Over two days at the 2013 National Architecture Conference, Material, local and international guest speakers shared insight and experience across the gamut of practice and research, from upcycling waste materials to robotic construction. Robert Beson of AR-MA reports on the sessions for ArchitectureAU.
Day one, session 1: Billie Faircloth
Director of research for KieranTimberlake architects, Faircloth began the conference. Faircloth manages a group of twelve specialists that conduct research for the firm and spoke in depth about the ways we acquire material knowledge. She noted that in order for us to understand materials, we must investigate every level of the supply chain from the original resource to its processing and supply.
Session 2: Yosuke Hayano and Jose Selgas
While almost opposite in the type, scale, and budget of their respective work, Jose Selgas and Yosuke Hayano were both concerned with the production of spatial affects.
Hayano, from MAD Architects in Beijing, presented four projects: Fish Tank, Absolute Towers, Ordos Museum, and the Harbin Opera House. All were concerned with the creation of space through movement and expressed it through smooth interior volumes, twisting floor plates, and complex parametric relationships. Running through all the projects was the challenge of realising the seamless digital skin within the physical world. In his summary at the conclusion of the conference, Nader Tehrani mentioned that even using the most advanced digital techniques for architectural design and production did not relieve them from the burden of the hand untrained for the digital condition.
Working through the challenges of constructing complex curvilinear buildings, Haya showed how MAD Architects details its buildings for resilience against the messy realities of construction.
Whereas MAD Architects sought a natural expression to their work, Jose Selgas, from Spain’s Selgas Cano, explained how his practice uses the natural world and its constantly changing character, as material itself within its work.
Selgas presented four projects, each emphasising its integration with nature and the passage of time. He began his lecture in silence playing a time-lapse video of their office over the course of a day. The camera sat outside in the woods looking towards the office, a rectangular volume half sunken into the earth, surrounded by trees. The exposed half composed of a curved acrylic sheet.
The video portrayed the movement of the light and the falling autumn leaves accumulating on the transparent roof. The fallen leaves, themselves, became a part of the architecture, forming a complex and constantly changing veil on the roof that filtered the incoming light.
Selgas spoke about their use of materials and how, out of necessity, they are cheap and readily available. Tight budgets have enforced an opportunistic way of working that is not so much ad-hoc as strategic. Plastics are used because of their cost and availability.
As an insight into this approach, each project was presented though perspective images and animations. The lens is always placed at eye height, the building portrayed over multiple vantage points and times throughout the day setting up a triumvirate of building, context, and observer, each contingent upon the other.
Session 3: Emma Young and Cesare Peeren
Our attention was focused on junk and the question of what do we do with the leftover, the waste, and the unwanted. Emma Young of Melbourne’s Phooey Architects and Cesare Peeren from Superuse Studios, Rotterdam, both spoke about adaptive reuse and “cradle to cradle” life cycles of materials.
Both occupy an alchemical position from which they seek to transform matter from the unvalued to the valued. Phooey takes responsibility for the waste-product while redefining what they consider to be waste. Rather than demolishing and dumping, Phooey pursue strategies for recycling, reuse, and upcycling early in a brief.
Young spoke about flexible floor plans that could live beyond their owners, use of material offcuts, and renewable timber that is radially sawed to utilise the whole log. She showed how Phooey employs these techniques not only for the economic use of materials and resources, but also to produce a narrative of delight and reveal (and revere) the past. Some standout examples were their carpet couch and a hair chandelier. The couch was made from recycled carpet, pulled from the floor and rolled up until it was the correct height for sitting and fixed against the wall. The chandelier for a hair salon made from the swept-up offcuts of patron’s hair.
Young spoke about their most noted project, the Children’s Activity Centre, constructed from recycled shipping containers clad internally with recycled carpet tiles, which used 90 percent recycled material. While there are more than a few shipping container projects worldwide; this is one of the better ones. The projects were deliberately patchwork, a festival of collage, bricolage, and the ad-hoc. Theirs is a MacGyver architecture, whom Young referenced, one that opportunistically uses what is available and embellishes it to startling effect.
Cesare Peeren from Superuse Studios also began with cradle-to-cradle thinking. He described the insanity of transporting materials across the globe; often traveling from their source to the other side of the world for processing into a semi-finished product before being shipped back to their origin to be cut and installed on a building, and the offcuts trashed.
As an antidote to this type of thinking, Peeren used the analogy of a bird’s nest to describe how we might think about building. He showed a nest made from local refuse, twigs and branches and cigarette butts.
As examples of incorporating this thinking into practice, he presented the Miele Space Station made from disused washing machines, the Duchi Shoe Shop in which the shelves were made from reused car windshields, and a house made from 60 percent waste materials. All of the timber and insulation were reused; only the concrete slabs and windows were new.
