The (Fr)agile Beauty of Architecture. ProtoRobotic FOAMing as an expression of Neo-Materialism (txt)

The (Fr)agile Beauty of Architecture. ProtoRobotic FOAMing as an expression of Neo-Materialism
Marjan Colletti, 2013
published in Archithese 3.2013 Weak Materiality, pp. 54-7 plus cover.

I would like to think of architecture as a coral reef: a colourful, growing colony of individuals that create a fragile ecosystem, blossoming on strong and solid layers and strata of preceding populations. As a whole, corals manage to stay alive by constantly sensing and reacting to the environment; however, they are not capable of assimilating severe and sudden changes. How about architecture? Is it strong enough to cope with the extreme necessity to discover more intelligent design, material assembly and novel fabrication processes; or is it as fragile as corals?

I use the term ‘fragile’ consciously in order to avoid the expression ‘weak’, as the latter comes with stronger negative connotations. David Canter, for example, deemed architecture’s imprecise organization (and consequently its failure to join the sciences) as one of its ‘fundamental weaknesses’. He therefore argues that architecture should associate itself with what are regarded as ‘strong’ disciplines – such as mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, material science, environmental sciences, agricultural sciences and earth sciences – and learn to self-organize such as philosophy, psychology, literature and communication sciences.[1]

A weak discipline?
Indeed, an extensive list of skills is required to deal with the complexities of the design and construction processes. According to Roger K. Lewis architects need to have ‘graphic and visual skills’, ‘technical aptitude’, ‘verbal skills’, ‘organizational skills’, ‘memory’ and ‘compositional talent’, since it is part of the ‘multi disciplinary nature’ of architects to be ‘artists, craftspersons, draftspersons, technologists, social scientists, managers, accountants, historians, theoreticians, philosophers, gamblers’.[2]
Such demand to acquire some of the knowledge of other disciplines goes further back in history. Already Vitruvius had strongly emphasized the necessity of extra-disciplinary knowledge. In De architectura he writes that education is necessary ‘to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises’; the ability to use the pencil is indispensable to ‘readily make sketches to show the appearance of the work which he proposes’; while geometry is vital for ‘the use of the rule and compasses, by which especially we acquire readiness in making plans for buildings’; history is necessary in the crafting and explaining of ‘ornamental parts of an architect’s design for a work’; philosophy ‘renders him courteous, just, and honest without avariciousness’; music is important to ‘have knowledge of the canonical and mathematical theory, and, besides, to be able to tune ballistae, catapultae, and scorpions to the proper key’; medicine is relevant ‘on account of the questions of climates, air, the healthiness and unhealthiness of sites, and the use of different waters’; law ‘in the case of buildings having party walls, with regard to water dripping from the eaves, and also the laws about drains, windows, and water supply’; and finally, astronomy is essential ‘to have any comprehension of the theory of sundials’.[3]
Of course catapults and sundials are of less importance in contemporary architecture, but it seems that the Vitruvian identikit of the architect as a child of practice and theory has retained its value. In his Ten Books of Architecture, practice is articulated as ‘the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing’; theory as ‘the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion’.[4] In our own terms of today we could loosely associate practice with design techniques and the arts, and theory with research, technics and the sciences.
But there is the caveat: is not such a capability to infiltrate and to assimilate the knowledge of other disciplines a sign of openness, of dynamism? Or at least of ‘weakness’ with a positive bias, in the sense intended by Mark Cousin’s encouraging description of architecture as a ‘weak discipline’?[5] A discipline, that with its undefined and irresolute boundaries and its interest in relations and interactions, can proudly stand in opposition to strong disciplines with precise and visible boundaries? Is it not in our interest to stop working in silos? I therefore opt for the term fragile, as opposed to weak. It is less derogatory and certainly more delicate, elegant and subtle.

