The new structuralism: design, engineering and architectural technologies

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Architecture is in the process of a revolutionary transformation. There is now momentum for a revitalised involvement with sources in material practice and technologies. This cultural evolution is pre-eminently expressed in the expanded collaborative relationships that have developed in the past decade between architects and structural engineers, relationships which have been responsible for the production, worldwide, of a series of iconic buildings. The rise and technological empowerment of these methods can be seen as a historic development in the evolution of architectural engineering. If engineering is frequently interpreted as the giving of precedence to material content, then the design engineer, in his prioritising of materialisation, is the pilot figure of this cultural shift which we have termed the ‘new structuralism’.

Architectural engineering has traditionally been characterised by the sequential development of ‘form, structure and material’. A formal concept is first conceived by the architect and subsequently structured and materialised in collaboration with the engineer. If there is a historical point of departure for the evolution of a new structuralism, Peter Rice, in An Engineer Imagines, locates it in the relationship which developed between Jørn Utzon, Ove Arup and Jack Zunz in the structuring and materialisation of the Sydney Opera House (1957). In the final solution the problem of the geometry of the covering tiles influenced the design of the rib structure and the overall form of the roof. This effectively reversed the traditional process to become ‘material, structure, form’.

The role of material and structure in design expression occurred again, famously, in the hands of Edmund Happold and Peter Rice, with the cast-steel solution of the gerberettes of the main facade of the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1971). The thread of an emerging material practice in the collaborative work of architects and engineers has continued in a sequence of canonic works including those of Frei Otto, Edmund Happold, Jörg Schlaich and Mamoro Kawaguchi, and more recently in the collaborations of, among others, Cecil Balmond with Toyo Ito, Matsuro Sasaki with Toyo Ito, and Buro Happold with Shigeru Ban.

The Anatomy of Design Engineering

Over the last decade, ‘design engineering’ has developed as a highly interactive medium for collaboration between architects and structural engineers. The approach has developed new models for the design of structures of geometric complexity that challenge orthodox methods of structural engineering. As a result, a series of processes have evolved which define a new relationship between the formal models of the architect and the materialising processes of the engineer.

The traditional designation of the interaction between the architect and engineer has frequently been one of post-rationalisation. Transcending that relationship, a new generation of structural engineers has taken up a range of contemporary challenges such as dealing with the emerging professional responsibilities of incorporating new architectural technologies within the process of design. No longer a posteriori, the design engineer is now up-front at the earliest generative stage, bringing to the fore the design content of materialisation and fabrication technologies. It is characteristic of the cutting edge of contemporary engineering that the process has developed new media that mitigate between the optimisation of structural designs and the enhancement of the architectural concepts. If the ability to accommodate material considerations early in the design process is added to this emerging dynamic, it appears to be developing as an almost perfect model of design collaboration and is ultimately relevant to all classes of architectural practice.

Design Engineering as Paradigm

Contemporary design engineering is of very recent origin. Cecil Balmond has a unique position in establishing the profile, roles, design ambitions and research practices of the design engineer. In a three-decade career at Arup, his work, such as the long-term collaborations with Rem Koolhaas and involvement in enlightened projects such as the Serpentine pavilions, London, and particularly that with Toyo Ito in 2002, have spearheaded innovative form-finding. His publications and exhibitions have been of important cultural significance to architects and other disciplines, as well as to engineers. The formation of the Advanced Geometry Unit (AGU) at Arup in 2000 was among the first of such interdisciplinary research groups in architectural and engineering offices, and Balmond’s teaching in the architectural departments of Yale and Penn universities is characteristic of the significance of design engineering as a subject of interdisciplinary importance in defining the new knowledge base of architectural education. In his ability to deal with non-linear complexity, Balmond is also a proponent of the importance of the designer engineer’s knowledge of mathematics and the geometric principles of structuring and patterning as part of a new design knowledge portfolio. Among other distinctions, he has reformulated design knowledge to include the mathematical and natural principles of ‘structuring’.

This issue of AD introduces those aspects of the design engineering process that may have relevance for architectural design viewed as a material practice. The new structuralism integrates structuring, digital tectonics, materialisation, production and the research that makes this integration possible.

From Structure to Structuring

Structuring is the process whereby the logic of a unique parts-to-whole relationship develops between the elements of architecture. Historically, it is derivative of theory which provides a cultural designation of tectonics. Beyond the theoretical content, the new structuring provides the mathematical/geometric, syntactic and formal logic which is necessary for digital tectonics. Farshid Moussavi and Daniel Lopez-Perez state that: ‘Tessellation moves architectural experiments away from mechanistic notions of systems which are used as tools for reproduction of forms, to machinic notions of systems that determine how diverse parts of an architectural problem interrelate to multiply each other and produce organizations of higher degree of complexity. It is characteristic of structuring that the static pattern of configurations, tessellations or any form of structural order can be mediated into a system of both generative and differentiated potential.

Tectonic structuring and its digital representation provide the basis for a shared representation upon which both the architect and engineer collaborate. This tectonics functions both for geometric design and for the performative analysis/ synthesis procedures of the structural engineer. Classic examples of the correspondence of models as a medium of design may be found in process descriptions of Balmond and Ito’s Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, London (2002), and the collaboration between Ito and Mutsuro Sasaki on the Kakamigahara Crematorium in Japan (2006).

