“We made a radical shift this year,” said Xavier De Kestelier, an associate partner in the London office of Foster + Partners and a longtime member of the SmartGeometry Group, to a roomful of journalists before leading a tour at the fabrication building of Barcelona’s Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC).

Indeed, the racket on the far side of the door indicated that it was anything but business as usual for the workshop portion of the annual SmartGeometry Conference, which in previous years had consisted of small groups in hotel rooms, hunched over computers, discussing computational design.

Here, in a former toilet-manufacturing facility that is now part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Fab Lab network, students and nascent architects and engineers from around the globe were busy working in 10 clusters under the guidance of SmartGeometry Group members and leading lights in the computational design and fabrication world. (The SmartGeometry Group is a nine-year-old partnership between industry, academia, and practitioners that is focused on advancing the use of computational—aka parametric—design within architecture and engineering.)

The effort, said De Kestelier, was to give attendees, many of whom spend most of their time in front of computers or working on building-scale projects, some experience in the design, fabrication, and testing of working prototypes, the conference’s theme. For four days—and with the help of laser cutters, CNC routers, sewing machines, hand tools, and more—people were converting algorithmic models into physical objects.

Walking around the IAAC, it was clear that the prototypes for some clusters—such as “Nonlinear Systems Biology and Design,” led by architectural researcher Jenny Sabin and biologist Peter Lloyd Jones, recipients of a 2007 AIA Upjohn Research Initiative grant—were more abstract and conceptual than practical. Others, however—including “Explicit Bricks” (CNC-sliced blocks that, when laid in the right order, form an intricate, compression-only structure) and “Rapid R&D to Rapid Assembly” (snap-together architecture)—had more immediate implications for construction. The general din was punctuated every 15 to 20 minutes by a loud crash, followed by cheers, indicating that the “Design to Destruction” cluster had broken another laser-cut wood cantilever. Waving his hand around the IAAC space, SmartGeometry member Jonathan Rabagliati, whose day job is in the computational design department of Foster + Partners, said, “Everybody’s learning.”

The two-day conference that followed the workshop was broken into two parts. During “shop talk” day, rotating panels of SmartGeometry members, cluster leaders, and guests riffed on the “working prototypes” theme as it applied to such things as design education, sustainability, manufacturing, and practice. The day rounded out with the announcement that De Kestelier and Shane Burger, a New York–based associate at Grimshaw Architects, would become directors for the SmartGeometry Group. Although both have played increasingly integral roles for the group in recent years, the addition of new blood to the founding leadership of Lars Hesselgren (director of research, PLP Architecture), J Parrish (global practice leader for sports architecture, Arup Sport), and Hugh Whitehead (partner, Foster + Partners) suggests the future of the SmartGeometry Group could include more radical shifts.

The second day featured presentations by leading researchers and practitioners. Among them: Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology professor Mark Burry, a longtime consultant and researcher for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, who described recent design and construction successes at Antonio Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece; and Enrico Dini, whose company, D_shape, is developing a method of printing full-scale buildings out of sand and inorganic binders.

During his scheduled end-of-event appearance, Huw Roberts, global marketing director, building, for software maker Bentley Systems (the event’s premier sponsor), made the surprising announcement that Bentley’s GenerativeComponents software—among the go-to tools for the SmartGeometry set—would now be available as a free, stand-alone download (generativecomponents.com). In other words: Let a thousand clusters bloom.

Learn more about the SmartGeometry workshop’s leaders and design objectives at smartgeometry.org. Videos of all conference presentations can be found at smartgeometryconference.com.

Noteworthy Talks

Engineer Hanif Kara’s keynote focused on the financial and technical gaps he sees in the building industry. Fixing most, said the principal of Adams Kara Taylor, will require “heavy computer use.” The engineer also offered the quote of the conference. Gesturing at the screen behind him, which showed Pritzker Prize laureates, Kara said, “I look forward to the day when we can replace one of these with a robot.”

University of Bath professor Adrian Bowyer roused attendees with his energy, but it helped that he was discussing a 3D printer that can be put together for less than $500. The RepRap (reprap.org) is a desktop-friendly machine that fabricates objects up to 352 cubic inches in size. The RepRap can also make more than half of its own parts, so the cost goes down with each one you build.

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