How Technology Is Changing Architecture

Robotic Research Facility at ETH, Zurich 2010. Robotically controlled hot-wire cutting of Styrofoam blocks

Technology is changing architecture. The world of computational design means architects are pursing new frontiers where architecture can be generated through the writing of algorithms and software, where interactive physical mechanisms can be built that respond to their environment, adapting and evolving as necessary.

Smartgeometryan organization founded ten years ago by architects Hugh Whitehead, Lars Hesselgren, and J Parrish to discuss how digital tools and computational techniques are affecting architecturewill explore these methods and ideas in an intense four-day workshop, which starts next Monday.

At the workshops designers form think tanks, or "clusters", that look at an experimental theme, and participants take an active role designing and problem solving, investigating these themes and developing relevant projects. Following the workshops, two days of conferences invite relevant speakers from allied fields which aim to look forward to future ideas. Below are a few examples of some projects that came out of previous events.

Interactive and Responsive Architecture

The physical setup for the immersive design environment links multiple projectors, infrared motion sensors, and visualization and analysis softwareImage courtesy of Bess Krietemeyer/Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology (CASE)

Kinect motion sensors and overlaps with individual pattern designs create emergent visual effects. The left shows a viewing ‘portal’ as it tracks a participant and opens for views locally and on the right how the bioresponsive building envelope blends a dynamic pattern and unique user interaction. Photo courtesy of Michael Villardi

In recent years, workshop participants have expanded beyond developing design software and have begun developing interactive hardware. The "Bioresponsive Building Envelopes" cluster at Smartgeometry 2012 in Rensselaer, New York developed a unique computational approach to designing interactive facades. 

Using Kinects, projectors, and custom software the team created an interactive design system that generated building facade designs that could "actively reconfigure their basic patterns to respond to fluctuating bioclimatic flows while simultaneously adjusting to the changing visual desires of its occupants." Based on newly developed thin-film electropolymeric display systems for glazing, movable patterns were created that essentially took the form of an animated, programmable frit.

Digital Fabrication

Screenshot of catenary arch prototype

Catenary arches

While the focus of Smartgeometry is on digital tools and design, increasingly hardware is being used including electronics, robotics, sensing, and a range of fabrication machines. The linking of computational design to computational manufacture is redefining the practice of architecture. 

The “Explicit Bricks” cluster at Smartgeometry 2010 in Barcelona, Spain used an industrial robot, developed a custom hot-wire cutting process, and designed a constructive system of uniquely-formed blocks. This was used to create complex catenary arches held together only through the weight and geometry of the blocks themselves. The workshop revealed the complexities that arise in assembling constructions that consist of a large amount of unique individual parts.

Simulation and Design

The “Agent Construction” cluster at Smartgeometry 2011 in Copenhagen, Denmark developed new design techniques that incorporated material properties, energy flows, and structural performance with an agent-based simulation system. The group explored a bottom-up approach to construction where rules guided the assembly of the structure.

Custom software analysed the emerging structure, simulated alternative rules, and applied these to evolve the construction. Through the adoption of simulation technologies and the creation of linked design tools, the abilities of the architect are extended.

Smartgeometry 2013 will be held in London, UK, from the 15 April - 20 April, hosted by the Bartlett School of Architecture.