(Fr)agility: Volution and Convolution
<gs>But why fragile? Openness, dynamism, hybridity, all terms imply or require fragility. Furthermore, fragile includes the term ‘agile’ – whose meaning suggests responsiveness, alertness!
How interesting is it then, that in Latin languages, buildings are referred to as immobile things (e.g. immobile in Italian or Immobilie in German)? However, if there is a clear dividing line between buildings and architecture, it is openness: from the Greek temple to the Pantheon, from the Gothic cathedral to the Barcelona Pavilion, from Lloyds in London to the Vitra Fire Station, from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the BMW World in Munich, from the Yokohama Port Terminal to the Oslo Opera House etc.
                  Let me explain this by introducing the concepts of Volution [Latin volvere, voltus, to turn] and Convolution [Latin convolvere, convolutum, to roll together].
In my opinion, the first term accurately describes the attempt to transcend a fixed self-description and self-placement of the discipline. It professes dynamism, agility and openness in terms of philosophical bias, methodological idiosyncrasy and most of all, architectural production. There is possibly no way to disagree with Neil Leach that ‘the way in which we engage with architecture must therefore be seen not as a static condition, but as a dynamic process’.[6]
The latter term, on the other hand, introduces the concepts of synthesis and hybridity. Convolution is used in optics to describe effects of blur appearing in cast shadows, or in out-of-focus photographs, and in physics and linear algebra to describe a field of superposition (that is, either a combination of linear systems, or the sum of interferences, displacements or responses caused by two or more agents). Its various appropriate meanings delineate the concepts of 1) blurring the boundaries of the discipline; 2) overlapping theory and practice, design and fabrication; 3) interference, inter- and multidisciplinarity; 4) multilinearity of design processes: it goes without saying that design is synthetic by nature, as it involves various scales, media, expertise fields, disciplines, technologies, techniques, materials etc.

Neo Materialism
In fact, I would argue that the history of architecture is also a history of materials, material innovation, material assembly and fabrication and how they have drastically changed the discipline. It applies to the material integration of stone, concrete, steel, glass, digital matter and will apply to hitherto unknown material discoveries of the future.
In a contemporary debate, materiality as a driving force of innovation is reflected in a post-cyber, post-virtual, post-fluid and post-digital paradigm shift towards Neo Materialism. Neo Materialism marks the ambition to escape from the socially unsustainable, virtual and cyber architectural visions of the early days, as well as from the standardised, off-the-shelf and environmentally as well as financially unsustainable architectural production methods of the past towards innovative applied theories, techniques and technologies. On account of new demands of the economical and ecological crisis it is understandable that architects’ subjectivity and idiosyncrasy are scrutinised. However, I will not subscribe to a total dismissal of these values! An over-rational misguidance of the discipline throughout these paradigm changes can bring architecture to lose its open and dynamic nature, which sets it apart from the building industry.
The pressing questions today are no longer concerned with providing theories of cyberspace or virtuality. After the initial period of definition and discovery of disembodied virtual realities, data-scapes and cyberworlds, the endeavour and challenge for this generation of creative thinkers is to fully engage with the actuality of digital technologies. Today we understand that social media and telecommunication technologies do not exist in a detached, virtual and cyber sphere. They are a fully integrated part of everyday living, they are fully tactile: swiping on a smartphone’s screen is a physical experience.
Initially, cybernetics and virtual reality had brought forth a belief in architecture underpinned by the complete disembodiment of cyberspace, culminating in an almost quasi-religious myth of total liberation from physical limitations (think of the goggles or data gloves for example). The liberation from the body allowed artists and architects to dream of unheard potentialities. However, early 21st century architectural design postulates material truth and parametric certainty as core functions of design, rather than cyberworlds. By rethinking real and physical processes of design and fabrication, architecture itself has performed a u-turn. In the tug of war of actual body versus virtual phantom, body wins. Matter matters, more than ever.
Consequently, despite the bewildering variety of the contemporary digital architectural debate, the most pressing questions are concerned with providing a novel practice and theory of actual applicability; of cultural production through design production as well as machinic production.

