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Digital Crafting 3 Seminar Report Now Online

Read the Seminar Report from Digital Crafting 3 with Interview with Tobias Bonwetsch and the Interview with Ole Sigmund.

Performance, Scale and the Beauty of Optimization – Interview with Ole Sigmund

Ole Sigmund is a Professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Section for Solid Mechanics, Technical University of Denmark.   He researches the design of extreme materials, smart materials, compliant mechanisms, MicroElectroMechanical Systems, crashworthiness, fluid systems and wave-propagation problems in acoustics, elasticity, nano-optics, meta-materials and antennas.

His lecture was about the applications of topology optimization, and about how materials can be designed to be better performing, solve complex design problems and be beautiful.   Following the lecture the group discussed optimization in relation to material and material design.  The group discussed some ideas about gradient rather than absolute material performance, and materials with potential for form change.

–Could you elaborate a bit on the design potentials of designing for optimization and the challenge of scale (for example nano-scale to building scale in material design) as it applies to your research?

OS: Of course there is a scaling issue since currently our nano-material based structures are very small. However, with improved manufacturing methods this will come soon. For example, one of our current research projects is concerned with surface structuring of plastic parts or bottles with the goal of saving costly painting. We do it using mass-manufacturable, nano-imprint technology we can stamp nano-structures into plastic surfaces, in turn changing their colors or making the hydrophobic.

–This relates to the toy example you described in your lecture – the Harry Potter figurine by Lego?  You mentioned that the most expensive part of the process is not the creation of the ten parts which are assembled to create this figure but actually the way that the glasses and face need to be painted on the figure´s head, separate from the injection moulding process? In your lecture you proposed a new way of creating this, using actual material deformation rather than pigment.

OS: Yes we are using the ideas from butterflies – where if you take a microscope and look at the surface they have nano-structured surfaces that actually create the colours that we see.  The butterflies actually designed their surfaces in order to absorb light at different frequencies.   In this project our job is to make the nano-structuing of the Lego surface so that we don’t have to use paint it just becomes an absorbing surface that makes it look like we painted it.  With regard to scale, of course from smaller plastic parts to building parts there is still quite a step. However, I am convinced that this gap will be bridged within the coming decade.

–There was some discussion about manufacturing constraints and how this must be built into topology optimization design, how do you design with these limitations?

OS: Different manufacturing methods have different limitations. For example in concrete casting it is not directly possible to introduce internal voids. In many cases void regions inside the structure would be structurally good and hence the results of the optimization would contain holes. Therefore we introduce constraint in the optimization that hinder the creation of internal holes (at the cost of worse performance/weight) of the structure.

–This led to a discussion about the aesthetics of optimization – how can and should something “look” optimized or perhaps look “not” optimized?  You said “Whenever I see a structure with circular holes I know it has not been optimized”. What do you think about the relationship between aesthetics and optimization?

OS: I certainly think that an optimized structure is beautiful. However, due to my training I see many flaws in “optimized structures” that ordinary people would not see. Hence, a structure with many circular holes may look light and efficient for many people, however, in my eyes I see stress concentrations and waste of material. Also if I see a curved bar that is supposed to support longitudinal forces I know that the structure is not optimal. Unfortunately one of the workshop structures has such features –this I partly attribute to bad post-processing steps in the used software.   A good example of this faulty optimization is the CCTV tower in China. The outer structure is claimed to distribute the forces in an optimal way, however, to me it is clear that it is by no means optimal and that a much better (and possibly even better looking) could have been obtained using topology optimization. Unfortunately I never found time to test it but I will try to find some students who can perform the optimization study.

–What did you think were the most interesting aspects from this Digital Crafting Seminar?

OS: It was interesting to see the broad range of speaker topics –from my very basic engineering structures that fulfill well-defined optimization goal to the very artificial and complex structures produced by various digital processes. For me, structural beauty is a natural bi-product of the structural optimization process. I hope that this message will be remembered by the participants. The artificial digital processes are also very interesting but I think they should be hooked up with some measures of efficiency to become well accepted in a world that becomes increasingly aware of limited natural resources.