Structuring is a discretisation process which formalises structural patterns, and structuring research provides general knowledge of configurative potential for evolutionary transformability as well as geometric attributes such as heterogeneity or diversity. The resultant digital tectonic can parametrically represent the transformational generation of configurative pattern. The literature sources for contemporary research into structuring principles are extensive and the architectural literature on this subject has taken off over the past five years. As a source of design knowledge, this work generally attempts to experimentally explore the representational structure, behavioural properties and architectural potential of two- and three-dimensional classes of configurative principles including: mathematical/geometric sources of formal structuring such as branching, 3-D packing, voronoi patterns and fractals biological sources of material structures such as biomimetic organisational principles and studies from developmental biology such as were undertaken by Frei Otto at the Institute for Lightweight Structures (ILS) and are still today of great interest to architects and craft sources of textile structures such as braiding, weaving, knitting, knotting and interlacing.

The objective of the geometric formalisation of 2-D and 3-D configurative models is to provide a geometric and topological basis for the description of these principles as evolutionary classes. This representation supports the sequential topological development of the adaptive potential of the class which becomes the design substance of the digital model.

Digital Tectonics

Digital tectonics is the coincidence between geometric representations of structuring and the program that modulates them. Some of the design and research processes associated with structuring are supported by such programs. Using digital tectonics, structural topologies can be modulated through encoding as parametric topologies.

Scripting is a medium for the generation of formal patterns and formal three-dimensional procedures in textile and craft structures. Scripting programs are the design media of structuring. In digital tectonics scripting is used to produce geometric representations within the topology of the pattern or structure. Digital crafting is the ability to produce code that operates on the basis of such tectonic design models.

Associative geometry may support a design approach in which a geometrically, or tectonically, defined series of dependency relationships is the basis for a generative, evolutionary design process. Geometric variants of a class of structures can be generated parametrically by varying the values of its components; for example, the folds of a folded plate, or the grid cells of a mesh structure. Parametric software such as Bentley Systems’ Generative Components or McNeel’s Grasshopper for Rhino are media for the generative and iterative design of structuring that can produce the geometric representation of topological evolution. In recent years the Smart Geometry Group has done much to promote these innovative design techniques through its international conferences and teaching workshops.

Digital morphogenesis is the derivation of design solutions through generative and performative processes. It is a process of digital form-finding that has recently been employed in engineering practice by Mutsuro Sasaki and discussed in the writings of the Emergence and Design Group. Perhaps the highest level of performance-based design is the exploitation of performance data as the driver of the evolutionary design process. Digital morphogenesis will eventually achieve ‘analysis driving generation/evolution’.

Structuring Materiality

As architecture begins to deal with fabrication as well as with construction, the architect/structural engineering team is poised to resume control of the central role of integrating architecture and its material technologies. The idea of material structures integrates the concepts of structuring, the behaviour of materials, and digital tectonics. The study of material structures and their role in design and digital design has become a seminal subject of professional as well as academic concern. The research and understanding of the function of material in design, the ability to design with material, and the techniques of manipulating representations of material structures through digital tectonics has become a burgeoning part of the architectural knowledge base as well as one of its hottest research areas.

Fabricating Materiality: Design to Production and Back

The process of preparation for fabrication and construction depends upon a reinterpretation of the tectonics of the project. Frequently this is done by reuse of the digital core model of the project as Fabian Scheurer describes in his work on the digital production process for the formwork on the Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart by UNStudio and Werner Sobek.

Scheurer and designtoproduction have pioneered processes of digital tectonic description in support of both fabrication and conventional construction. The point here is that the tectonic data of the digital core model can function as information for the fabrication and construction processes. In a reversal of this process, it is possible that the tectonics of material systems can, in fact, drive the design process, a condition which is the epitome of architecture by performative design.

Design as Research

Among the motivating themes of design engineering is that design is a research-related and knowledge-producing process. The fields of structuring, digital tectonics, digital morphogenesis, materiality and performance-driven evolutionary generation are the research fields of the design engineer that are also common to the architect. This phenomenon is seen in the emergence in the last decade of interdisciplinary research groups such as the Arup Advanced Geometry Unit (AGU) which deal with the new range of geometric, computational and materialisation problems of contemporary design engineering practice.

From the Design of Engineering to the Re-Engineering of Design

We have proposed that design engineering is a new model of engineering methods and practice which also functions as a general model of design serving the architect as well as the structural engineer. It provides a head-clearing rationale to a profession beleaguered by the lightheadedness of form without matter.

How do we educate architects to function as material practitioners? What we have termed a ‘cultural shift’ obviously has a profound influence upon the definition of the requisite knowledge base of the architect as well as on what defines architectural research. Many of the research processes and subjects described above, including acquiring knowledge of architectural geometry and digital enabling skills, is already part of the agenda of the leading schools. Fabrication labs in education which were rare even just a few years ago are today commonplace.

Architecture’s reconstitution as a material practice requires a theoretical foundation comprehensive enough to integrate emerging theories, methods and technologies in design, practice and education. The new structuralism is a first attempt to define this emerging paradigm viewed through the prism of engaging the structuring logic of design engineering and emerging technologies. The structuring, encoding and fabricating of material systems has become an area of design study and the expanded professional knowledge base common to both the architect and the structural engineer. The emergence of research practice is establishing the new design sciences of materialisation that are the threshold to the revolution of architectural technologies and material practice. The new structuralism focuses on the potential of these design processes to return architecture to its material sources. Architecture is, at last, back to the future. It may also be reformulating itself as a profession.

With the emerging technologies of fabrication, the current impact of material upon architectural form has become one of the prominent influences in architectural design. Fabrication is not a modelling technique, but a revolution in the making of architecture. The new structuralism designates the cultural turn away from formalism and towards a material practice open to ecological potential. This is an architectural design that is motivated by a priori structural and material concepts and in which structuring is the generative basis of design. This issue is devoted to the exegesis of this cultural turn in which the synthesis of architect, engineer and fabricator again controls the historical responsibility for the processes of design, making and building.

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