About a century ago, the modernist architect and theorist Adolf Loos declared that applied ornament was a retrograde, even criminal, waste of labor. Smooth, white stucco exteriors and plaster interiors became the signature of progressive modernity and architectural honesty. Fast forward to today and plain planes of drywall have become the ubiquitous void of architectural imagination, say the research collaborators at Ann Arbor, Mich.–based Archolab: “Fully industrialized modern architecture tends to produce homogeneous flatness. This flatness is literally coded into our built environment, which is covered in a 5/8-inch film of fire-rated gypsum wall board.” Undeterred by the lack of interior ornament today, Archolab wondered whether the wall could once again become an architectural surface modulated by thickness, texture, and decorative form, as in a Borromini chapel or Adams brothers salon. It found a solution in the very medium that drywall usurped: plaster.
Archolab evinces that plaster is still a vital, “proto-synthetic architectural material” about 10,000 years after it first came to being. After all, it possesses four “synthetic” qualities. First, it is compositionally synthetic, comprising a variable mixture of gypsum, lime, and water. Second, it is formally synthetic, with the capacity to assume a range of effects at different scales. Third, it is pedagogically synthetic, having once played an important role in the education of architects. And finally, plaster is operatively synthetic, malleable to tools as it cures from a liquid paste into a solid.
Instead of requiring craftsmen to toil for hours or even days at pasting and chiseling plaster—an expense that project budgets today wouldn’t hesitate to nix—Archolab developed a novel suite of fabrication techniques that leverage modern-day technology. It built and outfitted a 9-foot articulated robotic arm with CNC precision tools that apply plaster with unparalleled precision, flexibility, and speed.
Unlike the machine-stamped ornament of the 19th century that attempted to mimic handmade ornament, Archolab’s Morphfaux project examines the potential of digital fabrication technology for new uses of plaster wall ornament in our time. It is therefore not a false copy (faux), but rather a bid to expand the possibilities of iterative morphology. “No one has the skill level to do plasterwork by hand anymore,” said juror Bill Zahner. “This new application methodology has actually taken the old world and gone beyond.”
Baroque masters would be taken aback by the robot’s unorthodox techniques. Forget fixed rails and simple extrusions: The robot can loop a serpentine, “variable running mold” across a slatted wood lath substrate similar to giant calligraphy. Another tool in its figurative belt is a customized wire saw that can slice large nesting blocks from a mass of wet plaster in any direction, creating wall tiles with unique surface topologies without any waste.
The creative retooling of a standard robotic arm for plaster manipulation fascinated juror Lawrence Scarpa. “The robotic wire sword put on the robot head … looks like something out of a sci-fi movie,” he said. “It’s a blend of 1850 and 2050.” Scarpa was also taken by Archolab’s use of “an old school idea but with robotics … bringing the lost craft back with new technology.”
Lest the few remaining plaster masters fear their livelihood is at stake, Archolab collaborators Steven Mankouche, Joshua Bard, and Matthew Schulte—all University of Michigan instructors while researching the project (Bard is now a professor at Carnegie Mellon University)—intend to “augment human labor,” not eliminate it, and to “illustrate a symbiotic relationship between the human body and the digital arm.” The robot, which runs along a floor track, is only as brilliant as the imagination and commands of its programmers. Archolab anticipates developing additional CNC tools in line with the traditional processes of plaster craft, such as mixing, molding, profiling, sectioning, and carving. “Custom tools provided a constellation of operations activated through the open-ended platform of robotic motion,” Archolab says.
If Archolab succeeds at making three-dimensional and detailed plasterwork more commonplace, perhaps interior ornament will seem less out of place in modern architecture. The researchers invoke the legacy of Louis Sullivan, whose biological dictum, “form follows function,” was used by a subsequent generation of modernists not to promote organic ornament—which Sullivan did employ—but to justify its very absence. “Sullivan,” Archolab collaborators charge, “failed to remind us, or to predict, that form often follows industry specifications driven largely by the availability of cheap materials and optimized manufacturing.”
Archolab’s attempts to renew and broaden the possibilities of the age-old craft of plasterwork in a culture accustomed to mass production are thus not retrogade, but rather renegade.
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Note: This article has been changed since publication to indicate Joshua Bard has since become a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and that the photograph below showing Bard, Steven Mankouche, and the robotic arm using the variable profiler tool was taken at Carnegie Mellon's Digital Fabrication Lab.
Design Firm Archolab, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Primary Investigators Steven Mankouche, Joshua Bard, Matthew Schulte
Project Team Claire Sheridan, Michael Senkow, Andrew Thompson, Richard Tursky, Jono Sturt, Robert Yuen, Efrie Frieldander
Consultants University of Michigan College of Engineering, Ann Arbor, Mich.—Edwin Olson; Spider Technologies, Ann Arbor, Mich.—Gary Schultz; SuperMatter Tools, Sydney and Boston—Wes McGee; Hofmann Plastering, Saline, Mich.
Special Thanks Jonathan Puff, Abigail Murray, and the Carnegie Museum of Art | Hall of Architecture; USG Corp.
Funding Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, Research Through Making Grant, 2011; University of Michigan’s office of the vice president for research Small Projects Grant, 2011