How to make flower pots more durable? This, almost humble, question set a mechanism into motion that ultimately shaped the course of architecture massively. The French gardener Joseph Monier answered this question by combining concrete with steel meshes and thus discovering reinforced concrete. He may have not been the first one to experiment with this material combination, his ingenuity however was in his ability to understand the various possibilities of his discovery up to the point of using the material for bridge designs and water towers. Today we are experiencing a similar shift in architectural production, on the one side triggered by the invention of novel materials, on the other propelled by the increased ability to control matter in space by the use of computer controlled machinery like CNC milling, laser cutting and 3D Printing. This entire development has been described as a second industrial revolution1 and it is already today changing the course of architectural production. It creates a massive rupture in the concept of architectural production that dominated the 20th century and empowers architects to become fabricators, again, which allows them for a higher control over the resulting architectural space. The intimate relationship between architecture, structure and materiality is not a novelty in architecture. It actually harks back to the professions origin, as we understand it today. Architects, in the present incarnation, first appeared in the gothic era, as true “Master builders” capable of conceiving spatial solutions on an intellectual, creative level, and capable to materialize this ideas. The materialization of course demands a deep knowledge about all the involved processes, and some insight into the stresses present within the materials, which are defined by the formation of the building. The 19th and especially the 20th century saw the separation of material, structure and architecture into different fields, partially due to the results of the industrial revolution and the demand for specialized knowledge, in order to be capable to increase the productivity in the building sector.
All of this can still be observed, as the prevailing model of corporate architecture firms.
In recent years however alternative methods and models have emerged from the possibilities inherent in computational design techniques. By now this development can not be described any more as avant-garde, it has in fact become a global model for a new industrial revolution, which now is not triggered and controlled by repetition, but by intelligent form finding processes and computational fabrication techniques. To describe in length what triggered this evolution would result in a universe of thoughts. Enough to say that we still are at the very beginning of what has been described as a second industrial revolution, and that the effects we can expect for the profession of architecture has been just barely explored. A handful of practices has moved on to create proof of concept buildings, with techniques that seemingly where first adopted by construction companies and engineers, such as CNC milling for traditional wood-nodes for gabled roofs, and then in a later stage by architects themselves, providing them with the ability to explore novel architectural conditions. This fresh start in the alliance of architects and advanced technologies has created a role in architecture which embeds the qualities of fabrication as a layer of meaning deeply rooted in the DNA of the architectural project. A plethora of installations, primarily executed within the field of academics, has served as the smoking gun for the opportunities inherent in this parametric design and fabrication revolution.
This tendency combines elements of biological behavior, mathematical rigor, environmental pressures and many more parameters capable of controlling the resulting architectural expression, to create material formations in space which are responsive to the instances. The form is massaged by the pressures put upon it.
In a way the paradigmatic shift went full circle encompassing every single aspect of architectural production, from the first computational sketch, or even just a line of code, to the parametrically controlled design process and finally the fabrication process of the building. It is interesting to observe the change in architectural jargon from the term building to the term fabrication2, as if architecture has moved away to understand itself as a discipline concerned with the tectonic layering (for example of bricks) to a practice of modeling space and fabricate it by numerically indexing the spatial distribution of matter. In fact the interplay between structure, surface and detail create an interconnected lattice of forces and behavior, capable of describing volume and enclosure in an alternative fashion to the prevailing techniques of tectonics in architecture. In the light of contemporary development in computational form finding processes, wither they be by the application of naïve algorithms or through the use of sophisticated generative computational models, the question of the subdivision of space into construction elements remain.
This essay focuses on the relation between surface condition and detail in order to speculate upon the opportunities to fold the program of detail into the surface condition.
The built example of the Austrian Pavilion at Shanghai Expo serves as proof of concept that by reducing the mass of details on the façade a multitude of prevailing problems in architectural production were addressed, such as the shift from horizontal to vertical in the materiality, the problem of resolution, the problem of gradually changing chromatic effects, the transition of materiality between interior and exterior and the question about fenestration in complex curved geometries. The combination of parametric modeling tools and the linear communication via 3D models facilitated the dialogue with the construction site. The idea, to reduce detail as additional element of the design, and to embed the performance in the geometry of the surface, proofed to be a valuable concept, which not only provided for an uncompromised, rigorous result from the design phase to the executed building but also helped to reduce construction time and costs. In a larger scale the concept of detail performance in the surface behavior means a paradigmatic shift in the conception of architectural space, from a tectonic, additive system, towards a lineage of forming.
Matias del Campo & Sandra Manninger head the Vienna-based Architecture firm SPAN, founded in 2003. Their award winning architecture designs are informed by an ecology of sources including Romanticism, Geometry, Biology and Botany. Employing among the most sophisticated digital design and fabrication tools, SPAN has become among the leaders of a new generation of form based practices in Europe. They received the MAK Schindler Scholarship in 2006. In 2008 and 2010 they served as Curators for the Architecture Biennale in Beijing. Their teaching assignments include Institutions such as the Angewandte in Vienna, the University of Pennsylvania, the DIA Dessau Institute of Architecture and DTMA SIVA at the Fudan University in Shanghai. Their works include the Design of the Austrian Pavilion for the Shanghai Expo 2010 and the award winning Brancusi Museum in Paris. Currently their work is on show at the 13th Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy.