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Intelligent Machines

Rebuilding Architecture

Software is allowing architects to design buildings in radically new ways.

  • by Katherine Bourzac
  • December 21, 2010
  • In the early 1990s, architects began using “parametric” software, which defines the relationships between different aspects of a design and can maintain these relationships as the aspects change. Increase the curve of a wall or adjust the area of a floor and the software will automatically draw a whole new set of plans. Now, architects use these programs to learn instantly how changes in design will affect energy use or building costs. Some let the software lead the design, making possible previously unbuildable forms.
    New York firm Reiser + Umemoto’s proposed design for the Shenzen Airport, in China’s Guangdong province, incorporates a twisted grid of skylights. The firm didn’t win the bid for the airport, but the 2007 design, shown here in a digital rendering, has been influential. The firm used parametric software to calculate angles that would provide pleasant indirect natural light but wouldn’t let in enough sun to raise air-conditioning bills. Producing curved concrete forms as intricate as these would be impossible without the new software.
Frank Gehry, whose firm designed the 2004 Stata Center at MIT (above), was an early pioneer in software that went beyond conventional computer-¬aided design (CAD). Unlike earlier CAD programs, parametric design programs calculate changes to the entire structure necessitated by, for example, changing the slope of a wall.
Architects are now using software not just to help realize designs they have in mind but to create new ideas. The pattern of the walls in Toyo Ito’s 2002 Serpentine Pavilion in London (above) came from a computer program.
Builders also use parametric software to help figure out how to construct complex curved forms such as those that architects designed for the Beijing National Stadium (above and next image), which was showcased in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
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The Beijing National Stadium (above and previous image) was showcased in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The engineering firm Arup Sport used such a program to calculate the specifications that workers followed when they cut curved steel branches like those in the picture above, which was taken from inside the stadium during construction.
Parametric design could change construction methods even more radically in the future. Once software lays out the detailed designs, robotics, three-dimensional printers, and other computerized technologies can be used to execute them. The façade of the Gantenbein Vineyard in Fläsch, Switzerland, is an intricate brick pattern that looks from a distance like a basket (above).
The design required bricks to be placed at precise angles that would have been impossible for a human mason.
The firm Gramazio & Kohler built the façade with a robot repurposed from the automotive industry.
The rendering above is a whimsical project by François Roche that suggests future directions for structures built almost entirely by machines. Gigantic three-dimensional printers could fashion intricate biomimetic skyscrapers modeled on coral skeletons.

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