Superuse’s standout project was the Wikado playground for children made from a reused wind turbine. It used the found forms and materials of the wind turbine to their best, reconfiguring them into something completely new rather than merely upcycled. Their design process is a type of full-scale, one-to-one model-bashing, where instead of recombining pieces of different scale models, Superuse reuse and recombine different parts of the city.
Their greatest contribution, however, could be the shared resources they have made available through their website: a map and database that locates all of the potential building products from waste. Here they have set the direction for their work and created a platform for others to join. For Superuse, the goal is to make an integrated ecological architecture where the city transforms from an all-consuming machine to become an ecosystem.
Session 4: Carey Lyon and Manuelle Gautrand
Rather than recycling, what we were presented here was the shiny new architecture of concept and material affect. Carey Lyon, a principal of Lyons in Melbourne, spoke about his firm’s attitude to materials.
In particular for Lyons, concepts are the base material of architecture. Lyon showed the recently completed RMIT Swanston Academic Building. Here, the building is conceptually generated from the material of the city. The envelope of the building is drawn directly from the urban forces. Lyons composed a computer script that translated the particular urban conditions around the site into forces acting upon and manipulating the property boundary and envelope. The cuts into the facade that form student spaces are equally indexed to the urban context. 360-degree panoramic photos were taken of the city upon which parts of the image are chosen and projected back onto the facade.
Equally process-driven was the next project: stage two of the University of Tasmania’s School of Medicine. Here the landscape is mapped in segments and transposed onto the facade to form the concrete brise-soleil. It is important to Lyons that the building is not solely performative, but also representational and communicative. Lyon questioned the authenticity of materials. Every material, in its making, undergoes some industrial process that adds artifice. As for meaning, it is not something that is drawn out of the material, but rather embedded onto it. For Lyons, building is a form of human artifice: it is the architect’s ability to embed meaning within the material and construction processes that elevates it to architecture.
Manuelle Gautrand from Manuelle Gautrand Architects in Paris also spoke about the importance of material in the conception of her projects. The practice makes many models throughout the design phase each with different materials to explore the spatial and material qualities of a space.
Prolific, she presented many projects, moving quickly from Modern Art Museum in Lille to a shopping mall in Cairo to a wine storage house. In all of the projects Gautrand spoke about sculpting the space and each was characterised by a filigree working of material.
Gautrand’s Citroen project on the Champs Elysees is a 30-metre high facade composed of glass with fibreglass filters. Her presentation was not heavy, focused on describing the many projects, rather than reflecting on them. Through each project she used the facade to construct and mediate the relationship between the interior and exterior, with the aim of expressing meaning indirectly. For example, she showed how the facade constructed an abstract reading of the Citroen logo though the geometric arrangement of glass.
Following the last session on Friday, Nader Tehrani, Head of the Department of Architecture at MIT and principal of NADAAA, summed up day one, and showcased a video of his own. The video showed research work happening across the faculty at MIT and argued that new materials engender new forms from which architecture benefits. The video questioned the relationship between what is possible to draw and what is possible to build. By moving fluidly between the digital and material realms one is able to innovate the norms of the building industry.
Day two, session 1: Kathrin Aste
The evening social engagements of the conference are demanding, and Aste turned up with coffee in hand to kickstart her talk – the first of the final-day sessions. Kathrin Aste, principal and founder of LAAC architecture in Austria is concerned with new environments, active landscapes and sustainable alpine architecture. She positioned her practice in between nature and design, presenting two projects, the Top of Tyrol Viewing Platform and the Landhausplatz Innsbruck.
Located in the mountains between Austria and Italy, the site offers a 360-degree, panoramic view over the many peaks. The architectural aims were to activate summer tourism by creating an artificial landscape of the viewing platform. The platform, itself, is made from Corten steel for weather resistance and to match the natural colour of the rock. It is assembled from a series of steal lamellas that run across the rock like veins of ore before spilling over the peak into the platform. LAAC used a detailed 3D model of the landscape to design the lamellas. Installed by helicopter, each weighed a maximum of 750kg. Aste played a video showing the heli-installation of the structure in the extreme landscape.
The second project Aste showed was the Landhausplatz in Innsbruck – a 9,000 square-metre public square in the city. Over the multi-stage competition, the firm used an interrogative strategy to set up a discourse amongst themselves that questioned the nature and use of the square. In particular, they desired to create a single surface landscape that negotiated between the different conditions of the square and existing monuments. The modulation of the surface results in a precise topography, creating space by its organisation of function.
