We are Digital Structures, a research group at MIT working at the interface of architecture, structural engineering, and computation. We focus on the synthetic integration of creative and technical goals in the design and fabrication of buildings, bridges, and other large-scale structures. We are particularly interested in how digital techniques and tools can play an unexpected, collaborative role in these processes. Led by Professor Caitlin Mueller, the group is based in MIT’s Building Technology Program in the Department of Architecture, and also includes contributors from Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Center for Computational Engineering.
Felix Amtsberg's Bamboo Pavillion "Sombra Verde" opened in Singapore2018-05-09, Tags: 3d-printing additive-manufacturing digital-manufacturing fabrication
The bamboo pavilion “Sombra Verde” combines digital fabrication technology (I.E. 3D-printing) with natural grown resources in a spatial grid structure. Visual sensing digitizes the section geometry of each bamboo pole, which is used in two ways.
The bamboo poles are placed according their load-carrying capacity
The specific section geometry informs the digital model to fabricate a bespoke dowel system
Conventional 3D-Printers on PLA base materialize the 36 joints and 234 connectors using eco-friendly PLA and merge natural and "digital" materiality.
The project, which was developed and designed by Felix Amtsberg, Felix Raspall and Carlos Banon of AIRLab, can be visited in Duxton Plain Park until the 15th of June.
Yijiang Huang presented a poster at New England Symposium on Graphics2018-04-29, Tags: fabrication additive-manufacturing robotic-fabrication
Yijiang Huang is presenting the Choreo robotic assembly planning platform at the New England Symposium on Graphics, at MIT's STATA center, on April 29, 2018.
Digital Structures offers a workshop on active bending simulation at AAG 20182018-04-25, Tags: computation fabrication design-tool form-finding bending-active shaping
The workshop will explore the design of bending-active structures with variable cross-sections to fit a target design shape. Over the two days, the participants will use computational form-finding tools for bending-active structures, and design and build an arc lamp. The participants will learn state-of-the-art methods for simulating bending-active behavior, and for the control and optimization of their equilibrium shapes. These methods can be applied to the design of large scale bending-active structures such as elastic gridshells. The workshop is appropriate for all levels of expertise with bending-active simulations; we will provide the participants with computational tools and workflows to successfully design their own sculptures.
Designing with data: moving beyond the design space catalogNathan Brown and Caitlin Mueller, ACADIA, 2017
Design space catalogs, which present a collection of different options for selection by human designers, have become commonplace in architecture. Increasingly, these catalogs are rapidly generated using parametric models and informed by simulations that describe energy usage, structural efficiency, daylight availability, views, acoustic properties, and other aspects of building performance. However, by conceiving of computational methods as a means for fostering interactive, collaborative, guided, expert-dependent design processes, many opportunities remain to improve upon the originally static archetype of the design space catalog. This paper presents developments in the areas of interaction, automation, simplification, and visualization that seek to improve on the current catalog model, while also describing a vision for effective computer-aided, performance-based design processes in the future.
Digital brainstorming: New computational tools for creative data-driven designCaitlin Mueller, Nathan Brown, and Renaud Danhaive, ABX 2015: Conference for the Boston Society of Architects, 2015
This session focuses on tools that link conceptual design decisions in architecture to quantitative and qualitiative performance metrics, such as structural material volume, energy consumption, daylighting quality, and formal and spatial qualities. Developed by the Digital Structures research group at MIT, these tools emphasize design over analysis, aiming to help designers explore a wide range of diverse, surprising, and high-performing alternatives for conceptual design problems. Participants will learn strategies for using the tools in their own practices to navigate conceptual building design problems in a flexible yet data-driven way.
Structural grid shell design with Islamic pattern topologiesResearch, 2015 - 2017
Hängemattenbrücke (Hammock Bridge)Design, 2017
Structural lattice additive manufacturingResearch, 2015 - Present
Forces Frozen: Exploring Structural Ice ShellsWorkshop, 2014 - Present
Recent Blog Posts
Digital Structures academic year in review
Digital Structures enjoyed a fruitful academic year. We wanted to share some of our highlights with you as well as some events we're looking forward to in the future.
