ACADIA 2019 showcased the state of digital design

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Presentations and activities at this year’s ACADIA (Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture) conference gave attendees insight into potentially disruptive technologies and workflows for computational architectural production. The conference was held this year in Austin from October 24-26 and was organized by University of Texas School of Architecture faculty members Kory Bieg, Danelle Briscoe and Clay Odom.

The organizers have brought together papers, workshops and projects addressing the theme of “ubiquity and autonomy” in computing. Contributors reflected on the state of architectural production, in which digital tools and methodologies developed in the boutique, specialized settings on the fringes of the profession a generation ago are now commonplace in architectural offices – while that at the same time, new forms of specialized computing are emerging from practices that could themselves quickly become mainstream.

As each participant struggled to position themselves within the cyclical and ever-changing framework of technology inheritance and transfer, the most encouraging efforts can be described in three categories: expansions, subversions, and total disruptions of the IT status quo. Expansionists have claimed new technological territories, enlisting emerging and peripheral technologies for their purposes. Subverters sampled the work and scrambled the workflows of their predecessors, configuring new hardware applications in the process. Disruptors have actively sought to break the techno-positivist cycle, challenging the assumptions, ethics and values ​​of previous generations to leverage computational design and digital processes to advance pressing political, economic and ecological agendas. and premonitions.

Attendees crammed into the airy presentation room. (Danelle Briscoe)

Expansionists have appropriated advanced technologies, or those newly introduced to the discipline, to establish new grounds in design and construction. The conference was the first of its kind to host a session dedicated to the use of Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) in design. This machine learning system opposes two forms of artificial intelligence: one acts as the creative “artist”, generating all possible solutions to a given task, while the other acts as the “critic”, editing and selectively organizing the most appropriate responses. After training the networks on the archive of architectural imagery, the panelists had the GANs work on evaluative and generative design tasks, alternately generating passably authentic floor plans, building envelopes, and reconstructed streetscapes. . The workshop sessions, facilitated by a suite of IT research teams from multiple architecture firms, demonstrated the possibilities of adopting emerging technologies with familiar platforms, adopting and adapting tools like Fologram and Hololens to more familiar software platforms and manufacturing methods.

The subversives, familiar with the expected uses and applications of given tools, would offer intentionally contradictory alternatives, bypass established workflows, and celebrate the unintended consequences of enhanced digital platforms. A project by MIT researchers Lavender Tessmer, Yijiang Huang and Caitlin Mueller titled “Additive Casting of Mass-Customizable Brick” is a good example subverters polling approach to workflows, using precision equipment for a low-fidelity effect. Since the current state of the art in custom concrete formwork uses costly and time-consuming workflows to load CNC routers or robotic milling arms, the MIT project is an essential alternative. Instead of shaping the mould, the project mobilizes the mould, making a wide variety of sculptural concrete “bricks” using standard cylindrical shapes manipulated by a robotic arm, while taking advantage of liquid concrete’s ability to s self-leveling. Molds are moved to preset positions as the concrete cures, allowing sequential states of self-leveling concrete to intersect in complex geometries. The process is surprisingly fun to watch, as the robot controls seven molds simultaneously like a beater with a battery. The unexpected combination of high and low technology recalibrates the possibilities of the robotic device.

Other researchers have swapped expected materials to produce unexpected results. Vasily Sitnikov (KTH) and Peter Eigenraam (TU Delft) have teamed up with BuroHappold to produce IceFormwork, a project that uses crushed blocks of ice as improbable shapes to cast high performance fiber reinforced concrete. Ice, according to the team, is a preferred and environmentally neutral alternative to industry-standard EPS foam molds, which produce a large amount of waste. The team demonstrated that the ice cream molds are quite easy to make (with the help of a reliable water source and a reused refrigerated ISO container). Airborne particles from the ice crushing process are harmless water vapor, unlike hazardous foam dust which requires ventilation equipment and other protective measures. When it comes to unmolding, the ice can simply be left outside to melt.

A concrete panel held in a steel frame
“IceFormwork for
Cast HPFRC Elements” (Vasily Sitnikov, Peter Eigenraam, Panagiotis Papanastasis, Stephan Wassermann-Fry)

While these investigations have presented new ways to hack the assembly process of cast building elements, their choice of concrete as the material contradicts a growing consensus in panels; that designers should actively seek alternatives to the overabundance of concrete in the construction industry, given the high environmental cost and high carbon footprint of making concrete in the context of an increasing global shortage of sand accelerated. Daniela Mitterberger and Tiziano Derme (MAEID/University of Innsbruck) proposed one of the most radical alternatives with their “Soil 3D Printing” project. The team uses hydrogels – non-toxic, biodegradable adhesives – as binding agents injected into loose soil, to form alien landscapes of networked earthen structures that hint at a near future where biocompatible organic additive manufacturing processes restructure geotechnical landscapes and planetary geology.

Disruptor provocations – which radically reorient IT tools beyond perceived disciplinary constraints – have raised deep questions about the potential of design technologies to enable and implement greater societal transformations by aligning global supply chains , material economies and non-human constituencies squarely in their sights.

Jose Sanchez (Plethora Project/Bloom Games/USC), in his presentation upon accepting the Innovative Research Award, showcased his work leveraging computation and game design to examine and transform critical economic and ecological realities. Sanchez has developed a series of game environments that require players to navigate the thorny issues of contemporary cities, confronting the complexities, contradictions, and paradoxes of urbanization, logistics, and manufacturing. Sanchez described the continued emphasis in his work on efforts to “optimize for the many” – as opposed to the few – in a time of heightened economic inequality, reassessing the predominant use of digital technologies in decades to enable complex mass-custom assemblies. Sanchez, in his own work and in projects like Bloom with Alisa Andrasek (Biothing/Bloom Games/RMIT), has explored the potential of digital technologies to disrupt mass production models through the high-volume production of “discrete” serialized and standardized. architectural components.

People in VR headsets interacting with wooden structures
Augmented reality was just one of the technologies that conference attendees could interact with. Seen here was the workshop “From Design to Manufacturing: A Critical Look at Interactive Visualization and Automation in Construction”. (Erick Vernon-Galindo)

Along the same lines, Gilles Retsin (UCL/Bartlett) argued for a reconsideration of work practices and the interwoven digital economies implicitly supported by a construction industry that has yet to accept automation. By focusing on the ability of digital tools to combat wasted materials, Retsin explained, a generation of digitally savvy architects overlooked the potential of automation to combat wasted labor. . Through speculative research and small projects, Retsin hopes to disrupt the building industry, increasing the ability of architects to design and implement new platforms for building projects that can combat exploitative practices. .

While expansionists pointed to where to look for the next big breakthrough, subversives demonstrated how existing tools could be used differently. Disruptors were among the few to ask – and answer – why.

Stephen Mueller is a founding partner of AGENCY and Assistant Research Professor at Texas Tech University College of Architecture in El Paso.

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