The project here is made more from the digital material of splines and surfaces and curvature continuity as much as it is from concrete. Aste shows that there is an enormous crafting of the digital material before it can be translated to the physical; however, the constant changes and updates during the design process forced an in-situ concrete construction over a pre-cast method. To explain the impact that the square has had on the city, she presented a video made by the local skaters, who of course love the project. It shows the square as a performative landscape creating space for sitting, eating and walking as well as providing the ideal environment for skateboarding.
Session 2: Virginia San Fratello and Philippe Rahm
A founding director of Rael San Fratello in San Francisco, San Fratello began the second session, presenting four projects and the firm’s current research work. All are characterised by a high degree of material experimentation.
A hay bale house was first. San Fratello, interested in the relationship between agrarian and industrial materials speculated about a house that functioned a little like a sheep: covered in winter and naked in summer. In winter, the house would be covered with hay bales, and then these would be removed as the summer progressed and used as feed. At the opposite end of the reuse spectrum, she presented SOL Grotto installation skinned in over a thousand Solyndra glass tubes that were to be destroyed when their manufacturer went out of business.
Their current work, in spin-off firm Emerging Objects rethinks 3D printing through hacking. Generally, when one thinks about 3D printing, one imagines white, materially homogenous objects. However, San Fratello shows how they have hacked their Z-Corp printer so that rather than just white powder, it now prints salt, wood pulp, clay, and cement polymer. She showed volumetric and curvilinear forms made more seductive through the rich materials from which they were printed. The benefits of 3D printing for San Fratello are the unique forms and unnecessary formwork. The benefits of hacking your 3D printer are that, besides the beautiful new materials, it is 90 percent cheaper to run.
Philippe Rahm, director of Paris-based Rahm Architects, followed the experimental approach by looking at the invisible aspects of architecture, in particular invisible materials. Rahm explained his conception of architecture by contrasting it to sculpture. For Rahm, sculpture is about materiality and form, while architecture is about emptiness, the void, the space itself. Combine this with an additional focus on sustainability, climate change and energy-use has led Rahm to rethink the materiality of architecture.
Rather than concrete, steel and glass, Rahm works with heat, humidity, air and light. With an incredible attention to graphs, statistics and environmental modelling, Rahm showed how he uses the natural separation of warm and cold air in a space to distribute program in section. Areas requiring warmth, like the living room, are raised into the air, while the cooler corridors are lowered. What is most interesting about Rahm’s work is that he is responding to an existing condition through the reorganisation of space rather than using a top-down air-conditioning strategy to make existing space better.
Rahm works with humidity as easily as heat. Different areas of a house produce different levels of humidity and therefore require different amounts of air exchange. Rahm reconceives the house according to a geography of vapour where an invisible wind travels from high to low pressure and from dry to wet. This becomes, architecturally, very interesting when the changes in temperature and humidity begin to create spatial variation in plan and section. Because the humid air is lighter and exhausts at a higher level, it modifies the section of the house. The building reconfigures itself spatially to control the movement of air.
Rahm is testing these ideas and more on his most recent, ambitious project, the Taichung Gateway Park in Taiwan – a 70-hectare park where Rahm is designing the atmospheric composition. The park is analysed and designed in atmospheric layers, for example wind speed, humidity, pollution, and sun. Each layer is extracted and analysed and then modified by climactic devices. In this project, Rahm has been able to instrumentals the environment into an organisational and spatial device. Here, function is not linked to form, but to an environmental and atmospheric terrain.
Session 3: Tim Greer and Jorge Otero-Pailos
After lunch, Tim Greer and Jorge Otero-Pailos presented projects related to conservation and preservation. Greer, a director of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer architects in Sydney, spoke about materiality and time through a number of projects.
For him, the materiality of the city is associated with meaning and memory. Buildings are not objects in their own right as much as they are part of larger and longer-lived urban fabric. Within the Carriageworks at Eveleigh project, an adaptive reuse of an industrial train maintenance facility, Greer spoke about the reframing of the old that the new encourages, showing examples of a type of “urban storage”. Here TZG repurposed the disused roof trusses by standing them on their end to form a signage structure at the buildings entrance.
Through their work on the Paddington Reservoir, Bourke Street, and Antias, Jackson’s Landing, Greer showed the material techniques TZG have brought to adaptive reuse. The Paddinton Resevoir used the materiality of Sydney within a limited palette to highlight the spatially fragmentary nature and tension between the past and present, and he wove a compelling narrative of materiality in the creation of memory, meaning and mystery.
Also with a focus on memory and mystery, Jorge Otero-Pailos spoke next. Jorge is an artist, historian and theorist based at New York’s Columbia University. Specializing in experimental forms of preservation, his methodology, as a conservation consultant, is to move into the architects’ offices to think through the creative potentials of heritage.