We also enjoyed presenting and representing Digital Structures at several other conferences around the world, including the Design Modeling Symposium Paris, Chicago Architecture Biennale, and the International Mass Timber Conference.
A design team led by Valentina won first place in the Mars City Design 2017 Competition for Urban Design.
We also enjoyed both hosting and presenting at ACADIA 2017 on our campus.
Finally, we enjoyed hosting and interviewing guest lecturers such as Les Robertson and SawTeen See in our 6th annual Edward and Mary Allen Lecture in Structural Design, glass artist Sophie Pennetier, Professor Christopher Robeller of TU Kaiserslautern, and Martha Tsigkari of Foster + Partners.
This spring two of our members are graduating: Yijiang and Brenda. Yijiang completed his thesis for a Master's of Science in Building Technology on "Automated Motion Planning for Robotic Assembly of Discrete Architectural Structures", and Brenda completed her thesis for a Master's of Engineering in Civil Engineering on "Minimizing Embodied Carbon in Multi-Material Structural Optimization of Planar Trusses". Congratulations!
Coming up, we're excited to hold a workshop on active bending simulation at AAG 2018 and to present on robotic extrusion at RobArch 2018. Hope to see you in July as we host IASS 2018 here on our own campus!
"A deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people": B.V. Doshi Receives the 2018 Pritzker Prize2018-03-22, Author: Mohamed Ismail
On the morning of March 7, 2018, it was announced that Balkrishna V. Doshi would be the 2018 recipient of the 45th Pritzker Prize in Architecture – the profession’s highest accolade. With a career spanning nearly 70 years, B. V. Doshi is the first South Asian architect to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Born to a Hindu family in the city of Pune in 1927, Doshi grew up around his grandfather’s furniture workshop. According to the Pritzker organization: "Alongside a deep respect for Indian history and culture, elements of his youth—memories of shrines, temples, and bustling streets; scents of lacquer and wood from his grandfather’s furniture workshop—all find a way into his architecture." Shortly after studying at the Sir J.J. School of Architecture in Mumbai, Doshi moved to Europe to practice as an architect. In 1950, Doshi attended the historic Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) conference in Hoddeson, England. Consequently, he found himself to be the only Indian attending a presentation of Le Corbusier’s design for Chandigarh, the future state capital of Punjab. Doshi requested to work for Le Corbusier on the spot and was told to submit a letter rather than a portfolio; on the basis of his handwriting alone, Doshi was able to join Le Corbusier’s office without pay.
BV Doshi in his studio at Sangath, Ahmedabad. Image courtesy of the Vastu Shilpa Foundation
BV Doshi and Le Corbusier touring Villa Sodhan, Ahmedabad. Image courtesy of the Architectural Review
On the surface, B.V. Doshi’s work reminds viewers of Louis Kahn’s geometries and Le Corbusier’s materiality – both of them were former collaborators and mentors to Doshi. But over the span of his career, Doshi developed an architectural language all his own and uniquely Indian. As the Pritzker organization stated: “With a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high quality, authentic architecture, he has created projects for public administrations and utilities, educational and cultural institutions, and residences for private clients, among others. Doshi is acutely aware of the context in which his buildings are located.” Amidst his vast portfolio, Doshi’s most acclaimed projects include the Aranya Low-Cost Housing Project, his office, Sangath (“an ongoing school where one learns, unlearns and relearns.”), and the Amdavad ni Gufa (Ahmedabad, 1995). As Louisa Hutton said in an introduction to his lecture at the Royal Academy in London, “Lamenting the degeneration of the city into a place for mere commercial transaction, Mr. Doshi argues for the creation of an authentic public realm of such quality that it will lodge in our memories…He sees architecture and in particular the open spaces between buildings…as being capable of fostering community relationships, social cohesion and, as a result, meaningful lives.” Doshi also founded the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology, a premier school of architecture in India, where he is dean emeritus.
