Digital design and fabrication methods can generate new forms that we’d have never otherwise imagined. But will there be something missing if human minds and hands are expelled from the process?
December 12th, 2017
Earlier this year, something curious popped up in my news feed. It was an incredibly complex 3D-printed form created with an additive material based on grains of sand (silicate and binder). Like a stone sculpture from the future, it seemed equally synthetic and natural – part Death Star, part water-worn stone, part LEGO, part bone. Digital Grotesque, as it was called, had all the bizarre allure of the aesthetic category after which it was named. It was developed by architects and computational design experts Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger (with ETH Zurich and Voxeljet), and designed entirely by algorithms. The pair wanted to demonstrate how computational design and additive manufacturing could bring entirely new architectural worlds to reality.
They succeeded; it was an impressive and unique form. But somehow the fantastical gnarly tech shapes seemed uncanny – like the impression we get from humanoid robots that come close to, but don’t quite attain, natural movement.
What criteria should we use when we judge emerging design and fabrication methods? What are the qualities of our material realm that we deem most valuable and worthy of preservation as we enter a new digitally enhanced era of design and coordinated machine craft? Will we continue to uphold the shepherding influence that the human mind and hand have always had in shaping our world?
I was intrigued when I heard that Heatherwick Studio’s New York project named Vessel was conceived, developed and documented with a heavy reliance on new visual scripting software. In fact, as the studio’s Group Leader Stuart Wood describes, “The project was only conceivable through the use of a computer.” Heatherwick Studio is a bastion of craft-driven design and forms tailored to the human body’s proportions. So what would a digital design process mean for the experience of the project?
Vessel, which is currently under construction at Hudson Yards, will be an extraordinary public landmark as well as a piece of infrastructure – a complex three-dimensional lattice of 2,400 steps and 80 landings in a cup-like shape reaching over 45 metres in height.
It was conceived as a means of attracting and gathering people. “It’s such a complex form that even numbering and sequencing the components would have been impossible without digital data,” says Wood. “But ultimately we’re interested in the real material. The digital is fascinating, but the point at which the steel is cut and the welds are created – that’s when it becomes real. That’s when you need to deploy your sensibilities of look and feel, touch and quality.”
Renderings of the project convey, to my eyes, impressions of wonder and understanding. The overall form itself looks imaginary, but I can translate its components. Perhaps that’s because of the studio’s design development process. Between the digital model and the emerging physical reality of the project was a critical process of testing and refining the built form through mock-ups.
For Heatherwick Studio, the more digital a project is, the more impetus there is to “get things out of the computer as often as possible,” as Wood describes. He says, “A computer can tell you the optimal amount of material – weight, thickness, span and dimension. But a big part of our job is synthesising that into a bigger narrative. A computer can’t give you emotion, feel, representation.”
The soffit material is a key part of Vessel, being what people will see from the ground when they look up. Counter to most glassy skyscrapers, Heatherwick Studio wanted a material that had warmth and a craft-like character. PVD (physical vapour deposition) was eventually adopted as a way to create the rich sheen of copper on steel sheet, but avoid the need for polishing (which would have been impossible at the scale of this structure).
Components of the project are currently being ‘handmade’ at an industrial scale in an Italian factory based on the data shared by Heatherwick Studio. “We’re there on the factory floor deciding on things like whether the welds should be exposed or ground down. We’re there in the research lab with the metallurgists getting down to a molecular level so the finish will look more ‘this’ and less ‘that’. It’s been an amazing odyssey of the philosophical, the conceptual, the digital and the physical,” says Wood.
Read about another innovative project by Heatherwick Studio, The Silo in Cape Town.
This article originally appeared in Cubes 87.
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