fabrications range from creating art to structural experiments.  The project that intrigued me most was the Virtual Model to Actual Construction (William Massie), a concrete wall that involved embedded CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled)-routed plywood ribs.  Massie used the digital method to question a standard construction practice for forming concrete and in the process began to develop a potentially new aesthetic for concrete.

The means by which these projects were realized are within the reach of many practicing architects and design students.  There are computer modeling programs that include commands that unroll a virtual curved surface (Rhinoceros) and turn a free-form surface into a collection of flat pieces for simple fabrication (Lamina Design and SolidWorks to name a couple).

Of course the computer gives architects an incredible resource for creating buildings, but the same can be said that these computer programs allow the ability to create something that merely looks cool rather than respond to programmatic, climatic, and other issues that inform how the architecture will be used.  Just because we as architects can crumple a piece of paper, scan the crumpled form into a computer, and calculate the structural loads upon a larger scaled version of the crumpled form doesn’t mean we should be creating a built environment consisting of abstract forms without purpose.

Because Digital Fabrications concentrated on the experimentation of these fabrication techniques and the processes of creating forms using these techniques, I didn’t feel that the book was just another architectural image catalog of abstract forms with descriptions encoded in archi-babble.  The book was written in a concise manner that was sufficiently descriptive and intelligently thought provoking.

The history of architectural design usually conveys advancements in construction technology.  The design and construction of our built environment has been long overdue for an evolutionary change that reflects our current digital technologies.  Lisa Iwamoto provides a glimpse into the future of architectural design and construction.  Digital Fabrications illustrates how architecture will embrace and thrive with computer technology.


What is an architect?

So what’s the difference between a licensed architect and an architect that doesn’t have a license?  In the world of architecture that’s a trick question – there is no such thing as an architect without a license.  The term “architect” (again, in the world of architecture) refers only to a person who has fulfilled all of the requirements to become a licensed architect.  If you’re anyone who has yet to attain that precious state-issued license then it’s forbidden for you to use the title “architect”.

Architect magazine has a great article concerning this very topic.  So if someone uses the term “architect” and does not hold a license within that state he or she is claiming to be an architect, then is that person breaking the law?  Yes, in the world of architecture – no, if you’re in the world of Information Technology.  Type in the term “architect” for any job search engine and over ninety percent of the jobs that come up relate to the IT world.  So if these computer geeks (and I use that term in the highest regard since I consider myself an architecture geek) are not breaking the law then why would someone running a business designing backyards be sued for using “architect”?

Apparently if you’re even remotely involved with the design or construction of anything relating to the built environment (such as buildings, sheds, birdhouses, setting up an umbrella) you are not allowed to use the term “architect”.  And of course since these licenses are issued by states a person who is licensed architect in Florida is not considered a licensed architect in California until he or she obtains a license from California.

Another misconception about architects is whether or not they are a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).  Most likely the only architect-related advertisement a person may see is one from the AIA touting how the only good architect is an AIA architect.  The AIA is a club that a person can buy into – it’s as simple as that.  Having a membership with the AIA does not mean that person is an architect.  A license is what a person earns after completing years of schooling, more years of apprenticeship, and a series of exams; a membership is what you buy when you open your checkbook.  I don’t mean to come across like I’m harping on the AIA, but there are people who prefer to buy into as many professional groups as they can to camouflage the fact that they don’t have a license.

This attention towards who is using the term “architect” is a double-edged sword.  I’ve worked with people who have incredible insight into the design and construction of buildings, but they don’t have a license.  I’ve also worked with people who use the title “architect” to impress people despite the fact that don’t have a license.  Going after people misrepresenting themselves as architects is an effort to protect the health and well-being of the general population.  But of course if anyone could refer to himself as an architect then why would anyone go through five or six years of college, five or so years with low pay working as an “intern” (the official term used for anyone in the process of obtaining a license – which in my humble opinion is degrading and humiliating), and pay over $1,000 for the Architectural Registration Exams?

So does someone who designs patios and determines the location of a water feature deserve to be sued for using the term “architect”?  If he uses the term “architect” and does not have a license, then yes, only because it’s the law.  Is it a law that needs to be revised?  Yes, and not only because some guy in Texas wants to improve his credentials by implying that he has the same design ability as a trained professional, but rather because the people who pursue the profession of architecture deserve more respect than the title “intern”.  From the outside the architectural profession may appear as greedy and arrogant for wanting a monopoly on the term “architect”, but speaking from experience the world of architecture should be more concerned with the issues degrading the profession from within rather than fining someone who sets up some patio furniture and calls it architecture.

