If anyone has picked up and run with the legacy of Frei Otto at the University of Stuttgart, it is Achim Menges, Head of Computational Design there. Sophie Lovell talked to him about his work in computation, biology and the "cyber-physical" – as well as, of course, about Frei.
You’ve been at the Institute for Computational Design at the University of Stuttgart since 2008. Can you tell me about Frei Otto’s influence on your research areas of biomimetic engineering and computer-aided manufacturing there?
The work Otto conducted here still has a profound influence in various ways. The main impact on our approach is how he questioned established models of design with his radical revision of the design process through what he called form-finding methods. This is something that we try to extend into the computational realm. He was a pioneer in questioning design approaches that have been around since the Renaissance, which have a strong focus on representational techniques and their related notational formats, such as geometry. His was a precedent for a material-oriented design approach, where materials are not passive receptors of a pre-designed form but are generative drivers in the design process.
Also very important was his design methodology. For example, with his soap bubbles he tried to find an equilibrium condition between external boundary conditions and internal force distribution. It was a design tool that he also occasionally managed to extend towards construction technology. The best example is his Multihalle in Mannheim, where the form-finding took place on site as a kind of construction process employing the elasticity of the material to find a particular form.
Why did you choose to go to Stuttgart after being at the AA in London? What is so special about Stuttgart in your view?
I’ve always been very intrigued by this place, probably more than by most other German architecture schools, which is largely because of the work Otto did here. It’s not only his presence, but also the way he managed to induce a multidisciplinary design culture across the school. This was a tremendous accomplishment and it is, in my eyes, still very unique in a German university landscape to have designers from the architectural field working together with structural engineers, natural scientists, material scientists and production engineers.
Is that still the case? Werner Sobek told me how there was this golden age in Stuttgart when Otto was there, when basically he could get loads of funding for research and never had to teach.
I would hope that there is always an opportunity for radical rethinking wherever you are. But I do agree there are certain moments in time that may be more open for that, and generally the late 1960s were a time when you could question established models of thinking in any regard. The university landscape, the expectations of students, the funding opportunities and the political realities have changed dramatically since then, so radical ideas may be less popular and visible today. But on the other hand, if one really wants to pursue this line of research of rethinking the design process and can make a convincing case that it could push the discipline forward, this is still very much possible today.
Another thing I really appreciate also about the University of Stuttgart is that it’s situated within the heartland of German engineering culture. I’m not only talking about structural engineering, but also about production engineering and manufacturing. We find a lot of support comes not only from within the research and academic system, but also from industrial partners. What may be unique to this area is that industry sees the necessity to remain innovative, especially because the industry in the south of Germany cannot compete on price but only on innovation and quality.
Otto’s main goal was to achieve lightweight structures, focusing on the synthesis of forms in nature. How much is that true for your work today?
We try to situate our research in the contemporary context of design computation, simulation and robotic fabrication, which is radically different from Otto’s context, but I think our goals are not so dissimilar in that we are also trying to minimise the impacts of architecture on resource consumption. Of course, this is a kind of omnipresent, ubiquitous ambition in architecture; but what we try to do is to show that resource efficiency is not necessarily opposed to architectural expression and innovation, as new technology can allow a novel convergence between architectural performativity and resource performance. In that sense, on the overarching level, our ambitions may be quite similar to Otto’s.
Biology is a key part of that for you, isn’t it?
Yes, biology is a critical component because it allows us to rethink established practices and technological principles in architecture. Often we see that biological processes and structures operate in an initially counterintuitive manner, which means that very different principles govern the performance of those biological systems than those that we know from the history of technology and architecture. Biology is a kind of vehicle for lateral thinking.
But biology doesn’t necessarily begin with maximum material efficiency; it’s more a constant adaptation to what’s there already. After a few millennia a frog, maybe, has had to adapt to more dry or wet conditions, but with the basic building materials of a frog.
We don’t look at nature as something that is especially efficient, because all natural systems have what biologists call a phylogenetic baggage – they come with their own set of constraints on how they can operate and respond to environmental influences – but natural systems are always very effective and very adaptive, with a high level of specific differentiation. In nature everything is varied and calibrated in response to heterogeneous influences. This is something that we can now implement in the structures we make.
So are we still in the early days of developing this approach to architecture, design and construction that will someday be ubiquitous? What kind of buildings, habitations or shelters do you think we’re working towards?
This is a grand question, and we are trying to tackle it step by step. In the short term, what we want to transfer into the realm of the built environment are the natural principles of differentiation and adaptability with a very resource-effective approach, which we can moderate through computation and advances in fabrication.
With the introduction of so-called “cyber-physical” production systems in manufacturing, the distinction between the digital and the physical has eroded, and therefore in the long-term the difference between the processes of design and making will ultimately converge. This most likely means that buildings will never reach a final stage of conclusion. With this kind of cyber-physical production system, one could imagine that at least parts of a building system could remain under construction during the entire life span of the building, allowing it to adapt to the environment.
Are you implying that buildings will be able to grow and adapt like organisms?
A number of research groups are pursuing a biotechnological or synthetic biology approach to architecture. I’m less convinced of that. I do think that we may have technological systems with the ability to constantly adapt and respond, but still within the realm of what would probably be called a technological system. What I see eroding is not necessarily the division between machine and organism, but the strict divisions between design, construction and inhabitation.
For Otto, building model experiments was most important. But translating these experiments into larger buildings with a longer lifetime that need to be safe for a large number of people is something else. Do you also see that as your task? Say you got asked to build an Olympic Stadium for the next Olympics, would you see that as part of your role?
Comprehensive architecture is definitely something that we would like to pursue. On the other hand, one needs to be very careful not to prematurely kill a new approach by throwing all the challenges onto it that actual architecture struggles to fulfil. Innovation in the building sector is actually very slow. My favourite example is steel-reinforced concrete. Though it was patented in the late 1860s, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that it was used in a way that didn’t mimic another, already existing, building material.
Otto understood the importance of nurturing thoughts to the point that they can reach a larger impact. In my view, this is one of the reasons why, towards the later part of his career, he focused primarily on research and not implementation. There needs to be an arena in which thoughts can be developed to address the future of architecture and not only the problems that I have on my desk this afternoon.
Some people have criticised Otto for not building any more buildings. So you don’t see that as a bad thing?
I was personally touched by the fact that Otto got the Pritzker Prize, and one reason is that, for all the buildings that are now mentioned in the context of the award, there was an architect, a structural engineer, and Otto. I think it is pretty amazing that Otto’s influence on the larger field of architecture through these buildings, for which there were actually other architects and engineers, is recognised. This alludes to a repositioning of the discipline, where arguably the biggest award is given to someone for his impact on the discipline rather than for calling himself an architect. Even if he rarely built architecture stemming only from his very own design, his research can have as much importance and relevance for architecture as producing yet another building.
– Interview by Sophie Lovell
– Achim Menges (b. 1975) is a graduate of the AA School of Architecture in London. After teaching there and at the HfG Offenbach School of Architecture and Design, he went on to found and head the Institute for Computational Design (ICD) at the University of Stuttgart in 2008. Menges’ practice and research focuses on the development of integral design processes at the intersection of morphogenetic design computation, biomimetic engineering and computer-aided manufacturing. Each year, since 2010, his students collaborate with those of Jan Knippers’ Institute of Building Structures and Strucural Design (ITKE), pooling their interdisciplinary talents to to create full-sized “Research Pavilions” on the university campus that blend bionics with computer-aided manufacturing.
Read more on the "Stuttgart Boys" in uncube issue no.33 Frei Otto.