“I used to ban using computers in the office,” Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, told an overbooked audience recently at the University of Southern California before clicking through dozens of slides showing spaceship-smooth renderings of her firm’s on-the-board projects. “Computing adds another layer to the work,” she said.
It was an unexpected, almost absurd confession: that the director of one of the world’s most successful and innovative architecture firms—one that has grown to prominence on the back of sleek, obviously computer-enabled designs and vaunted parametricism—would be run by a pencil-and-paper, digital detractor.
Adding to the absurdity was the fact that Hadid was giving the keynote at the 2014 conference of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA), a group for which the idea of computers adding “another layer to the work” would be an extreme understatement. If the rise of computers in architecture seemed inevitable, it’s partly because of the ways ACADIA members have applied computers and code to design. Indeed, over its dense lineup of events from Oct. 23 to 25, the conference was a thorough argument that the computer has evolved from an everyday tool to an integral, inseparable part of architecture.
Or at least it’s getting there. ACADIA members and the approximately 550 conference attendees may be early adopters, but they make a convincing case for how the future of architecture will depend on more thoughtful and consistent use of computational environments. And that goes beyond updating your BIM suite or taking a Rhino tutorial. The future that computers have in architecture will be about design, certainly, but they will also be heavily involved in the development of new materials and methods of fabrication. Architects will soon need to be computer programmers, material scientists, and structural engineers as well. Some already are.
Many conference presenters showed both their built work and the fabrication processes behind the materials that compose their creations. Kristof Crolla, founding partner at the Laboratory for Explorative Architecture and Design and an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Nicholas Williams, a research associate at RMIT University’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory, in Melbourne, Australia, presented their research project Smart Nodes, a system of customizable 3D printed metal connection nodes for structural frames. Printing each node to its distinct form allows for more flexibility in the structure’s shape and can reduce the structure’s dead load by 20 to 30 percent.
A new system of wood joinery modeled after plastic snap-fit joints was presented by Yves Weinand and Christopher Robeller, an associate professor of civil engineering and doctoral assistant, respectively, at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and Paul Mayencourt, a civil engineering graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Flexible, tong-like forms are CNC-milled into wood panels, allowing for easy insertion into custom-cut holes, creating a hardware- and adhesive-free approach to construction.
Justin Diles, an assistant professor of architecture at the Ohio State University, presented Plastic Stereotomy, his exploration of the use of molded, hollow, interlocking fiber-reinforced plastic forms that have a high structural integrity. This project—a modern, plastic-based masonry construction technique of fitting shapes together—was also named winner of the 2014 Tex-Fab international digital fabrication competition at ACADIA. (Read more about Diles’ project and the other Tex-Fab finalists here.)
Other experimental projects similarly explored using new or modified materials to reduce cost, construction time, weight, and the overall amount of stuff needed to build. The environmental and economic implications are easy to appreciate. But new issues arise when everything can be 3D printed and joints are custom-made for a one-off implementation. For example, what happens when a part needs to be replaced 20 years later? Can materials in these highly customized buildings be recycled down the line? Or, to paraphrase Autodesk technology futurist Jordan Brandt’s question, “What will happen to construction and building standards when everything is a custom material or component?”
These issues may seem far on the horizon, but the pilot projects and speculative materials being explored at ACADIA will likely begin popping up in the built environment, whether in bio-inspired roof forms that harvest water from fog, or in the semi-autonomous building components being developed at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab.
In the meantime, architects will need to embrace the power of computing and programming to help the profession evolve. But, as many ACADIA presenters noted, not all staff members will need to be write code or create experimental structures. They should, however, be able to understand the potential of what computer programming can create and how these approaches can solve design problems.
“I think of software as the current or the next medium,” said visual artist and software designer Casey Reas, a professor in the Design Media Arts department at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in the conference’s closing keynote. The ability to write and understand computer code will become increasingly important to designers, he says. “It’s a way of converting ideas into form.”
For the architects and engineers that are designing the built world, these are new opportunities worth exploring.