If ancient humans could create megalithic monuments without fuel-guzzling machines, modern society should be able to do likewise. “Every building component or object has intelligence,” says Brandon Clifford, director and co-founder at Boston- and Ann Arbor, Mich.–based Matter Design and an associate professor at MIT. “In this work, we thought about transportation and positioning. How do you design the object so that it can be moved and placed with as little energy as possible?”
A shared interest in “embedding intelligence into objects” led Clifford to Davide Zampini, head of global R&D at multinational cement producer CEMEX. In 2017, their teams began collaborating on a series of eight interlocking concrete units, which range in weight from 926 to a staggering 3,902 pounds, and in height from 5 to 10 feet. The precisely irregular megaliths can be turned, rocked, and positioned by one or two individuals with nothing but a pair of gloves. Strategic grooves, or dado joints, lock the masses together until their disassembly by hand, of course.
—Juror Ming Thompson, AIA
To make the units responsive to gentle nudges—like dancing with a partner, Clifford says—the designers calculated the location of each unit’s center of mass using a custom Grasshopper plug-in. “Just moving the center of mass a quarter-inch will change the speed of rotation, how it rocks, how it moves,” Zampini says.
To displace each unit’s center of mass from its geometric location, the team used two concrete mixes with different densities to cast each unit. One unit was designed with two centers of mass: one when a handheld tool is inserted into a socket, and the other when the weight of the tool is removed, causing the unit to ease into a standing position.
Minimal training and familiarity are required to position the massive pieces. "We played with them for about a half-hour before shooting the video performance," Clifford says. Admittedly, Walking Assembly is not suited for everyday construction, but the effortless maneuvering of immense forms is awe-inspiring.
Project: Walking Assembly
Location: Biel, Switzerland
Research Partners: Matter Design, Boston . Brandon Clifford (director), Johanna Lobdell (partner), Tyler Swingle (project lead); CEMEX Global R&D, Biel, Switzerland . Davide Zampini (head of Global R&D), Alexandre Guerini (product development and industrialization director), Matthew John Meyers (project lead)
Material: Concrete provided by CEMEX Global R&D
Size: 20'-8" long, 9'-11" tall
Mass: 13,160 pounds