BV Doshi's drawing of Sangath, Ahmedabad. Image courtesy of Archdaily
B.V. Doshi recently came to the attention of Digital Structures through his work with renowned Indian engineer, Mahendra Raj. Alongside designers like Charles Correa and Raj Rewal, Raj and Doshi are referred to as “fathers of Indian Modernism”, crafting an architectural legacy that continues to inspire designers to this day. Their impact on the education and practice of architects and engineers cannot be overstated – they brought the techniques and structural systems developing abroad and applied them to a newly independent nation’s search for a global identity. Both were educated and trained abroad but returned to India shortly after its independence to establish their own practices. As Mahendra Raj stated in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (Domus, 2014): “Our common objective was to set up practices here, find our own roots and rise to the same stature that other countries had attained. We sought an Indian idiom that expressed our ancient culture but was in tune with modern times…For us engineers, there was the exposure to the new materials of concrete, steel, and precast concrete.”
Recounting his first interaction with Doshi, Raj said, “I knew of Doshi when I was working in Chandigarh on Le Corbusier’s building. I used to see these drawings that came from Le Corbusier’s office in Paris — they were very stylish, with things that we couldn’t decipher. We thought some Frenchman had drawn them, but then we found out it was Doshi making the drawings we were receiving.” Through their collaborations, Mahendra Raj and B.V. Doshi designed projects that are still considered feats of engineering and design to this day. These projects include the Tagore Memorial Hall (Ahmedabad, 1971) built with long-spanning folded plates of reinforced concrete, and Premabhai Hall (Ahmedabad, 1972) with its monumental cantilevers.
Tagore Hall in Ahmedabad, by BV Doshi and Mahendra Raj. Image courtesy of Architexturez
Premabhai Hall in Ahmedabad, by BV Doshi and Mahendra Raj. Image courtesy of Architexturez
Today, designers and researchers everywhere are following in their footsteps – including here, at MIT. With the support of the MIT Tata Center for Research and Design, Digital Structures is researching the design of materially-efficient structural elements in multi-story housing construction for India. This research has already benefited from a study of the work of B.V. Doshi and Mahendra Raj, and there is still much more to learn.
Speculative design of shaped beam structure for India. Image courtesy of Digital Structures
Having just celebrated his 90th birthday this past August, Doshi has already been the recipient of the Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of France (2011); Aga Khan Award for Architecture (1993-1995) for Aranya Community Housing; and Padma Shree National Award, Government of India (1976) among other recognitions. Doshi is also a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and served on the Pritzker Prize Jury from 2005 to 2007. For the Architectural Review in 2016, William J.R. Curtis noted that the architect’s best work, “draws together both Doshi’s international inspirations and the results of his search for fundamentals in several areas of Indian tradition…Doshi’s aim of re-linking modern man with the rhythms of nature extends a Modernist utopia while returning to ancient wisdom.”
Digital Structures would like to add to the chorus of congratulations to Balkrishna V. Doshi on his well-earned award – we hope that this moment will be one of many to bring international attention to a rich legacy of architectural design and structural engineering in South Asia.
“Always question your own preconceptions”: Discussing the future of technology in architecture with Martha Tsigkari of Foster + Partners2018-02-15, Author: Demi Fang
Amidst the excitement of ACADIA 2017 on MIT’s campus, we found an opportunity to sit down and chat with Martha Tsigkari, who presented the New International Airport Mexico City (2020) with her colleagues. Tsigkari trained as an architect-engineer in Greece before obtaining a master’s degree at The Bartlett’s Architectural Computation programme at UCL, which she describes as “a computer science course for designers and architects.” She has been at the Applied Research + Development (AR+D) group at Foster + Partners’ London office ever since. In this post, we synthesize some of her thoughts on the future of technology in architecture, on the art of collaborating across disciplines, and on the humility necessary for innovation. Quotes have been edited for clarity.
