The Self-Assembly Line / Skylar Tibbits

Courtesy of and Arthur Olson

Together, Skylar Tibbits and Arthur Olson presented a large-scale installation at the 2012 TED Conference in Long Beach, CA entitled The Self-Assembly Line – a large-scale version of a self-assembly virus module, demonstrated as an interactive and performative structure. A discrete set of modules are activated by stochastic rotation from a larger container/structure that forces the interaction between units. The unit geometry and attraction mechanisms (magnetics) ensure the units will come into contact with one another and auto-align into locally-correct configurations. Overtime, as more units come into contact, break away, and reconnect, larger, furniture scale elements emerge. Given different sets of unit geometries and attraction polarities various structures could be achieved. By changing the external conditions, the geometry of the unit, the attraction of the units and the number of units supplied, the desired global configuration can be programmed. Continue reading for more.

Architecturally, this installation approaches the scenario of self-assembly as a vision for constructing large-scale structures – furniture, buildings or infrastructure – as opposed to most current endeavors in self-assembly at micro and molecular scale-lengths. Self-Assembly as a method of construction relies on discrete and programmable components, simple construction/design sequences, energy input and structural redundancy – fundamental elements that are demonstrated in the installation. This installation demonstrates the intersection of macro and micro worlds as well as translation from molecular and synthetic phenomena to large-scale physical implementation. We aim to fuse the worlds of design, computation and biology through a process of scaling up. While implementing the known structure of molecular systems, this installation also proposes the implementation of design/engineering to natural phenomena as a hybrid system. Part scientific research, part design speculation – we are neither restricted to the exact specifications of the biological realm, nor the limitlessness of the design world. The two can speak to each other while forming an interactive discovery of blown-up biological principles. Patterns emerge from within the interaction of the parts and unknown formations/hierarchies are developed through explicit programmability and simple energy input.

Courtesy of Skylar Tibbits and Arthur Olson

The installation presents, at the architectural-scale, biomimetic processes that span from molecules to organisms. Making these processes explicit in a large-scale, dynamic, aesthetic context provides a universally accessible demonstration of phenomena that are usually hidden from common experience.

Courtesy of Skylar Tibbits and Arthur Olson

The underlying mechanisms that promote self-assembly and the generation of structural complexity from stochastic input are fundamental to our understanding of living systems. Experiencing the dynamics of such mechanisms provides the conceptual scaffolding for understanding scientific ideas that range from thermodynamics to evolution, without necessarily framing it in those terms. The installation itself demonstrates how such concepts can be adapted to uses that encompass human ingenuity and expression.

Check out the full project website and future versions here.

Designers: Skylar Tibbits, Founder & Principal, SJET & Lecturer, Department of Architecture MIT and Arthur Olson, The Molecular Graphics Laboratory, The Scripps Institute, CA
Project Team: Martin Seymour, Andrew Manto, Erioseto Hendranata, Justin Gallagher, Laura Salazar, Veronica Emig, Aaron Olson
Sponsor: Conferences & SEED Media Group
Year: 2012

Courtesy of Skylar Tibbits and Arthur Olson

Descriptions provided by Skylar Tibbits and Arthur Olson.

Cite: Rosenfield, Karissa. "The Self-Assembly Line / Skylar Tibbits" 14 Mar 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>