Practice 2.0: 10 Years of Smart Geometry

  • 05 Jul 2013
  • by
  • Editorial Practice 2.0
Members of the RoboticFOAMing group release a foam column stretched into shape by three robots. Photo courtesy of Bentley

by: Daniel Davis & David Fano of CASE

This year marks Smartgeometry’s tenth anniversary. For architects it’s been a decade of breathless innovation and listless stagnation. In this article we look back at the success of SmartGeometry and ask why the building industry isn’t keeping up.

The original instigators of Smartgeometry – Lars Hesselgren, J Parrish, and Hugh Whitehead – worked together at YRM (now part of RMJM) in the late 1980s. Together they helped shepherd parametric modeling and associative geometry into the field of architecture, and witnessed how early-stage three-dimensional structural analysis and late-stage clash detection might change practice. Yet in 2003 they found themselves disillusioned and asking, “Why is it that ten years have passed, and we still cannot even get close to the kind of capability that we had then?” [1]. In other words, why is the building industry failing to keep up, or worse, falling behind. It was a question that would inspire the first Smartgeometry conference, and it is a question that still lingers a decade later.

The second Smartgeometry (2004) began with a workshop-cum-hackthon. Participants huddled around laptops boasting a gigabyte of RAM and together they shared their knowledge of parametric modeling – a subject at the time still predominantly the domain of boat-builders, aerospace engineers, and academics. The software was clunky, the hardware was slow, but the workshops were a success. They became a mainstay of Smartgeometry and foreshadowed what would happen in architecture schools throughout the world only a decade later: students huddled around laptops sharing knowledge of parametric modeling, ways to develop electronic circuits, and methods for taming robots. Credit goes to Lars, J, and Hugh, to the first pioneering participants, and to Smartgeometry’s decade-long supporter and sponsor: Bentley.

This year’s Smartgeometry was hosted by the Bartlett in London and was once again sponsored by Bentley. Smartgeometry travels to a new city every year and this was the first time it had been in the UK since 2006. That seven-year walkabout has catalyzed a striking transformation. Smartgeometry swelled this year to accommodate over one hundred architects, academics, and students. Even more joined the two days of keynote speakers at the end of the conference. There were even surprise visits from starchitects curious to see what their future may look like. Behind the scenes a team of volunteers somehow managed to keep Smartgeometry feeling like a small community whilst more and more it becomes a larger part of the general architecture community.

The connection between this year’s Smartgeometry and the practice of architecture wasn’t necessarily obvious. Participants busied themselves by choreographing robots, writing software, directing thermal cameras, discussing mathematics, and building parametric models. Construction played less of theme this year than in previous Smartgeometry conferences, with half the groups at this event producing entirely digital outputs. It was an alternate reality of architecture, one that is often discussed but rarely seen. Somewhere at this conference lied the prototype for what architects will work on in the future, or at least how they will work. The participants sat alongside one another – undergraduates working with professors working with software engineers working with senior CAD managers. Together they worked towards Smartgeometry’s central thesis: technology gains relevance through application and sharing.

Members of the RoboticFOAMing group release a foam column stretched into shape by three robots. Photo courtesy of Bentley

One of the more interesting projects to emerge from the workshops was RoboticFOAMing led by Marjan Colletti, Georg Grasser, Kadri Tamre, and Allison Weiler. The sixteen participants used the HAL plugin for Grasshopper to coordinate the movements of three ABB robots. The robots were trained to work together, taking three surfaces joined by foam and pulling them apart. The foam stretched like chewing gum into arches and truncated columns where it set in a solidified shape. Their workshop hints at how unpredictable materials can be used in predictable ways, how homogenous robotic precision can interact with heterogeneous material properties.

Stig Nielsen and Mani Williams analyze the thermal performance of the facade element attached to the testing chamber in center of the image. Photo courtesy of Bentley

Thermal Reticulations was led by Smartgeometry veterans Mark Burry (who spoke at the first Smartgeometry in 2003) and Jane Burry, along with a team of leaders including Alexander Pena de Leon, Kamil Sharaidin, and Flora Salim. They brought a box from Melbourne wired with heat sensors and tested the thermal performance of facade elements placed at one end of the box. These results were compared to digital simulations by feeding the designs through a network of over a dozen pieces of software. The groups showed how early stage simulation may be extended beyond digital simulation but also demonstrated the complex interoperability issues contemporary architects face as they string together disparate software packages.

Stefan Müller adjusts the position of a building while a real-time project overlays simulated shadows. Photo courtesy of Bentley

Projections of Reality developed a system whereby objects placed on a table were identified by a Kinect sensor and then feed into a simulation that was projected back over the table. This involved many long days of writing software and calibrating projectors, but the end result was cityscape that could be intuitively manipulated and simulated; a tangible interface to data. The project resembles the Interacting with the City workshop at Smartgeometry 2011 and even has hints of the Illumiroom by Mircosoft Research. With advances being made rapidly in augmented reality, Projections of Reality suggests a future where virtual data is overlaid with objects architects manipulate in the real world – perhaps seen simply by donning something like Google Glass.

