INFRAME: Art in elastic timber frameDesign, 2019
The INFRAME pavilion is a temporary timber elastic gridshell structure built on the MIT campus in September 2019 as part of Judyta Cichocka's CEE MEng thesis. The structure transforms the function of the public staircase between buildings E15 and E25 on the MIT campus into a performance area. A single layer gridshell becomes a real temporary outdoor stage for electronic music performances, a canvas for a video-mapping show, and has multiple imaginary roles invented by potential next owners. The ultimate goal of the project was to design an elastic timber gridshell, which can be constructed in real-life scenario, providing a functional space for experimental artistic performances and which endeavors to embody the principles of structural art: economy, efficiency and elegance. The challenge lied in development of the design strategy, which allows rapid construction by a small group of inexperienced builders at minimum cost while complying to the building code in Massachusetts (which was required by MIT).
Mohamed Ismail Presents at ACSA 20182018-03-17, Tags: conceptual-design conceptual-structural-design constructabililty design-tool shell-structures structural-optimization visualization
Mohamed presented his paper entitled "Resistance Through Form: Synthesis Structures in the Design of a Residential Architecture for Khartoum, Sudan" at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture's (ACSA) 106th Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, on March 17th, 2018. He presented his paper in the session "Architecture of the other 99%? – Power, Economy, and the Dilemma of History", and then joined a panel discussion moderated by Professor Ole Fischer of the University of Utah.
"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.
Computational tools and experimental making in timber construction: In conversation with Christopher Robeller
Of the many exciting innovations in digital fabrication permeating architecture research today, the work of Christopher Robeller stands out in the growing field of timber construction. Robeller completed his PhD in 2015 on the integral mechanical attachment of timber panels at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL)’s laboratory for timber construction, IBOIS. He spent the following two years as a post-doctoral researcher at the Swiss National Centre in Research (NCCR), applying his research to the construction of a fully functioning building: the Vidy Theatre. Recently appointed Junior Professor in Digital Timber Construction at TU Kaiserslautern, Robeller presented his process and experience working on the Vidy at the ACADIA 2017 conference at MIT in early November of this year.
Robeller also stopped by to chat with us about his work and his thoughts on wood, the built environment, and the importance of experimentation in making. The questions and responses below have been edited for clarity.
Digital Structures: How did you get to be interested in and involved with wood?
Christopher Robeller: My family has been working with timber for a couple of generations, but for more pragmatic things like making windows. My fascination from childhood was always that wood was a nice material to work with - it’s not too dirty, and it’s something you can craft. It’s even got a nice smell to it! It’s a material I’m very passionate about.
DS: Can you describe your training in architecture and/or engineering?
CR: I studied architecture at the London Metropolitan University. It was not a mixed course, but I was always very interested in engineering at the same time. I was very impressed by all of the creativity and ideas being generated in architecture school, but there was a point where I realized that in order to make it really work, you have to overcome a lot of engineering challenges, and only if you really manage that can you make really great architecture.
I have combined my interests in architecture and engineering in the last few years. I first worked with Achim Menges, through which I collaborated a bit with Jan Knippers’s laboratory, a team of mostly engineers. When I went to IBOIS at EPFL for my PhD, I found that I was one of the few architects - there were times when I was one of two architects on a ten-person team.
It would be a shame for a building to have a strong and interesting architectural concept but have details that don’t match the quality of the rest of the building. I found an opportunity through the PhD to focus on those more in-depth aspects of geometry, fabrication, and engineering.
DS: What are your thoughts on relationship between architecture and engineering?
CR: In my traditional experience in architecture, there is not much interaction. You expect the engineer to figure it out, and most projects rely on the state-of-the-art. Architects and engineers get to work much more closely together in more experimental projects in academia.
Computational tools offer a chance for architects and engineers to work together. These tools offer control over design, and that control is valuable in both fields. There is only so much you can do with a software that comes off the shelf that was developed for certain purpose; if you want to use the software for a different purpose, you have to modify the software to make it do what you want it to do. Architects and engineers are starting to take advantage of this.
This area is where the two fields reach a bit of a common language. I am seeing computer scientists, civil engineers, and architects work on similar collaborative models. You might find a very interesting solution for your architectural or engineering problem in some algorithm that has just been developed by some computer scientists. Then you can get together and plug in together if you’re working on a common ground such as a common programming language.
DS: What are your thoughts on the relationship between academia and practice?
CR: They can be worlds apart, especially in timber construction. The community of timber construction is highly skilled but can sometimes be rather conservative. On the other hand, there is the creative and artistic community of architects who design amazing things with timber. It’s really interesting how you have to find a balance between these two groups because they can be very far from each other.
Given the complexity of wood, you have to bring the two groups together. You have to talk to the companies in the construction industry that specialize in timber. In design and engineering, we are usually generalists working with many materials, whereas these companies have long ago specialized in one material and have gained a lot of knowledge over the decades. That’s something that should be respected. If you get in touch with them - which you only do through these experimental projects - you learn a lot from them.
There is a lot of discussion right now over the social component of digitalization. There is a danger of neglecting people who are not in the loop. Once again, computational tools allow you to integrate people in industry into the design process. I think we’ve done that with the Vidy Theatre: we went to companies, talked to the experts there, and included them in the process. I specifically developed a program that the fabricator there could use. We didn’t use software that eliminate the engineer and the fabricator from the design and manufacturing process. It’s something we should think about: how these digital workflows can incorporate specialists.
DS: Do you hope to continue bridging these fields - architecture and engineering, and research and practice - through your new professorship?