He spoke about the epiphenomenon of materials and their impact upon a place. In particular, he focused on pollution as a material and the effects it has had on building in Pittsburgh and Venice, where it is literally melting stone sculptures. Jorge presented a project in which he used latex to remove a layer of pollution from the Doge’s Palace in Venice. This was then taken off the building and exhibited at the Venice Biennale like an animal skin might be hung to dry. The history of the building embedded and marked the latex with ridges and colour.
The last project he presented was particularly interesting and a crowd favourite. Here, Otero-Pailos investigated the smell of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut. Using forensic techniques, he recreated, as closely as possible, the smell one would experience inside the glass house over three historical periods: 1949, when it was freshly constructed; 1959, in use by the powerful figures of the day; and 1969, after 20 years of occupation.
The results were remarkable. Otero-Pailos distributed scent samples out to the audience as he described the type of activity that was taking place at the time. 1949 was characterised by the odours of off-gassing of new materials and window cleaner. 1959 displayed a melange of the male colognes of the day. By contrast, 1969 was overwhelmed by two decades of smoke, cigarette and otherwise, mould, and a faint whiff of urine.
Using the smells, Otero-Pailos created a synaesthetic experience where he retold particular histories of the house while the audience experienced the associated smell. It created a powerful and humorous effect that had everyone ready for the final presentation of the conference, Matthias Kohler.
Session 3: Matthias Kohler
A principle of Gramazio and Kohler, and a professor at ETH in Zurich, Kohler is most known for his work with brick-stacking robots and more recently, quad-copters. Kohler spoke about the origins of his research into digital materiality as well as the outcomes.
Kohler began with the M Table project where the desire was not to create a single object, but rather to design a system that could create a series of artefacts. For example, the project exists as an early Nokia phone app where a user can modify the length and width of the table as well as cutouts. The phone outputs a script that models the table and then sends code directly to a machine for production.
It’s a simple system, but its importance at the time was to relinquish control over the specifics of the form, while maintaining authorship over the relationships.
For Kohler, this opens up important questions about how new production methods are changing design, and what kinds of processes these methods entail. Are they additive, like 3D printing, or subtractive like CNC milling?
With the professorship at ETH, Gramazio and Kohler were able to begin experimenting in 2005 with an industrial robot. They chose the robot because of the openness of the system. It can cut, weld, stack, and move among other operations. The designer must give it purpose by defining what it does. This opens it up as an architectural research project.
At this point that Kohler described his concept of digital materiality. He showed a Venn diagram where digital materiality is the overlap between material, computation and fabrication. Material becomes informed because the physical and digital processes interrelate. It is the design of processes rather than the design of forms.
Kohler showed a number of professional commissions, but it was the research work with robots that seemed to cause the largest stir on twitter. Kohler presented experiments where the robot stacked bricks, placed timber, and extruded expanding foam. However, it was the final project where he presented a video of quad-copters independently and autonomously picking up foam bricks and stacking them into a tower that produced the loudest discussion of work.
What was important for Kohler, was that this is not a top-down design process where material and production techniques are enslaved to design intent, but rather a negotiation between material, form, and production method.
Closing discussion panel
During the panel review at the close of the conference, protagonist Nader Tehrani (NADAAA, USA) primed the speakers with shots of whisky to bring out their fighting words, though on the whole, it remained cordial.
In the hope of sparking rigorous discussion, Tehrani reduced the debate to one of the opposition between form and performance as different ideological apparatus. The panel of speakers was wary about rising to the bait. As potential criticism of the overtly performative, there were questions of “what remains culturally legible beyond these walls?” And, “what is the raw iconography you are left with?” projected onto large screens above the stage.
In response to questions the environment and use of resources, facilitator Phillipe Block (BLOCK Research Group, ETH Switzerland) commented that “buildings are waste in transit.”
Overall, the discussion revolved around the question of control and architectural agency. All of the speakers were able in their, sometimes unique, ways, to expand their agency, or their ability to effect change, by taking on methods of material sourcing, use and production not normally associated with architecture.
From voiding the warranty on your new 3D printer by printing sand, to reusing wind-turbines to programming robots, the speakers illuminated the growing terrain that architectural production occupies. While not all participants will have agreed with all of the presented sensibilities, the creative directors, John de Manicor and Sandra Kaji-O’Grady were brilliant in their ability to curate a diverse and pluralistic panel that opened up, rather than shut down, the discussion into the material of architecture and its importance today.
Presented by the Australian Institute of Architects, the 2013 National Architecture Conference was held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre 31 May – 1 June 2013.