Report and Interview by Terri Peters

Seminar Day Digital Crafting 3

The third Digital Crafting seminar “The Architect as Material Designer” was held at the Danish Institute for Technology in Copenhagen on August 20, 2010.  Four guest speakers: Neil Leach from University of Southern California, Ole Sigmund from the Technical University of Denmark, Marco Poletto from ecoLogicStudio and the Architectural Association (AA) in London, and Tobias Bonwetsch from the Institute for Technology in Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, ETH Zurich presented ideas about the changing role of the designer with regard to material design.

During the seminar, participants discussed the role of material in design, the nature of optimization, and the creative possibilities of digital fabrication.

Interview with Tobias Bonwetsch “The Architect as Material Designer”:

-In the workshop and seminar, we talked about optimization in relation to material and material design, how does optimization relate to your work?

Optimization in architecture is somewhat a fuzzy concept, which is often applied to functional, engineering aspects, where the optimization criteria can be more easily defined and made explicit. But architecture is also about spatial qualities, aesthetics, usability over time etc., properties that that can hardly be put into fitness functions. In the robotic processes we develop at ETH, we inform building elements through the selective placement of material all these factors play together. This results in a lot of redundancies in the final material-system or element, but at the same time give them a unique appearance and sensuality. I think it has to be seen in whole, just as architecture is not just engineering it is also not just about material.

In our work at ETH and with the students we look at the aggregation of material. It is always a combination between material, the definition or creation of a certain fabrication process (material manipulation), and computation that drives and controls the process. The student work examples I showed take a given material and rethink its use (also concerning performance issues) when applying the potential of a computer controlled, self-defined fabrication process. Having control of the actual build up process shifts the architectural design from the design of  geometry and surfaces towards the design of the fabrication/construction process.

-We talked a lot about the aesthetics of optimization – how can and should something “look” optimized? What is the role of the designer in optimization?

Again, optimization can be applied to many different and very diverse requirements in architecture. Can and should something look optimized?  Probably not. In the simple (material wise and construction wise) elements we look at, the interplay of the individual parts create a complex system, beyond the functionality of its single members. They are not specialized/optimized for a specific function, but their appearance is a combination different functions as well as aesthetic considerations.

-In your opinion, what makes this Digital Crafting seminar relevant in the context of contemporary practice?

I believe “digital craft” is highly relevant for architectural practice (at least if you believe that architecture constitutes itself in its physical form). The tools are here today, but we are yet only scratching the surface. The architect is now in the position to directly intervene with the process of making. The design can be driven by the definition of a physical fabrication process rather than by an overall geometry. This requires developing an understanding of architectural and structural potentials.

Report and Interview by Terri Peters

Interview with Asbjørn Søndergaard, Workshop Leader “How to Mould”

During the workshop, participants visited the topology optimized concrete structure produced during the Unikabeton research project by researchers Per Dombernowsky and Asbjørn Søndergaard. Fabricated using large-scale industrial CNC-milling facility at Danish Institute of Technology, the structure represents the first realized topology optimized concrete structure. A full-scale version of the optimization experiments undertaken at the Digital Crafting Workshop 3, the prototype reflects the morphogenetic principles of design and conceptualization facilitated by the method of topology optimization.  For more details of the research project see http://fluxstructures.net/

–As workshop leader, what were your intentions with “How to Mould”?

AS: The idea was to offer a platform for a 1:1 experience with the morphogenesis of topology optimization in relation to robotic fabrication, in order to facilitate a discussion of the implications of the field in regard to related theoretical discourses and technological aspects of production.  In the workshop, we explored the cycle of optimization, remodeling, full-scale milling and casting all within 3 days.  I think the most successful part was delivered by the participants in their dedication to the workshop content, and the discussion that arose from it.

–In your two introductory lectures during the workshop, and in the Seminar on the final day, there were discussions about topology optimization and the aesthetics of optimization.  What parts of this discussion do you think are the most relevant for designers?

