An Architectural Revolution
Rigital Production and Fabrication
University of Michigan
Milton S. F. Curry
October, 18th 2012
“Architecture or revolution. Revolution can be avoided.”
– Le Corbusier
The production and fabrication of architecture has been a concept of particular interest, especially in the last six or seven decades in the United States. One might ask, “Isn’t architecture inherently about the making of things? So what is the significance of the interest in production? Isn’t production, just another means of construction?” Granted architecture is at its core about the making of things, whether physical or conceptual. However, this recent interest in production and fabrication is distinguished from the idea of construction due to the ideas of short assembly time, offsite manufacturing, and in particular the digital tools and techniques utilized in the process. As of now, these ideas have yet to be integrated in what is generally considered to be the process of typical construction, and is therefore thought of as separate. However, to understand this distinction, and the trajectory of the future of architectural fabrication methods and hopefully the integration into typical construction methods, it is crucial to understand the relatively short yet highly progressive history of this movement.
The history of fabrication and production begins with the “Trailer Coaches” in the 1920. These aero dynamic aluminum skin recreation vehicles resembled the plane skins that would be manufactured in only a few years during World War II. The prefab craze struck in earnest with the post-World War II era. There are several factors that make this era a fertile time for this new interest. The setting is established by the empty factories and surplus materials left over from the war. Coupled with the boom in young families seeking housing, the idea of a mass-produced, pre-fabricated housing solution was a low hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked. The famous Lustron houses, developed by Carl Strandlund, capitalized on the demand, facilities and material excess of the time to create one of the first completely prefab housing solutions in the US. It was followed in the by the Sears houses and the Levittown housing development. Once the trend of prefab house lost their novelty, the ideas of fabrication and production of architecture went dormant for a while, at least in the architecture field.
Since the time of the first production line designed by Ford, the automotive industry in particular has been driven by the need to make more sophisticated yet quicker and more efficient means. The highly versatile multi-axis robotic arms that are boasted in the “state of the arc facilities” are only recently finding their way into the field of architecture through the explorations at many colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan, and a select group of professionals such as SHoP Architects, and Swiss architects Gramazia and Kohler, in projects like the Pike Wall and the Mulberry Street Condos in New York. However, the automotive industry is not the only one to begin to develop tools and techniques that have influenced architecture today. The ship building industry has made use of large scale CAD/CAM laser technology for years now; it has revolutionized speed and efficiency, as well as accuracy. The dirigible manufacturing industry has even explored the use of large scale, multi-head CAD/CAM laser cutters. These technologies have only begun to be used in the field of architecture in the last few—and even then it seems that architects are content to use these technologies to make models, furniture, gallery installations, facades, etc. In essence, the field of architecture is not making use of these tools and technologies to be used for the making of buildings and occupiable spaces––what architecture is supposed to be about.
The current use of these digital fabrication tools has been the result of the digital or computational architectural revolution, as it is sometimes called. Over the last couple of decades, with the advent of the computer, architecture has become very focused on computer generated designs and even dependent on them to such an extent that some believe that architects have lost their sense of craft. This revolution has created a problem in the industry however, for the complexity of these novel designs are often beyond the means of the current construction methods. As Corbusier said in his publication, Architecure or Revolution, “In every province of industry, new problems have arisen and have been met by the creation of a body of tools capable of dealing with them”. This new direction in architectural design was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, however, since it was the product of technology rather than a need of the industry per se. And as such, in reality, it did not have a problem to solve. As Mario Carpo bluntly stated:
A revolution without an enemy is a solution without a problem. In the early ‘90s, the digital revolution in architecture had no clear identified course of history to call into question: in true postmodern fashion, it had no preset destination – no target, as it were, and almost no end in mind. Indeed, 15 years later, some may reasonably claim that as the digital turn had nowhere to go, it went nowhere.
Digital fabrication, unlike the software movement, has been developed in response to the problems of construction and output that the software movement created. Digital fabrication, however, as of yet has been limited primarily to model making, small scale projects such as furniture and specialized building elements, and gallery installations. It has not yet been taken seriously as a viable means of construction, which is a great loss, for it completely upsets Adolf Loos’ principle that “ornament represents wasted labor and ruined material”. Digital fabrication on its own possesses the ability to enable the realization of complex geometries with extreme precision and efficiency—geometries that were once impossible to even conceive much less fabricate without obscene amounts of time, labor and wasted material. If this wasn’t enough, the geometries and process are repeatable. Thus, the potential and power of digital fabrication begins to be understood not only as an alternate means of construction, but a means of production. Why not the primary means of construction of the future?
In the last couple of years, the software movement has developed a new phase that has been dubbed “parametric design.” Essentially, it is a loop back to the formal logic behind design and computational design. Rather than three-dimensional models being the primary focus, they are the bi-product of the “recipe”, script, or definition. This allows for numerous iterations to be generated quickly with very little effort and for variable functions to be embedded within design. The significance of this parametric trend is its ability to calculate for modularity and limited-variation in a highly complex and irregular design. Digital fabrication tools can be used to make components of endless variation, however, with a limited pallet, digital fabrication solutions suddenly pulls digital design output from merely a solution to create these designs to the realms of rapid production and even mass production.
