Ten thousand design professionals from a vast array of industries collided at Autodesk University (AU) on November 30, 2015, to discover the emerging technologies that are influencing humanity’s ever-expanding creative capacities. The theme for the conference was “The Age of Augmentation.” Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, opened the conference with the idea that we’re living in an “augmented age,” a period in time in which the best of humanity is utilizing the best of technology to create extraordinary results. Between watching prosthetics and medical plates 3D printed in real time, using robots to build a pavilion, and attending several of over 650 lecture and networking events, this theme was brought to life.
Of all the emerging technologies I encountered this week, I was struck most by Dynamo, a visual design scripting tool and plugin for Autodesk that makes computational design accessible to designers. Computational design mines models for data that aren’t typically accessible through traditional modeling processes. It’s a process that leverages the power of computers to generate forms based on parameters such as size, structural integrity, and materiality.
While typically the design process is very intuitive—the designer communicates the vision via sketching/physical modeling and presents the product of a thought process—Dynamo reverse engineers this process, producing a clear pattern of thought which allows others to understand the product.
The Bionic Partition
Presenting on The Bionic Partition at AU’s Design Computation Symposium were Bastian Schäfer, a cabin engineer with Airbus, and David Benjamin of The Living, an Autodesk Studio out of Brooklyn, NY, whose presentation clearly illustrated the power of applying Dynamo to design and reinforced Bass’s augmented age hypothesis.
Schäfer and Benjamin illustrated the eye-opening possibilities of computational design with a relatively straightforward commercial aircraft partition. A multitude of variables told them on what point the force will bear on the partition in the event of a plane crash. The software allowed them to assign numbers to all these constraints/parameters and then run a simulation utilizing computational design scripting. Once the parameters were defined, the software iterated 10,000 design options for the partition wall—something we’re just not capable of as human beings acting alone given time constraints.
Once the iterations were mapped, the merits of each were evaluated. Eventually, the design team pinpointed a handful of solutions and studied those in greater detail. The partition was 3D printed using a cutting-edge metal alloy, so every section was printed individually and designed to react to the specific forces on its own particular portion of the wall. The result was an intricate skeletal structure made of different sizes of sub-supports and sub-framing so complex in form it resembled bone marrow.
As designers we tend to overdesign systems because we simply can’t understand the intricacies of the forces at work. With Dynamo, Schäfer and Benjamin created a partition using 30% less material but that is 10% stronger than current standards.
At Integrating Design Computation and Materialisation, Achim Menges, professor at the University of Stuttgart and founding director of the Institute for Computational Design, continued to inspire with the computationally designed ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion, constructed of carbon fiber and glass fiber, weighing roughly 230kg, and incredibly structurally sound.
The Flip Side
There are concerns that this technology will extinguish creative diversity in design—that every result will be a clone of the “best” design solution based on computational design technologies. Schäfer and Benjamin rebutted this by boldly proposing that architects are moving into the role of design agent, creatively interpreting constraints into form. Designers react to contextual parameters—streets, adjacent buildings, weather, utility requirements, etc.—so no two buildings (or designs) will be identical.
Another concern targets the antithetical characteristics of architecture’s formal language throughout history and the “blobitecture” that may result from computational design, and the question of whether or not the latter belongs in our visual vocabulary. This is the lifelong debate for architects. The danger of technologies like this is that we might dilute the contextual meaning of places by not emphasizing formal architectural languages descriptive of particular places or cultures.
Observing the Research Pavilion’s amorphous bubble shape, it’s not descriptive of anything you’ve known throughout history. Connecting back to our historic visual language is important to cultural stability, but it could be argued that we would have no grounding for normality without the abnormal. Objects that starkly contrast with historical context ground us to that very history.
I don’t believe that computational design must result in blobitecture, but we are at a point in time where something has to give from a sustainability perspective. Considering Madison’s recent observations on the notion of disruption, we are entering a time where big changes must (and most likely will) happen very soon.
So what does this have to do with my own practice of architecture? The Bionic Partition and the Research Pavilion are on the leading edge of computational design, but we can also integrate these systems into our everyday workflows, making repetitious tasks extremely efficient. And by doing this we are freed up to think about even more complex parameters. For example, we typically hire an acoustical consultant to understand the resultant acoustical performance of a designed space. With computational design, we can instead use an algorithm to compute it based on a 3D model without having to spend brainpower on those extremely complex technicalities.
Take a theater hall for example: the typical design process involves intuitively visualizing a structure that should perform well acoustically, and then analyzing the design through an acoustical design professional. Computational design reverses these steps by creating form based on performative criteria. We can input the acoustical qualities we desire into Dynamo, and the structure is then designed around the best solution. This allows us as designers to use our talents, energy, and time to take things to a level that we haven’t previously had the capacity for.
Computational design is not exclusive to mind-blowing innovations, and I think we are missing a huge opportunity if we don’t utilize this technology to create efficiencies in the day-to-day, often laborious, aspects of our professions (such as organizing our project sheets or developing different typologies for window patterns), giving time and energy back to the parts of our practice that make us come alive.