Courtesy FAB Biennale

Earlier this month, a small international community of designers, architects, and planners descended upon Mumbai, India, for the inaugural Fab Biennale. Hosted by curator Sarita Vijayan and organized by the experiential design organization For Young India, the event included a series of lectures (one of which I hosted), workshops, and exhibitions focused on the future of fabrication.

“With the theme of 'Open,' the FAB Biennale ... will present new thinking and new materials as its anchor to fuel design flight,” Vijayan said in her curator’s note.

Mumbai proved to be a stimulating setting for a “crucible for disruptors in design” (the biennale subtitle), given its status as one of the world's largest and most dynamic cities. As a whirl of feverish activity continued just outside the venue doors, a group of fabrication thought-leaders mused about the future of making.

Remediating Materials
Pollution and emissions reductions were central topics of the event, which should come as little surprise as both issues are increasing in severity in India, according to a recent Economist report.

Architect Allison Dring, director of Berlin-based practice Elegant Embellishments, shared two environmentally remediating materials she has developed for architectural envelopes. The first, Prosolve, is a façade system composed of thermoformed plastic shells coated in titanium dioxide, a compound that removes air pollution. The second is a biochar-based module that is 90-percent atmospheric carbon.

Emissions are also the focus of the Green Charcoal project, a bioreceptive building module made of charcoal, luffa fibers, loam, cement, and air that was display in the FAB Biennale exhibition space. Created by Meenal Sutaria and Shreyas More, faculty at the Indian School of Design and Innovation, the new building blocks exhibit ecological superiority over conventional concrete. The fully biocompatible and recyclable modules emit little carbon dioxide, actively improve air quality, and encourage plant growth.

David Benjamin, founder of The Living in New York, an Autodesk studio, discussed his work related to water quality (also a problem in India) among other endeavors. His Pier 35 EcoPark project in Manhattan, co-authored with artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko, consists of an archipelago of floating light-emitting modules that broadcast river pollution levels by color in real-time. The system uses live mussels as pollution sensors due to their innate and superior accuracy over some industrial sensors.

Alternative materials samples displayed at the Fab Biennale.
Courtesy FAB Biennale Alternative materials samples displayed at the Fab Biennale.

Form Equals Performance
Other participants discussed their approaches to fabrication and construction, particularly the critical interdependencies between form and performance, suggesting that ecologically responsive architecture is as much a design problem as it is a material problem.

Philippe Block, director of the Block Research Group at ETH Zürich's Institute of Technology in Architecture, lamented the lack of concerted objectives in the construction industry: “The architect sketches something, the engineer tries not to kill anyone, and the contractor tries to build it as cheaply as possible.” Arguing that the way to environmental responsibility and strength is through geometry, Block discussed several of his impressively thin, unreinforced, self-supporting vault structures. His 3D-printed floor system, which incorporates the funicular vault concept into a thin prefabricated slab with internal ribs, is 70 percent lighter than a conventional concrete slab. Such an approach requires close collaboration between the architect, engineer, and contractor.

Mark Burry, director of the Smart Cities Research Institute at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, described his experiences assisting in the ongoing visualization and construction of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia basilica, in Barcelona. He argued how seemingly unbuildable forms—such as the church’s columns with hyperboloid flutes that shift in plan along their vertical axis—could be achieved via simple geometric formulas without the need for complex computing. “The future of architecture for me: creativity, sensibility, and no AI (artificial intelligence),” Burry declared.

Bharath Sankaran, co-founder and CTO of Barcelona-based startup Scaled Robotics, described his company’s efforts to automate building construction. Sankaran explained that the $17 trillion global industry is also one of the most wasteful and inefficient, with nearly one-third of every construction project ending up in a landfill. He discussed Scaled Robotics’ development of technologies for advanced perception and mobile manipulation that promise to optimize the building process and improve worker safety via digital automation.

Shaping Cities
Ryan Gravel, founder of Atlanta-based Sixpitch, Kate Ascher, partner and director of BuroHappold’s cities group, and Mathilde Marengo, head of studies at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona, each discussed projects around the world that have reinvented urban spaces with smart, human-oriented infrastructure.

In Atlanta, a 22-mile long stretch of railway was turned into a pedestrian-friendly corridor encircling the city. Declaring “infrastructure makes lives possible,” Gravel chronicled the project from its humble beginning as his master’s thesis to what has become an international success story in making cities livable.

In Barcelona, Marengo’s FabCity research project aims to transform the city via an urban fab-lab network that can produce everything inhabitants need, locally. The multifaceted effort includes the creation of demonstration pavilions with scalable material systems as well as technology-infused active public space workshops.

The Fab Biennale inaugural event offered a wealth of ideas—both imagined and realized—concerning the design of the future built environment.

Perhaps the most satisfying dimension, however, was the gathering of a diverse international community to share novel perspectives while discovering how many values we share.

This story has been updated since first publication.