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.

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