A GLA Part of Wonder project for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics Games
A Greater London Authority Part of Wonder project for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics Games.
Design: marcosandmarjan architects London
Client: Greater London Authority
Manufacturing: Formstaal GmbH & Co. KG, Centraalstaal International (CSI)
Engineering: Bollinger-Grohmann-Schneider Engineers
Photobioreactor Technology: Richard Beckett (DMC London) and UCL Algal Biotechnology (special thanks to Dr Saul Purton, Marco Lizzul, Lamya A Haj, Laura Stoffels, Joanna Szaub, as well as Joanne Field at the Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa, Scottish Marine Institute)
The installation is part of a series of prototypical (and theoretical) investigations into FrAgility (fragile + agile), which explore the synthesis of agile robotic fabrication methods with fragile materiality. The series includes tests with polyurethane foam, hot melt glue-gun adhesive, plaster, polyactic lacid PLA, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene ABS, polycaprolactone PCL, concrete, Stewalin, gel pellets, clay, sand etc. By challenging Vitruvius’ notion of firmitas (solidity), fragility questions soundness and robustness, whilst agility contests stiffness and stasis as untouchable paradigms of contemporary architecture. With the aid of new simulation software and Rapid Prototyping technologies, volumes and surfaces can be dissolved to light, fibrous, porous, open, delicate structures.
Cedric Price had already asked the question ‘how much does your building weigh?’. FrAgile architecture re-engages with this enquiry; but not only with lightness in mind (High-Tech architecture has already successfully proven its feasibility), but probing whether the technical constraints and the aesthetic seduction of fragility, delicacy and brittleness of 3D Rapid Printing technologies can be scaled up into architectural production, and how. In fact, if graphics processing unit (GPU)-accelerated computing, simulation software can nowadays calculate astonishing complex physics processes (fluid dynamics, agent-based flocking systems etc.) and crowd behaviour, in most cases the physical translation of such constructs is complicated and rather clumsy, as 3D Rapid Prototyping machines are either too small, or produce too heavy objects. Robotic fabrication could provide an answer, but a robot’s payload is usually relatively low. Hence, adequate fabrication protocols that are as light and dexterous as the digital files are paramount.
In this case a simple technique of robotic soft form-carving and casting was combined with gel inlays. The resulting ‘self-organized’ porosity is of course lighter, but more importantly it becomes translucent, thermally insulating and nature-active (it instigates micro-growth and insect habitat), meeting nature halfway. By doing so, architecture could challenge the clichés that it solely deals with edifices (in other words: the built environment), becoming a more proactive interface, fully bound and integrated between artificiality and nature. Surely, building envelopes divide an internal controlled environment from the external uncontrollable climate. But it seems that a while ago (in the Industrial Era) the common semi-prefabricated production methods of architectural materials opted for, or accepted, the total detachment and isolation of matter from natural changes, totally ignoring site, climate and context. A conceptual business trajectory pulling away from the environmental awareness of vernacular architecture for example, which, it appears, understood quite well how to respond to these extremes by using materiality, and nature in an intelligent way: for example by layering snow on a roof as flat as possible to make use of insulating capacities, or ventilation chimneys to cool down spaces in warm climates.
The hefty weight of responsibility (in terms of economy and in particular ecology) which was recently put upon the discipline’s shoulders drastically challenges this approach. Architecture can no longer ignore nature; on the contrary – it must act as a prosthetic device for nature towards the creation of a nature 2.0 – a new kind of synthetic ecosystem where the biological domain and the artificial domain coexist. What I mean here is not that architecture should replace or mimic nature; nor that nature should replace or mimic architecture. The goal here is to set both realms in motion, and to have them meet halfway. To see the two as separate and incompatible is a modernistic and blatantly surpassed approach, made obsolete by digital and computational design and fabrication intelligence.
The great advantage we have nowadays is that it is not mandatory to revert to the basics of vernacular architecture. Advanced tools of modeling and simulating allow designers and engineers to predict form and performance prior to materialization. Besides the great advantages in terms of design control, this insight opens up architecture to a truly multi-disciplinary approach: not only can we now participate in co-authoring novel material-material assemblages, we can also co-author material-nature aggregations and processes of growth, change, mutation. In order to do so, architects can apply some of the knowhow of engineering, robotics, material sciences, biology, biotechnology etc. on a large scale, opening up bewildering scenarios for the future. A FrAgile future.