“Green” burials in Colorado

I came across this article this morning about “green” burials at a cemetery in Fort Collins, Colorado, where it has devoted an acre to people wanting to be buried without being embalmed or being placed in a vault.  I love the quote about how this method of burial returns to the days or yore (at least back to the days of the early settlers in Colorado) where you wrapped up grandma in a blanket and buried her (presuming that she had already passed away before burying her).

I guess I never quite understood why anyone would want his or her remains to last for eons after passing away, unless of course your entombed body held the clue to a large treasure or contained hints as to the secrets of a popular religion (I’m looking right at you Knights Templar).  Whether you prefer the religious view of creation or the scientific view, the same idea goes for both – we were created from the small building blocks  of life, and thus we should probably return back to the same small building blocks of life after we pass away.

Like most “green” trends this may be just another way to charge a premium for receiving a service labeled as responsible and sustainable.  But at least at its core this method for burial refers back to this idea that most (if not all) of our approaches for living on this planet can be improved by understanding how nature solves our same problems.  (Here’s a previous article I wrote going back to the idea of how our problems can be potentially solved by nature.)

And isn’t the point of creating a sustainable environment for our society to create objects, things, buildings, and everything else so that when these items are no longer required they break down into small building blocks again to be reused as something else?  May everything we create follow the cycle of ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Urbanism in the middle of suburban sprawl (Phoenix style)

I’m always amazed at how much Phoenix changes every time I go back.  I lived in Phoenix for seven years in the ’90’s, when essentially there were three highways dissecting the Valley of the Sun.  I’ve gone back maybe about once every two years or so, and each of those trips back revealed another thirty miles of highways and another fifty square miles of development.  I became numb to the endless suburban sprawl and how it consumed the beautiful desert landscape.

Last week I was visiting family in Phoenix when I noticed a glimpse of urbanity – a light rail.  When I attended Arizona State I remembered a guest speaker in my urban design class that profusely denied that Phoenix had the ability to support a mass transit system based on a light rail train.  He argued that the city was too sparsely populated and that there was an inefficient number of destinations that would warrant people taking the train.

He was definitely right about the population.  If you think of the population like peanut butter, most established metropolitan areas are like crunchy peanut butter – the nuts represent high density nodes where a large population either live or congregate, and the rest of the peanut butter is the sparse population consisting strip malls and single-family homes.  The peanut butter that is Phoenix would be nearly as smooth as smooth can be.  Actually there might be a couple of smaller nuts representing downtown, Sky Harbor Airport, and Arizona State University.  Outside of that there are no peanuts.

But the point that guest speaker missed entirely was that a funny thing happens when you build a light rail station – people (i.e. developers) build more dense properties.  Most people want to live somewhere with some kind of amenities, and living a few hundred feet from a light rail station allows those residents access to many more of the things they want access to in life.

Of course what good is a light rail unless it goes somewhere, and Phoenix has for the most part succeeded with connecting the dots with most of their peanuts.  The one line of the Valley Metro connects to downtown (a new and improved pedestrianized downtown) and the stadiums and museums, Sky Harbor (something I really wished Denver had done in providing a light rail to DIA), and Arizona State University (with the main campus having around 50k+ students).

What the light rail does provide is the potential of creating more urbanized communities within the metropolitan, and with it comes a more humane pedestrian environment that essentially becomes less dependent on the necessities of an automobile oriented society – such as the costs associated with owning a car and the necessary parking needed; the pollution created by a car in a stop-and-go urban environment; the thinning of civic services such as police and fire protection, and water and sanitation utilities, and the construction and maintenance of roads; and the wasted time and road rage involved with driving with morons (people who drive slower than you) and maniacs (people who drive faster than you).

It was a pleasant surprise to see a sense of urbanism taking hold within the Valley of the Sun.  Something as simple as a light rail station has the ability to spawn an urban environment from an otherwise typical shopping center parking lot.

Of course building a light rail within your community is not the end all fix to everything that’s wrong with the American suburban environment , but I have witnessed that an urban environment is possible in your community, no matter how many peanuts your city has.