The main focus of Tsigkari’s role and presentation of Foster + Partners’ highly anticipated New International Airport Mexico City was “evidence in performance-driven design. It’s all about how all the analysis and optimization can be incorporated through the life of the model to make for a better solution,” Tsigkari says.
On working with Arup, the engineers on the airport project, Tsigkari says that “it was a fantastic collaboration. The design process was not conventional in that we knew how we wanted the space frame to look aesthetically, so we developed all the processes necessary to create a structurally viable and well-performing space frame. Arup was confident in the processes we had and fully adapted our topology. They would receive our permutations of the final model, analyze them, and return with the sizes of the nodes and elements required. From that feedback we would make some aesthetic decisions; if we saw some really big nodes, for example, we knew that we had to do something with the topology and the smoothing of the space frame at that location.”
New International Airport Mexico City. Copyright Foster + Partners
Aside from performance-based design, the AR+D group at Foster + Partners focuses on multi-faceted and cutting-edge topics. “We see a huge future within architecture in Virtual Reality (VR),” Tsigkari says. “We also do a lot with simulations and optimization; we have written our own simulation engines that run tens or hundreds of times faster than those in the industry. I worked a lot with interoperability - making sure that this simulation works with all the different platforms that we’re using and that they talk with each other. We’re using those tools through optimization processes, whether it’s cognitive computing or genetic algorithms.
“We are also quite heavily involved with innovative interfaces to help designers understand the repercussions of their decisions very early on in the design process,” says Tsigkari. “We’re doing a lot of things with innovative materials and design-to-fabrication processes as well as looking into interesting things like the Internet of Things, seeing how we can make smarter buildings and cities that not only get constant feedback from the experiences that people have, but also better themselves without human input.
Tsigkari emphasizes the significance of nonlinear analyses and adaptive processes in future steps to improve the built environment. “There is a fundamental problem in the way we design most of our buildings: typically, it is a linear analysis for a specific pseudo-optimal state. For example, we design buildings based on the worst-case scenario of an earthquake. The resulting design is going to be useless for 90% of the time - it is only useful for the one-off chance that an earthquake happens. On the other hand, if you see how nature works, and if you embrace the idea of compliant mechanisms and nonlinear analysis, then you start embracing the ideas of embodied computation that Axel Kilian was explores in his tower, where you don’t optimize based on worst-case scenarios but instead try to design a form intelligent enough to optimize itself based on the feedback it gets and based on a specific state it always needs to return to. For me, this idea is extremely crucial. It feels like a natural next step in how we build.”
Tsigkari goes on to describe an ongoing research collaboration with Autodesk’s Panos Michalatos, Matt Jezyk and Amira Abdel-Rahmani: “We are essentially running nonlinear analyses for compliant mechanisms on the material level. More specifically, we are working with thermally actuated laminates. You can see situations where a facade is no longer a static element, but is externally actuated and adapts.
“A big part of our research right now is to understand the laminate layering required for the desired adaptations. My colleague Marcin Kosicki has been working with TensorFlow to develop a neural network, feeding in different laminates and the associated disfiguration of the material.”
Tsigkari maintains a humble, if not borderline cynical, perspective on the state of technology in architecture today. “Architecture as a profession is, I daresay, backward-looking. The industry is we are very slow to adapt to new technologies. It’s interesting to see that in the past decade, there has been a significant shift towards more computational design processes. I think what made the shift is the development of tools - for example, Grasshopper for Rhino - which made visual scripting quite intuitive. It introduced a different interface for users towards computer-science-based processes.”
How does Tsigkari train students towards such a rapidly evolving field? “What I learned at The Bartlett was not a particular software but computer science and algorithms: how to write a vanilla AI algorithm and how to potentially apply this to design problems. The trick is to get the underlying knowledge of what these processes are and how they could be used. You can use that knowledge in whatever software you want as long as you know what it is, how it works, and what you can expect from it.
