In a relatively recent commercial, General Electric presents their vision of the future of work, a future where human-driven design is assisted by machines. The main actors of the commercial are 3-D printers and industrial robots, suggesting their potential impact in the projected future. Expectedly, architecture is well within the domain of the impact of these technologies, and a recent manuscript by the architect duo Gramazio and Kohler (G+K), The Robotic Touch: How Robots Change Architecture, is exclusively about how one of these technologies, namely the industrial robot, is opening up new design possibilities.
Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler are the prime figures in the field of computational design who are producing research involving the industrial robot. They are the founders of the world’s first architectural robotic laboratory at the Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich, the institution where they still continue to do their research as Professors of Architecture and Digital Fabrication, alongside their practice, Gramazio and Kohler Architects.
The book serves as an anthology of G+K’s research and teaching projects between the years 2005-2013. It is building upon their 2008 publication, Digital Materiality in Architecture, published by Lars Mueller Publishers, which introduced, for the first time, the concept of “digital materiality,” the central idea embedded in G+K’s research. In a similar manner, The Robotic Touch shows how both the theoretical and the practical aspects of the group’s work have matured and evolved over the years. In addition to the collection of projects, there are five essays elaborating on different aspects of their work, such as the conceptualization of “digital materiality,” the role of the robot and the coding process and how all these relate to physical construction. The essays help articulate the questions that drive the group’s research as well as explain the contribution and the potential of the work for the field of architecture.
In order to understand this contribution, it is crucial to examine what they mean by “digital materiality” and why it is important for architectural design. The main challenge their work addresses is how to establish the connection of the digital reality of the computer with the physical reality of architecture. In the last couple of decades, the research that explored the relationship of computation and architectural design focused on finding ways to somehow use the new technologies in architecture which has, more often than not, led to exuberant explorations of form through parametrization, with little or no concern towards construction.
What Gramazio and Kohler highlight with the term “digital materiality” is “the physical enrichment of the discipline” through the use of the robot as a tool that informs and facilitates the design process. Their clear logic in setting up the hierarchy between design, computation, material and construction stems from their deep comprehension of all these aspects, which sets them apart and paves the way to their innovative work. In their own words, “one of the central claims of the book is that the robot engenders a fundamental alteration in the discipline’s constructive understanding of itself.”
I would like to share two of my favorite projects which, I personally believe, reflect that goal the most effectively. First, the Gantenbein Vineyard Facade, is a relatively early project which can be described as the architectural realization of the earliest forays of G+K in additive robotic fabrication processes by using pick-and-place techniques of bricks in variable orientations to create non-standard wall elements. What makes this innovative construction process possible is the robot: “Unlike a mason, the robot has the ability to position each brick in a different way.” This is a great project that clearly demonstrates two things: first the immediate applicability of the technology in actual architectural projects, and secondly, how the robot opens up new possibilities that simply did not exist before, and thus physically enriches architecture, achieving “digital materiality.”
Secondly, a joint teaching project with the Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore, Design of Robotic Fabricated High Rises is a set of experiments that explore how the digital fabrication technologies can be used in conceptual and methodological design of 50 story mixed-use high-rise structures. What is important in these experiments is that through the use of the same tool, the industrial robot, different techniques are implemented to reach different design goals. These experiments “materially condition the digital design and bring it to expression” and in doing so create a diversity that takes advantage of the different features of the materials used in each technique, which is an exciting exhibition of the potential of the robot as a tool for design with different materials and methods.
The Robotic Touch by Gramazio and Kohler is a great introduction to a new “digital building culture” that is led by architects, and it proposes a new way of approaching both technology and design. Keep an eye on their work which is already making waves in the discipline and is certain to shift new paradigms as it draws the digital and the physical closer - with the aim of enriching architecture.
What is your take on Gramazio and Kohler’s work? How do you think it will affect our physical environment? Are you aware of any architecture in your community that was produced by robots? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: The last two images are from The Robotic Touch. Other images and data linked to sources.