CR: I am definitely trying to bring the four worlds together. People in practice already know how to do things; they’re absolute professionals in the state-of-the-art. In teaching, the beauty is in not having that expertise yet. This lets you think about things in a completely different way, in a free and open way, and you might come up with interesting and intuitive solutions.
For example, I was making the first prototype for a timber plate shell construction project in the workshop by myself, with my hands. I was assembling the prototype on its side because intuitively it made sense to allow the weight of the elements to help with insertion. But in building design, it was being designed right-side-up as usual, and that was what was causing all the problems when we tried to put together a larger prototype. It wasn’t until we finally thought back to the first prototype that I built sideways that we realized what the problem was. I might not have had that experience if I hadn’t made that prototype myself.
Timber plate shell prototype assembled on its side. Image courtesy of Christopher Robeller.
Great architects and engineers are people who quite often have been working physically themselves making things, making prototypes and models. This very rarely happens in actual architecture-engineering design processes - it’s only in academia that a designer of a building actually goes and makes not only a representational model but a functional model of some joint or assembly - himself.
Robeller (left) chats with DS students Courtney Stephen (middle) and Paul Mayencourt (right).
DS: What is something that excites you the most about future possibilities in wood?
CR: We can do amazing things with timber in fabrication, and I think that’s the biggest development in the last ten, twenty years. If you had shown me our work on the Vidy Theatre ten years ago, I would have thought it was magic. Now having done all of it, it doesn’t really seem like magic anymore.
We have come a far way, and it’s much easier to do these things now. While geometry processing and fabrication have become more manageable, the building implementations allow us to focus on new challenges such as integrated concepts for structural engineering and building physics.
One reason I went to IBOIS is because of their machinery (5-axis CNC machine). If you want to experiment with the making of today, you need the technology to be accessible; you don’t have that everywhere. In educational institutions, it’s very important to not only have the technology but to have it accessible to the greater community.
It’s funny, I talked to companies like Blumer Lehmann - they had their first 5-axis machine in 1985. That’s how long they’ve had it! Mechanically, not much has changed. You probably could have done the Vidy Theatre back then. The computer was surely capable enough. The limitation was accessibility: you didn’t have the CNC machinery in universities, at least in architecture and engineering. CNC technology may have been developed at MIT, but it took a long time for it to come into architecture and building in a way that’s accessible to the architecture research community.
Construction of Vidy Theatre. Image courtesy of Christopher Robeller.
Another exciting challenge I see is that not only do we have something very beautiful, but we also have something that can make a positive impact in terms of the ecological construction that we need so much. It’s like having your cake and eating it too! We have something beautiful, something interesting, we can address the challenges of digitalization by making jobs more pleasant and more interesting and less hard manual work, and at the same time we can maybe make it more ecologic. But that’s really a maybe; I’m very self-critical about my work so far, and it has not been something focusing on sustainability - yet. But this is clearly something I see as a realistic possibility and something I want to look more into.
DS: Do you have any advice for young researchers and architects who are interested in exploring and applying timber innovations?
CR: Be passionate and be creative. When you first begin as a student, you’re very free from any state-of-the-art that tells you how things are supposed to work. You have to use the moment. Eventually, of course, you have to learn all of the things, but every stage of the journey is an interesting step.
Low-Cost, Low-Carbon Structural Components for Housing in IndiaResearch, 2017 - Present
In More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs) such as the United States, labor costs constrain affordable construction. As a result, architects and engineers design with systems that reduce the time and complexity of assembly – making use of standardized structural components, nominal sizing, and elements that are not materially efficient or optimal for estimated loading conditions. On the other hand, in Lower Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs) material costs, rather than labor, inhibit affordable construction. Conservatively, materials account for an estimated 60-80% of construction costs in LEDCs such as India. This incongruity highlights an opportunity for structural components optimized for material efficiency and suit the context of a developing LEDC such as India.
This research explores the design of structural components and standards that could be disseminated by partners involved in India’s affordable housing construction. It is an application of emerging technology and practices in structural optimization. The exploration will involve not only defining ideal structural forms, but also designing the mechanisms required to build and assemble these components – reducing the environmental and economic costs of construction through the entire process of realization. This research is being done with the support and guidance of the MIT Tata Center.
Integrating constructability into conceptual structural design and optimizationAbbigayle Horn, MIT MEng Thesis, 2015
This thesis encourages interdisciplinary design exploration through consideration of constructability in conceptual structural design. Six new metrics are introduced to measure variability in structural components, impose reasonable construction constraints, and encourage standardization of structural characteristics which can improve the ease, efficiency, and costs of construction. This thesis applies these original constructability metrics to truss façade structures for an objective, quantitative comparison with structural performance metrics. The primary contribution of these new metrics is a computational method that can aid in identifying expressive, high-performing structures in the conceptual design phase, when decisions regarding global structural behavior have the greatest impact on multi-objective project goals.
Integrating constructability into conceptual structural design and optimizationResearch, 2014 - 2015
This research encourages interdisciplinary design exploration through consideration of constructability in conceptual structural design. Six new metrics are introduced to measure variability in structural components, impose reasonable construction constraints, and encourage standardization of structural characteristics which can improve the ease, efficiency, and costs of construction. This research applies these original constructability metrics to truss facade structures for an objective, quantitative comparison with structural performance metrics. The primary contribution of these new metrics is a computational method that can aid in identifying expressive, high-performing structures in the conceptual design phase, when decisions regarding global structural behavior have the greatest impact on multi-objective project goals.