An extremely pertinent example of the efficiency and time saving element associated with these technologies is the integration into the construction of the Sagrada Familia, in BarcelonaSpain, designed by Antoni Gaudi. The project has been under construction since 1882, primarily due to sporadic funding, however, it is also an extremely labor intensive construction process. In the past couple of years, however, digital computation and fabrication have been integrated into the construction process. The result has been a drastic surge in progress, some even estimate that what was taking ten years before is now accomplished in a single year. Construction passed the midpoint this year, and the design is expected to be complete in 2026, the centennial anniversary of Gaudi’s death.
One of the lamentations of the developments in architecture during the last several decades has been the increasing complexity and requirements associated with building design. It has forced designers to specialize in the building industry as engineers of numerous specializations, architects of particular interests and focuses, and a colorful spread of other designers, not to mention the contractors and fabricators at the construction end of the building profession. Previously, these were all embodied in the profession of master builder. Although the same level of involvement and innovation may never again be seen due to the modern specializations, digital fabrication at least begins to make strides toward bringing the elements of innovation and the essential involvement in the construction process back in to the court of architects.
What is needed is this logic of fabrication to be integrated into the design process just as seamlessly as the ideas of drawing details and assembling specifications is currently. The current generation of architectural students is increasingly becoming familiar and adept at these means of production. However, they have yet to see it as a craft and a tool of construction as fundamental as a hammer, a screw gun, or a power saw. The danger posed to the field is relegating digital fabrication to a new specialization, recently dubbed as fabricators, rather than completely integrating this logic into design forethought.
This integration has already occurred in the automotive and ship building industries. Why not in the architectural industry as well? Why couldn’t buildings be produced with the same level of iconic appeal, complexity, and the scale that cars, ships, planes, and many of the other manufactured products available to us today? If this development of digital fabrication is to indeed become a revolution of the architecture industry and construction methods, designers and fabricators must begin to contemplate the inherent design implications that are available with response to these new technologies.
There are two extremes of the possibilities available to this new vein of architectural design, but it is first instructive to understand the implications of its execution. In much the same way that Walter Benjamin described the “aura” of an art piece, there is an “aura” of space and time associated with the one-off form of design to which architecture is currently bound.
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.
Because every site is different, architectural designers have been stuck in a rut of designing from the ground up each and every time—essentially reinventing the wheel every time. This nostalgic view of design is hindering the progression of design ideology and is hindering the evolution of the profession to its detriment in a competitive market.
Over the decades various inventions and innovation have changed industries and way of life:
The automobile formatted the landscape of highways and sprawling suburbias. The elevator formatted the tall building, not as an architectural endeavor but as a real estate formula for the global city of skyscrapers. Conveyance devices that mix these and other transportation repertoires might have enormous consequence for the morphology and use of buildings.
Just as the elevator, car and the conveyor belt revolutionized, real-estate, transportation and the shipping industry, digital fabrication has the potential to completely reframe the realm of architectural design. As Benjamin stated, the implications and opportunities of reproduction should be embraced and capitalized rather than nostalgically shunned:
…for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an even greater degree the work of art reproduced become the work of art designed for reproducibility.
In the same manner architectural practice needs to begin to embrace the connotations of digital fabrication and the potential impact of the divorce from time and space of locating a project. Ironically, there are a number of notable examples of placeless designs—namely the skyscraper and the tract home developments. These are by no means embracing their full potential.
Benjamin began his dissertation by stating emphatically:
We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bring about an amazing change in our very notion of art.
It is not a great stretch to replace art with architecture in this quote. Benjamin himself even identified architectural practice as an innovative endeavor:
Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. The laws of its reception are most instructive.
One needn’t go far to find examples of this. A visit to the nearest architectural gallery or exhibition will suffice. Architecture thrives off the bedazzlement of innovation, yet, somehow, it remains to be the sole remnant of a custom design mentality that have given way completely to the modern capitalistic mentality of mass production and brand identity.
David Celento, as recounted in Fabricating Architecture, states:
…our culture relies heavily upon brand-name products for self-identity, and membership in today’s consumer collective is gained through the purchase of celebrated popular products rather than unique hand-knitted sweaters from Grandma. Oxymoronically, people assert their “individuality” through their display of mass brands and accessories.
This creates a conundrum from architect, for it has been the practice of the profession to create unique one-off design for every client, with the inspiration supposedly drawing from the inspirations of the site, community and environment. However, as one can attest to with very little experience in the practice, clients are generally more concerned with speed of construction and predictability of budget. This disconnect of interests between client and architect is the source of much of the stress associated with design. What if architectural design was thought of more on the terms of automotive, fashion or even smart phone design? It is time for architecture to move in the twenty-first century capitalistic market mentality—and digital fabrication methods provide the means to accomplish this with two design philosophies of differing extremities.