“If what we see in Grasshopper is the skin of computational design, what we’re teaching is the bones and muscles of it; the underlying principles of computation. We are teaching algorithms that are not new - other fields have been using these for the past 60 years. In architecture we have started using them in the past decade. The reality is that we’re 60 years behind industries like rocket science, the chemical industries, or the army. It’s interesting to see how people feel extremely proud of using tools that have been around for over half a century and have been successfully used in many other industries with quite innovative outcomes.”
The interdisciplinary nature of the AR+D team helps. “We have people who have architectural backgrounds or engineering backgrounds, or both, but we also have artists, computer scientists, aeronautical engineers... I think that looking at what is achieved in other industries is absolutely key to being able to innovate within our own industry in terms of building processes, materials, and even techniques. Only now are we starting to look at how swarm robotics can affect buildings; techniques like these have been used extensively in other industries in the past with fantastic results. This kind of cross-referencing that can be beneficial for our industry.”
Martha Tsigkari with Francis Aish and Norman Foster at the keynote of Architectural Advances in Geometry Symposium 2016. Image courtesy of AAG 2016
It is by chance that Tsigkari occupies an unusual career path at the intersection of practice and academia. “My involvement with teaching is really driven by my late mentor, Alasdair Turner. He initiated the master’s programme I’m teaching at now, and he was this fantastic personality - a computer scientist, who had a lot of interest in tying computer science, architecture, and philosophy together.
“Alasdair took me from a world where I was unsure where I wanted to be and led me down a rabbit-hole to a completely different world of possibilities. After his untimely death, I kind of took over his lectures on genetic programming. For me, teaching is about extending his legacy to the newer generations, helping people the same way I was helped, to understand the art of the possible. So that’s how I ended up in academia.
“I actually find it extremely hard to be both in academia and in industry because they’re both very time-consuming. You need to be very strict with your time,” says Tsigkari. “Having said that, it gives fantastic opportunities to educate newer generations with notions you have in industry. I do not simply show my students an algorithm, but I can also show them its potential by showing them the projects I’ve used it on. It gives people a direct connection between the algorithm (which is quite abstract) and what can be done with it (which is quite tangible). I find that this connection is really interesting, and it’s very interesting for the students as well. I’ve always gotten very positive feedback about having that understanding.
Asked to give advice to students aspiring to be architects or engineers, Tsigkari pauses and admits, “This is a very difficult question. I’m horrible at giving advice; I feel that people should be their own advisers and they should do what feels right for them.”
Despite these comments, Tsigkari gradually offers some striking pieces of advice as she continues. “I think you should always do what feels right for you, and that you should always question everything. I would say you should also always question your own preconceptions of what things are. So if you are on the verge between architecture and engineering, question what these two mean for you. Your preconceptions are going to lead you down one road that may not be what you think it was. Step back; don’t make big plans. Feel your way through things that you’re interested in, and something will always come up.”
Citing her own experience, Tsigkari recalls that “as with everything in my life, I had no plans. I never saw myself in a certain position, ever. Other people had plans for me, which I had never followed. I went to a very traditional school, and I learned a lot, but they were not things I wanted to to do for the rest of my life. I mutated, diversified, and changed myself in order to pursue what I wanted.”
Tsigkari continues, “If I were to advise something, it would be to not tag yourself. Do not call yourself an architect or an engineer or a computer scientist - nowadays, I think the da Vincian perception of a person is what is closer to what we need in order to innovate. It is important to understand various disciplines while always saying to yourself that you know very, very little. That will always drive you to become better. It will take the danger out of what you do and will make a better person out of you.
“I look back at my university years with a sense of newfound introspection. Had I known then what I know now, I would never have chosen architecture - never. I would possibly go into artificial intelligence, robotics, or neuroscience, and do something completely different, because I see even now that these are the things that are interesting to me.”
Reflecting briefly on the direction in which she hopes to steer her future, Tsigkari continues, “I guess that I am trying to shift my path towards those topics that I am interested in. It becomes more difficult as time goes by and you get more responsibility at work, but, you know... I don’t think it’s ever too late.”