At this year’s Fabricate conference in Zurich, subjects as weighty as the future of Aristotelian science and the economics of industrial manufacturing were mixed with some weird and wonderful research, all looking to predict the future of “the decisive role of making in architecture”. uncube was a media partner of the conference, and Rob Wilson went along to divine the future of fabrication.
Three years on from its London debut, this second Fabricate conference focused on “the decisive role of making in architecture” – a hot topic given fast-moving developments in digital fabrication and construction technologies. It was a heady mix of sometimes-visceral current research into materials and fabrication techniques, set against the bigger “paradigm shift” of the digital (although this phrase became a bit worn at the edges from overuse by the end of the two days). The research, ranging across game theory, silk worms, lobster cuticles and the cheese-coating of models, inevitably returned again and again to the use of robots and 3D (and now “4D”) printing, but the cultural, societal and economic implications of massive big data computation possibilities were also contextualised.
In particular this bigger picture was provided by two keynotes bookending the conference: Mario Carpo, Professor of Architectural History at Yale, gave a thought-provoking talk questioning the Aristotelian tenets of Western science, and Neil Gershenfeld, Professor of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms’ led a barn-storming, whistle-stop historical tour of digital manufacturing. Carpo set the ball rolling by considering architectural aesthetics – why current digitally produced architectures are so hoary and intricate (star witness later in the conference being the intricate printed forms presented by Benjamin Dillenburger), compared with the sinuous blobs of the 90s produced by architects such as Greg Lynn. This tendency was memorably described by Bob Sheil, the first Fabricate co-chair, as “the Botox of the Digital”.
Carpo attributed this change to the growth in sheer data-crunching power, which allows all complexities of form to be modelled – and connected this to the bigger picture: a developing “search, don’t sort” Google-mentality in our approach to information. Framing this as a major shift from the Western scientific model based on classification, originating with Aristotle, he illustrated it nicely by comparing a traditional library’s organisation with that of an Amazon warehouse where books are no longer stored by subject but by frequency of sale.
This set off a slight subtext of quantity over quality over the course of the conference, that occasionally came into focus during the often weird and wonderful, but at times slightly woolly research presented over the next two days – resulting a sense of “we’re trying this experiment out just because we can”. But things kicked off when looking at on-site practice more than pure research, with presentations focused on recent projects, such as Rogers Stirk Harbour’s 225-metre Leadenhall Building in London, where the role of digital milling was key in forming each of its vast steel members. The trend of specific tailoring and production was picked up in the afternoon session with more speculative, temporary projects such as Alex Haw’s extraordinary tree-form, Mobile Orchard, or the participatory Bloom, developed by Jose Sanchez for the 2012 Olympics. Bloom was inspired by game mechanics, with French-curve-like pink building units designed for assembly by a crowd-sourced public labour-force. These new economics of production and personalisation were summarised in the end-of-day discussion by Philip Ursprung, proposing that perhaps, for the first time since the industrial revolution, the machine and craft are finally no longer enemies.
The second day was more concentrated on material conditions and behaviour – observing and learning from nature and natural processes, and not just via formal or mechanical mimickry. This incorporation of biology was convincingly demonstrated in Achim Menges’ keynote where he showed the research his Institute of Computational Design is conducting in Stuttgart. This has culminated, by way of analysing lobster carapaces and pine cones, in projects such as his 2012 Hygroscope pavilion in Paris, akin to an anemone, whose orifices open and close depending on humidity levels.
Presentations incorporating 3D robots and printing were the sexiest. The most striking of these demonstration was the so-called anti-gravity additive manufacturing of the Joris Laarman Lab, with its linear-extrusion of resin and metal by robotic arms. Flying robots also featured in Ammar Mirjan’s presentation, loosely weaving threads into a structural mesh – underlying how research is now focussed less on robots that lay blocks and more on those that can form and weave linear structural elements.
But where is this all leading? What is the use value and economic potential of this research, and can it be converted into practical building systems? Neil Gershenfeld, in the final keynote, attempted to provide a perspective on this. The founder of Fab Labs, a global network of localised digital fabrication facilities, Gershenfeld has a slight air of religious guru. He used the parallel of the internet to explain that, whilst we might not exactly see the business case yet, we are now at the critical lift-off stage for digital manufacture – the same stage digital communication was at 40 years ago. Inventions like the 3D printer, he explained, are like the microwave was in the 1950s, a wonder-invention billed first as only a useful adjunct rather than a replacement for other forms of cooking. The way forward he suggested was not in the current unsustainable 3D printing of monolithic forms, but in 4D assembly. The next generation of 4D printers will contain embedded intelligence, building objects that can disassemble and recycle themselves when no longer needed.
This seductive vision of where we are going was a nice one to close with, even though key issues remained hanging, such as the fascinating moral grey-area raised about potential new forms of slavery arising from the sophistication of replicant-type machines to do our dirty work (or even crowd-sourced free labour!) And the future of architecture as opposed to that of manufacturing? The conference offered few guides, since many of the techniques mimicked not only nature but architecture too, rather than making real buildings yet. But hey, this offers a good cue for a Fabricate 3 in three years’ time....
– Rob Wilson