The first polarity of this design gradient is mass customization. This refers back to the earlier discussion of the reintroduction of “ornament” no longer being a product of excessive time and material. Digital fabrication processes have presented opportunities in conjunction with parametrics to allow for generative variation field conditions within a design without adding significantly to the construction or assembly efforts of a project. The challenge of this form of design and fabrication strategy is that it still clings to the singular project mentality—it however exaggerates it to explore new tectonics and is thus a valid exploration. This approach necessitates the visitation of the concept of patronage. Curiously, rather than the church or state, educational institutions and the modern-day elite—the celebrities— have been a source of steady support for innovative explorations of spatial relationships and technical tectonics.
The opposite polarity of the possibilities and opportunities afforded by digital fabrication techniques is the idea of mass production. This extreme takes the focus of the design as a commodity and puts the stress on the production to generate profit. Identity is created through add-ons and options much the way the automotive industry, fashion and most of the product based industry operates. Tract housing has already begun to operate along this trajectory. The quality of the design and production is associated with ranking and desirability, while the quantity is what generates the revenue stream—also the limited quantity also begin to create social statutes and identity for the consumer.
Mass production also possesses the potential to take architectural design into the realm of open source. This is currently seen as a threat in the profession, as it threatens the very existence of the architect. However, with mass production, the weight taken having been off the design—although nothing will ever replace a well informed and intelligent design—and places it on the production, both in terms of the embedded knowledge of the design and the expertise of the fabricator (ideal related or the same entities). The concepts “who” and “how” of architecture is shifted much the same way that Benkler describe the shift caused by the network information economy in his manuscript, The Wealth of Networks.
This shift in the roles of the designers and fabricators would seem to threaten and diminish the role of the architect. However it simply frees the design to explore new forms of identity through technique and aesthetic much the same way fashion designers have for decades. This begins to give rise to new opportunities of specialization and diversification of identity with in the profession of architectural design. This begins to put stress on collaboration within the industry for a successful and profitable design. The practice of a team rather than a single entity or individual being responsible for the design process is already becoming a common practice which will only become more necessary as more technical and novel design and production methods are integrated in the industry.
The reality of both of these polarities within the context of a practicing architect and firm culture, lies somewhere between the two extremes. Due to logistics of resources and access it would be realistic to assume that smaller satellite establishments would gravitate towards mass customization as mass production would generally require facilities and equipment beyond the scope of smaller entities. However, there still remain opportunities for a sliding scale between these two extremities. The emergence of the need of specialists also creates opportunities for designers specializing in fabrication to engage in consultation much the same way that current designers operate in various situations.
Articles and Publication Excerpts
Semper, Gottfried (1860/1989) “Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts or Practical Aesthetics” in The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, Trans. Harry F. Mallgrave and Wolfgang Herrmann. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 215-19 and 254-57.
Benjamin, Walter (2008) “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of The Harvard University Press. 19-55
Benkler, Yochai (2006) “The Wealth of Networks.” New Haven: Yale University Press. 273-300
Cache, Bernard, (2000) “Digital Semper” based on the version from Anymore. Cambridge, MIT Press: 190-197.
Easterling, Keller (2005) “Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture.” MA: MIT Press. 99-122
Frank, Robert H., (2009) “The Economic Naturalist’s Field Guide” New York, NY: Perseus Books Group. 163-192
Holston, James (1999) “Cities and Citizenship.” Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 1- 18
Loos, Adolf (1908) “Ornament and Crime.” Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture. Ed. Ulrich Conrads.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994. 19-24
Le Corbusier (1931) “Architecture or Revolution.” Towards a New Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.
Deamer, Peggy, (2000) “Detail: The Subject of the Object,” unpublished essay.
Carpo, Mario (2009) “Revolutions: Some New Technologies in Search of an Author” in Log 15.
Corser, Robert, Ed. (2010) “Fabricating Architecture: Selected Readings in Digital Design and Manufacturing.” New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Kieran, Stephen and Timberlake, James “Refabricating Architecture” How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised to Transform Building Construction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Yale School of Architecture. Rappaport, Nina (Publication Director) “Composites, Surfaces, and Software: High Performance Architecture” Ed. Lynn, Greg and Nielson, Stephen. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale School of Architecture, 2010
 Le Corbusier, Architecture or Revolution pg. 271
 Mario Carpo, Revolutions: Some New Technologies in Search of an Author pg. 49
 Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime pg. 23
 Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. pg. 5
 Easterling, Keller, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture. pg. 118
 Ibid. Benjamin. Pg. 10
 Ibid. Benjamin. Pg. 1
 Ibid. Benjamin. Pg. 10
 Ibid. Benjamin. Pg. 10
 See Frank, Robert, The Economic Naturalist’s Field Guide
 Benkler, The Wealth of Networks. pg. 275