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The case for a digital master builder
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by Deborah Snoonian, P.E.

A recent symposium sponsored by the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania began with a promise. “This is not going to be about blobby forms,” said Branko Kolarevic, associate professor and director of Penn’s Digital Design Research Laboratory, in his opening remarks at Designing and Manufacturing Architecture in the Digital Age, which took place in late March [Note: record publisher McGraw-Hill was a conference sponsor.] The audience of 150 smiled knowingly at his comment, perhaps even sighed with relief—blobs are so passé.

The two-day event was an international assembly of cutting-edge practitioners and researchers who discussed the role of digital technology in design and practice. The presenters went beyond merely marveling at innovative architectural forms (hence, the no-blob promise) to bring forth examples of new fabrication technologies, CAD/CAM innovations, mass customization, and other digital tools put to use on current and planned projects. Above all, architects were urged to harness the power of technology for all stages of design and construction; in other words, to reassume the role of the master builder.

A technological crossroads

The old Chinese maxim “May you live in interesting times” applies today to architects with respect to computing. CAD software and other productivity tools have automated some laborious tasks over the past two decades, but they haven’t fundamentally changed the way architects practice. But new tools offer that promise, and Kolarevic wants designers to overcome their ambivalence about technology. “Architects have a chance to regain ground they’ve lost to contractors and other parties,” he said. “We can overthrow traditional construction techniques, with profound consequences.”

A column from Gaudí ’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona (above). Computer modeling illustrates the development of a single eight-sided column (top right), which shows a gradual addition of sine curves in cross section (bottom right). The sine curves undergo phase shifts as the column rises from base to capital.

Photography and Images courtesy Mark Burry


William Mitchell, dean of MIT’s school of architecture, framed the event by envisioning a future of “information-rich design worlds linked to fast, programmable construction machines.” MIT’s Media Lab is exploring design tools with unique interfaces; one of the most intriguing is called Illuminating Clay, which lets designers analyze free-form clay models. The model’s geometry is captured in real time with a laser scanner; using this information, computer simulations of conditions such as shadow casting, land erosion, or visibility are calculated and projected back onto the clay model. A designer can change the model’s shape and see the effects of those changes right away, which allows design options to be explored rapidly without having to type in data. Think about it: Would you miss your CAD software? Your keyboard? Your computer screen?



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