A Technology Infused Process

By: Stefan Burnett | BSA '17

Technology is a constantly evolving entity that promises to improve medicine, communication, infrastructure, and more. It is widely seen as a positive influence on a variety of industries, but often architecture is the exception. Within architecture, technology is met with apprehension, despite its benefits for innovation. BIM Modeling provides the opportunity for easy work-sharing between different fields of design and construction, but also has its design setbacks. Architects’ reluctance to adopt this technology is that the software itself limits the design thinking necessary to execute the best design possible. The tool begins to make some decisions for designers based on defaults and preset settings. There is also a false sense of representation that stems from digital visualization. The ability to create hyper-realistic renderings that may not reflect the finished product brings about a degree of distrust from clients.

 An example of the Guastavino tile-arch-system in the ceiling of the Boston Public Library Central Branch in Copley Square

An example of the Guastavino tile-arch-system in the ceiling of the Boston Public Library Central Branch in Copley Square

Through parametric design and digital fabrication, we are able to alter our processes to reflect smarter and more innovative designs.  A combination of historical construction and material techniques with technological advancements and material enhancements open up new possibilities for architecture. This is best seen at a small scale in projects such as the collaboration between Lord Norman Foster, of Foster + Partners, John Ochsendorf’s structural engineering consulting firm ODB Engineering, and MIT graduates Matthew DeJong SM ’05, PhD ’09 and Philippe Block SM ’05, PhD ’09 that looks to create a system which relies on as little labor and imported materials as possible. The project, called Droneport, implements drone technology to execute Rafael Gustavino's early-twentieth century tile-arch, vault construction method. This solves the problem of creating complex double-curved surfaces that are structural in nature, as seen in his work in the Boston Public Library. This method is rather difficult to implement because of its high labor costs and material waste. If perfected and widely implemented, the Droneport system has the power to more easily translate complex design decisions into feasible construction methods. The Cristo Obrero Church is a design from 1952 that uses the technology of it’s time to build extraordinarily complex geometries. Eladio Dieste challenges the expected behavior of brick in the rolling surfaces of the roof and walls, producing a feeling of instability. This combination of material language and technology contributes to the higher power that the church is supposed to convey by creating an atmospheric quality. Eladio Dieste utilized this design method as early as the mid-twentieth century. The resources and technology of that time were limited, relative to now, so the structural feat of this project implies that we are underestimating and underutilizing the advanced technology available to us today.The Droneport takes Dieste’s idea and also implements a new, technology innovative process.

 The robotic arm is used for a complex brick-laying assembly

The robotic arm is used for a complex brick-laying assembly

As the cost of technology continues to decrease, these techniques are becoming more accessible. Our newly acquired robotic arm, in the Wentworth Architecture Department’s Center for Applied Research, is an example of newly-accessible technology due to falling costs. This also applies to construction techniques and material properties. Increased accessibility creates opportunities for experimentation and a framework for more advanced research. Integrating these tools and methods within a design process is exciting, and studying these tools helps build that particular framework. Dylan Bush, Jason Hasko, William Toohey III, and I developed tools and a process for bricklaying using the robotic arm. Creating a tool and understanding the process it can affect within architecture became the start of our investigation. Our investigations lead us to testing complex curve surface mapping, image mapping, and rotational properties of the material. Video animations, and programs such as Autodesk Maya are another great tool on the cutting-edge of architectural innovation today. They can be used to accurately represent walkthroughs, assemblies, and more. In our current studio, Artem Batuyev and I have mocked up existing Terra-cotta assemblies to see the system’s process of aggregation. This process gives us a better understanding of the successes and failures of the system. Improving characteristics of the facade system can really be challenged through the depth of information that the animation provides, as is the case with the robotic arm.  Seeing the materials’ flaws and limitations is just one possibility provided by this technology. Most importantly, however, is that it allows for multiple iterations. Process, history, material, and technology all become integrated, providing new means of construction and representation. The use of these tools within our curriculum ultimately can lead to research and results like the Droneport, and help develop architecture just as the Cristo Obrero Church accomplished.