AS: It is often the case that a type of formal language emerges as the result of intensive work of experimentation and reflection – and then this language is adopted by others that take interest in the appearance, but not in the process behind it. The language then becomes a self-referring, self-explanatory image of the original thought, but without its coherence.

This sometimes happens with so called “optimized” structures. Actually, the first large-scale topology optimized structure to be realized – the Qatar convention hall by Mutsuro Sasaki – is a good example of this. The structure was originally conceived by a process of optimization, but then simplified into an internal steel rod skeleton clad with non-load-bearing steel plate that imitates the original optimization output.  This means that it lost most of it initial structural logic in the process of realization, although it still formally appears “optimized”.

–How can we interpret the optimized results? Can something be really “optimized”?

AS: We discussed two opposite positions on this: the first position is to say the most interesting results arises directly from computation, without the designer interfering or polluting with his formal preferences. The other position is that the most interesting results arise as a work of the interpretation of the designer, and that the computational process should only secondarily contribute to the appearance of the design.  In my opinion, the first position does not take into account that the premise for any computational process is manmade, and so subject to inter-subjective conventions. No matter how strictly mathematically the process may be, there will always be a modeling setup preceding it, in which several design threads can be pursued, tried and discussed. Also, the computational results need subsequent interpretation in preparing the shape for production and manufacturing – and this is also an area of aesthetic evaluation.

The optimization result within architecture is something derived by both structural and aesthetical consideration.  To misunderstand this is to repeat the modernist attempt to avoid the difficult but necessary question of aesthetics by claiming a false objectivity to the process. I think the question is rather: how do we affect the process of optimization prior to its execution?  And how do we choose to interpret the optimization results formally? I believe many answers can be developed to these questions, varying on both cultural and technological conditions.  The optimization process may actually result in unexpected design discourses that could influence the spatial concept.

Report and Interview by Terri Peters

DigitalCrafting Seminar 3 - Videos online

The third seminar was as well documented on video and we are happy to share those now.


Neil Leach,  University of Southern California


Ole Sigmund, Danmarks Tekniske Universitet


Marco Poletto, ecoLogicStudio and Architectural Association (AA)


Tobias Bonwetsch, Institute for Technology in Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, ETH Zurich.

Seminar 3: The architect as material designer

Autumn Semester 2010: August 20th. 2010

Danish Institute of Technology // Room 34, entrance 3 // 18.-20.08.2010 // Google maps

Digital fabrication positions the architect as part of a material design practice. Here, materials are seen as highly specified and invidualised materials developed in direct response to a building context. The seminar discusses strategies for such material thinking and asks what the underlying logics of such an expanded design practice can be.
The seminar will discuss how new work in the field of digital fabrication and rapid manufacturing is challenging our material practices. Learning from the fields of design and engineering we will seek to draw in new perspectives for the forming of a culture in which the material and the crafted are fundamental parts of a design practice.
The seminar asks:
– What are the underlying logics that can inform the digitally supported material design?
– How do we think structure and material as one?

– What is the role of the composite and how can new technologies for casting and printing suggest an expanded understanding of composite structures?

The seminar invites 4 international speakers:

Neil Leach,  University of Southern California

Ole Sigmund, Danmarks Tekniske Universitet

Marco Poletto, ecoLogicStudio and Architectural Association (AA)

Tobias Bonwetsch, Institute for Technology in Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, ETH Zurich.

Schedule and detailed program: 03_WorkshopSeminar03_concrete_sendout.pdf

Venue: The seminar takes place at the Danish Technological Institute – Gregersensvej indgang 3 – 2630 Taastrup –  Google maps link here
The way to get there by public transport is to take the train from the central train station IC 137 fra København H towards  Århus H and get of at Høje Taastrup st. From there you can take a bus 400S (toward Ballerup), 154E or 216. The cabs at the station are very scarce. You can also wolk – it is a bit more than a 10min walk. You can use : http://www.rejseplanen.dk/ to find the right directions from your departure place.

When you are at the Danish Technological Institute you should find entrance 3 and from there room 35 (workshop days) or room 36 (seminar).