And herein lies the struggle of Smartgeometry: innovation over the past decade has largely taken place outside the field of architecture. The Interacting with the City workshop was an interesting project in 2011, but Microsoft is already close to releasing similar technology as a commercial product in 2013; Projections of Reality makes for a cool demo, but it will be Google and other technology companies that capitalize on this new market. Architects have seen this script play out over and over. Architects were some of the first to begin using three-dimensional printers. They printed plaster models of their buildings, wrote manifestos proclaiming how the world was on the cusp of a major revolution, and then they stopped. The revolution was given away to companies like Shapeways and Makerbot. Architects were left saying ‘I told you so’.

For all the innovation that has taken place in the past decade – for as much as Lars, J, and Hugh have tried to take us back to the capability they had at YRM – the practice of architecture has not substantially changed. Buildings are still expensive, they are still environmentally damaging, they are still risky, they are still enormously time consuming to design and build. For the majority of architects, concepts like Building Information Modeling are still considered innovative despite being accessible for well over a decade. Compare this to the cellphone industry. Ten years ago participants would have arrived at Smartgeometry with cellphones containing ten buttons and a black and white screen. They would use the phone to make calls and send SMS messages that they would compose by hitting the numeric keys like they were tapping out Morse code. The keynote speeches at this year’s Smartgeometry were filled with smartphones. Participants were connected to the internet, they were swiping colorful capacitive displays, they were taking photographs and sharing them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – three companies that didn’t even exist ten years ago. These companies are making billions designing virtual environments for people to connect in; architects are making pennies designing the physical environments to house them.

So while Smartgeometry this year has given us a glimpse into a possible future of architecture, it still – a decade later – hasn’t found the answer for the question: “Why is it that ten years have passed, and we still cannot even get close to the kind of capability that we had then?” Why is technology disrupting so many industries besides architecture? Why aren’t architects on the forefront of these technological revolutions? I suspect that it is because architects like to observe events like Smartgeometry, we like to see the formal outcomes and to marvel at the gadgetry, but ultimately we see it as our role to create buildings rather than the technology that changes them.

Cite:
1. Peters, Brady, and Terri Peters, eds. 2013. Inside Smartgeometry: Expanding the Architectural Possibilities of Computational Design.

Cite: CASE, CASE. "Practice 2.0: 10 Years of Smart Geometry" 05 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 Jul 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=398406>

7 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    No surprise to me. Architects are great at dreaming up ideas of how things “should” work and “could” work, not so great a understanding the world of business and politics and how things “actually” work. At least, in my experience. And when those dreams get put to the test, money can’t be raised, politics can’t be overcome, architects fall back on tried and tested methods. In my office we often have large dreams of how our buildings could be built and formed in the early processes…but when it comes time to develop the building into something build-able at a) a reasonable cost to those funding the project, and b) that wouldn’t freak out local municipalities who are granting the permit–we find that we are much less capable of realizing our dreams than we wish. It’s a tragedy but points to what I think is a problem–that architects are too lost in their own world and a new generation of architects who have backgrounds in finance and business, political science, communications, etc need to take leadership positions within the industry.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      I think you are right ArchiChicago, there is distinct difference between dreaming up an idea and realising an idea. Especially in business. There are some interesting changes happening with people like SHoP architects and Cloud9. It makes me feel optimistic to see architects take on risk like that and to see them successfully expand their practices beyond the traditional offerings of architecture. I hope there will be many more like them. I too hope for this new generation of architects with backgrounds finance and business, with the moxie to lead us into our already imagined future.

      • Thumb up Thumb down +1

        agree with both of you. Does not mean to say this kind of innovation can’t happen in our industry, but there’s a lot we can learn from other industries. Highly optimistic for the future :)

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      As someone who helped instigate SmartGeometry, please set the record straight if you feel parts of this article are incorrect. I am more than happy to revise revisionist history.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Technology innovation in and of itself does not change complex relational networks like the building industry. Other factors need to be at play. When the sort of innovation that we see at SmartGeometry gets paired with ideas about the systems–financial, operational, aesthetic, and others–that combine to produce buildings we’ll see the progress the authors seem to be pining for here. The world is full of cool ideas, but is only changed by the ones that alter the fundamentals. Firms like SHoP are but single nodes in this innovation-resistant network and can’t possible change the system alone. Although those of us within the profession see the value of the sorts of ideas that are experimented with at SmartGeometry, that value must be apparent throughout. Architects talking to other architects about the future is as old as the profession itself, but moving from innovation to implementation isn’t an architectural problem. What do we need to do to validate the value of these ideas to the folks who make the decisions that instantiate them into the industry?

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Architectural innovation occurs in academia in the same way it does at SG; with little connection to the real world, but full of promise – and few take these experiments seriously enough as a result of the connection with academia, seeing it as a playground. The best new innovations can come from this playground, given proper resources and taken seriously. If architecture as an industry can break away from being owned by the contractors, maybe it can take responsibility for this.

Share your thoughts