Towards an active Passive House: ProtoRobotic FOAMing
Because of this trajectory from matter to substance, from virtual imagery to machinic fabrication, the term Neo Materialism could be used to define this era of real-world physical production and a new post-digital paradigm based on evolving processes including file-to-factory protocols, material science and biotechnologies.
Some of the most relevant research in contemporary architecture is targeted at the translation of digital aesthetics – be it formal exuberance, geometric complexity or parametric ornamentation – via post-digital ethics as the integration of a consciousness aimed at the environment to the implementation of Neo Material design and fabrication processes – [CNC] machines, Rapid Prototyping [RP] technologies and industrial as well as soft robotics – in architecture.
ProtoRobotic FOAMing is an example of Neo Materialist design-research, which I initiated in collaboration with marcosandmarjan, the REX|LAB and the Institute of Experimental Architecture at the University of Innsbruck Austria, Grymsdyke Farm, and the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL London. It is a series of design-research prototypes, all fabricated in foam by CNC machines and robots. The title summarizes the twofold objectives of this design-research:
ProtoRobotic: The project looks at the potential of earliest forms (Greek prōtos) of robotic fabrication in architecture in the attempt to start bridging the gaps in scale, price and expertise between relatively simply achievable RP models and 1:1 architectural production by CNC equipment (i.e. milling machines, multi-material 3D printing machines) as well as multi-axial MultiMove robotic systems, such as REX|LAB at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.
FOAMing suggests that an architecturally more challenging and original alternative may be found to the Passive House guidelines, which recommend thick layers of insulation to be either sandwiched between cavity walls or between wall and outer surface-material such as render. The research investigates the possibilities of design freedom and morphological manipulation that result from freeing and extroverting an insulation material such as blown foam boards from these cavity walls. This research proposes how we could take advantage of the enormous geometric potential given by digital design tools and CNC technologies to apply ornamentation, geometry and texture onto these large surfaces, which could partly be indoors, as well as outdoors. This would open up new possibilities to architects and designers to design facades in more 3D terms, as the thickness of the foam allows for more complex shapes and textures. Furthermore, this approach makes the retro-fitting of badly performing buildings more design-attentive and precise: with the implementation of thermo imaging and 3D scanning, precise bespoke facades can be designed to accurately fit existing conditions.
At the same time the research investigates foam as agile malleable and soft material (as found in regular tubes), too. Mixed with additives, such unstructured mass can be stretched into stiff yet light, filamentous and porous and fragile structures. The combination of the openness of fully controlled robotic movements, semi-controlled material mixtures and unpredictable morphogenetic behaviour is challenging. However, clear pattern of biomimetic formations emerge, with stunning similarities to natural biological systems. Simply put: FOAMing manages to simulate in analogue complex accelerated biological growth algorithms such as bone structures, plants, tissue, sponges and corals.
Without doubt, foam, despite its rising share in used building materials is considered a weak material in architecture: it has no historic value and has been used to fake real materials or – think of fun parks and many replica grottos around the world – to fake whole environments. But I hope that ProtoRobotic FOAMing may demonstrate that foam has ‘strong’ potentialities, with all its (fr)agility.

So, is architecture as fragile as a coral reef, then? Can it react to the dramatic environmental changes that the planet faces? Partly.
Partly, because architecture is not capable of assimilating extreme sudden changes. Despite all progress in technology architecture remains a rather slow profession. Perhaps Vitruvius had already understood this. Both, in terms of practice – the procurement and delivery processes of buildings are very complex and intricate – and in terms of theory – its historic duty, especially in mainland Europe, was to categorise and provide order. Architecture as a discipline is fragile, but it becomes weak (yes, in the bad sense) if it does not adjust to open systems, constant change and blurry boundaries. Weak at understanding and producing culture. The discipline needs to overcome stasis and establish a theoretical context for change that integrates cultural and social changes (which are stronger than order), too. Considering how much digitality had been theorised before the profession was ready to fully engage with digital fabrication processes, this project needs to be started. Partly, because architecture can be agile enough to respond to the global call for higher design intelligence, material efficiency, and energy consumption. But it needs support – it cannot evolve without the aid of the other disciplines.
So in this sense, architecture remains fragile. To keep it intact and beautiful as both practice and theory it must be granted flexible boundaries and openness. As Ovid, a near contemporary of Vitruvius, stated: ‘Beauty is a fragile gift’. And (fr)agility, a beautiful gift.

Univ.-Prof. Marjan Colletti, PhD (*1972, Bozen) is an architect, teacher, researcher and theorist. He is full University Professor at Innsbruck University, where he is Head of the Institute of Experimental Architecture (Hochbau and studio3) and of REX|LAB; and tenured Associate Professor at the Bartlett, where he is currently acting MArch Architecture programme director, MArch Unit 20 master, MArch GAD research cluster 2 leader, and PhD supervisor. He has taught in several schools in Europe (Innsbruck, Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris, Vienna), the UK (Bartlett, University of Westminster, Royal College of Art, KIAD), and Asia (Feng Chia University, Tunghai University Taiwan). He is author of the forthcoming design-research theory book Digital Poetics, and was editor of the 80th anniversary issue of Architectural Design entitled Exuberance. He is co-founder of the architectural studio marcosandmarjan in London.

1.                David Canter, Psychology for Architects (London: Applied Science Publishers LTD, 1974 ed.), pp. 7-10. Canter introduces the need for methodological design production and evaluation.
2.                Roger K. Lewis, Architect? A Candid Guide to the Profession (Cambridge Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, revised edition, 1998), p. 13.
3.                Vitruvius, The Ten Books of Architecture, trans. by Morris Hicky Morgan (New York: Dover Publications, 1960), p. 5.
4.                Ibid.
5.                Mark Cousins, ‘Building an Architect’, in Jonathan Hill (ed.), Occupying Architecture (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 16-7.
6.               Neil Leach, ‘Forget Heidegger’, in Neil Leach (ed.), Designing For A Digital World (Chichester: Wiley-Academy with RIBA Future Studies, 2001), p. 26.