Digital Crafting March 29-31 2010, Report by Terri Peters
The second Digital Crafting workshop event “How to Join” was held at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture in Copenhagen March 29-31 2010. The invited guest Zurich-based Christoph Schindler of Schindler Salmeron led the two-day workshop and one-day seminar investigating ideas about joining materials and geometries using parametric design. The workshop focused on experimenting with the Zip Shape technology created by Christoph Schindler. Workshop participants developed variations on the idea of bending two non-identical “teeth” together like a zipper, to hold a bended shape in place. Rather than using a mould, (the usual way of creating a complex, bended shape) using this method the material is held in place by the design of the “teeth”. The seminar on the third day related examples of parametric wood construction, with lectures by Michael Hensel from AHO Oslo, Sigurdur Omasson from DTU Copenhagen, Silvan Oestererle from ETH Zurich and Sebastian Gmelin from Arkitektskole Aarhus.
Working back and forth from parametric model to physical prototype, early studies explored: Where is the strength coming from? How do we design the “teeth”? What bit will bend? How is the material buckling under pressure? Does the strength come from the glue?
Interesting discussions happened during the workshop and at the seminar including ideas about:
How can we work with material tolerances?
While digital models may assume zero tolerance, it is impossible to make a production or material technology that delivers this performance. For example, what about the glue? The glue is a material in itself so it has to go somewhere, and we found that the parametric model has to be designed with the material in mind. The material tolerances allow a hand made quality, like with steam bending timber for chairs as in the examples in Schinder´s lecture about Zip Shape. The foam prototypes are precise and machine cut, but that doesn´t mean they are all performing exactly the same, even from the same or similar digital files. The material breaks, tears and crumbles in unexpected ways under pressure. Even in the foam prototypes, Zipshape is about using the material to hold the form with glue, rather than using a stamp or mould, which treats the material in a different way.
What is the relationship between variability and complexity?
During the workshop and seminar we discussed definitions of complexity – and the difference between something “complex” and something ”complicated”. Handcrafting can, of course, be extremely complex, and it seems to not be about scale, but rather connections and joining.
In Schindler´s lecture, he traced the way that tools have developed and how they have impacted technology. In his examples, the tool changes the material, and creates variation.
What about processes that are reversible, like weaving, where stitches and joining can be undone and redone again? We talked about hyper-specified, high performance surfaces where the designer is able to add material exactly where the force will be and about how important it is to understand the specific material performance, rather than the general material properties. Or is it more about understanding overall behaviour, less about how individual pieces work, but rather about how they work together?
Ways of connecting and joining
With Schindler´s lecture as a starting point, we talked about how joining materials and parts usually works in architecture, and thought about examples of conventional methods. Schindler showed examples of dovetail joints where all the parts are different but not interchangeable with joint marks needed to identify what goes where. In our group discussion we touched on ideas of joining materials without adding materials or processes, like in weaving, where the joining is in the material itself, rather than in an additional binding agent. The Zip Shape and Snap Fit examples are more like weaving than like traditional timber framing, because the joining is an extension of the material performance. (but what about the glue?)
Progress and technology – what is the future for architecture and design?
Just because we can do something, should we? In the discussion based on the Rosalind Williams reading, “Retooling“ we had a group discussion about progress and technology. What are society´s agents of change? What leads progress? Technology? Societal “needs”? We discussed how as a profession, architecture is not in agreement about the aims of digital design and fabrication – is it to improve design quality? Cost? Efficiency? Is there a “sustainable” agenda?
To our group, it seems that digital design and fabrication is nearly the norm, we are thinking parametrically and we are generally convinced it is the future. But is this really widespread considering the vast majority of the building industry values other criteria? To paraphrase science fiction writer William Gibson, “the future is here, it is just not very evenly distributed”. We discussed the idea that digital tools allow designs or communication that “could not have been done by hand” –but is this really true? The group discussed ideas about this and asked “does it even matter”?
The discussion began to be about whether or not all design needs to have a “sustainable” agenda. We did not define the term, which led to everyone having their own idea about what it could mean and therefore not really talking about the same thing, but most agreed it is an overused term but important nonetheless. Someone asked, “Is there a “need” for digital crafting” and discussion followed about the role of research, design, and innovation. Surely “sustainability” is not only about “what we need” at the expense of “what we want”? Some of the group believe it difficult to be critical of sustainability and sustainable agendas but of course this cannot be an excuse for not engaging with such an important issue. Design quality is also a “difficult” subject but it must be debated and understood. The group wondered if Digital Crafting should shy away from issues of sustainability or develop a considered understanding of key concepts. We talked about cost and efficiency as possibly relating to sustainability. Developing new ideas about material performance is a possible step towards minimizing waste and creating innovative ways of working that could be considered sustainable. With no mould, the same cost applies if one make one or one hundred Zip Shape prototypes because its about how much the material costs and the time that goes into it. Zip Shape is not well suitable for mass production in that way but do these ideas belong in a discussion of sustainability? Is all good design “sustainable”? Is all “sustainable” design good?