The Depreciating Value of Form in the Age of Digital Fabrication

  • 13 Apr 2014
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The ICD / ITKE Research Pavilion 2011, demonstrating an example of a Voronoi diagram at work. Image © ICD / ITKE University of Stuttgart

In this article, originally appearing on the Australian Design Review as “Tolerance and Customisation: a Question of Value“, Michael Parsons argues that the complex forms made possible by may soon be victims of their own popularity, losing their intrinsic value as they become more common and the skill required to make them decreases.

The idea of tolerance in architecture has become a popular point of discussion due to the recent mainstreaming of digital fabrication. The improvements in digital fabrication methods are allowing for two major advancements: firstly, the idea of reducing the tolerance required in construction to a minimum (and ultimately zero) and secondly, mass customisation as a physical reality. Digital fabrication has made the broad-brushstroke approach to fabrication tolerance obsolete and now allows for unique elements and tolerance specific to each element. The accuracy that digital fabrication affords the designer, allows for the creation of more complex forms with greater ease and control. So far, this has had great and far reaching implications for design.

Read on to find out how this ease of form-making could diminish the success of complex forms. 

The ‘Programmed Wall’ at ETH Zurich. Image © ETH Zurich

The Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University, is currently installing its first robotic industrial arm, thereby joining the growing number of Australian architecture schools investing in advanced manufacturing processes. The continued mainstreaming of advanced digital fabrication processes such as, 3D printing, CNC milling, laser-cutting and robotic manufacturing in architecture schools, affords students the luxury of creating designs using these tools. Suddenly they have the freedom to explore digital design and manifest these digital designs physically, regardless of the complexity.

These processes have narrowed the gap between digital representation and the physical outcome. Now students can work in a digital world of infinitely thin lines and surfaces and are still able to manufacture physical products without much consideration for the modification of the digital model to account for physical constraints and tolerance.

The word ‘tolerance’ is commonly venerated as an ever-present guide to realise a design. It is seen as an acceptable level of difference between the represented ideal and the physical reality. The physical reality of a design is influenced by a vast variety of factors including, and possibly most importantly, the manufacturing process used, which accounts for the continual use of generalised tolerances. Although professionals may, on occasion, have access to digital fabrication tools, not all practitioners specifically design with digital fabrication in mind.

“Phantom Geometry” an innovation in 3D printing by students from SCI-Arc. Image

Students, unlike practitioners, are not restricted and as a result produce complex designs for a future we have not yet reached. Therefore, I think it is important to look at the implications that operating at zero required tolerance would have on the future of design. Complex, organic or algorithmic designs are undoubtedly evocative and captivating, but there may be a larger ethical consideration to be taken into account.

As fabrication tends towards requiring zero tolerance and develops more refined abilities to manufacture complex geometry, social tolerance for complex design will most likely increase. As is the case for many new technologies, the work of the early adopters stands out as avant-garde, but by the time late adopters are using the , the work it produces has become largely accepted and sometimes even the norm. Suddenly what was a unique work one year, is homogenous the next. With increased access to digital fabrication, comes a propensity to over-use or at least to use these methods without consideration.

In digital fabrication, complex forms are often no more difficult to produce than simple ones: top a twisted cube versus an extruded one; middle, a curved line versus a straight one; bottom, examples of a voronoi diagram. Image Courtesy of Australian Design Reveiw

Let’s look at a few examples. Firstly, in computation, the use of the Voronoi Diagram has become so commonplace that it no longer demonstrates any level of skill, quite the opposite in fact. The use of the Voronoi Diagram now requires a strong rational justification because its aesthetic appeal has become devalued by overuse. Another example can be the comparison between a simple 3D-printed cube and a twisted counterpart. Both cubes require the same number of print layers and similar print time; the only real difference is aesthetic.

A third example can be the use of a robotic arm to cut two lines, one dead straight and the other with non-uniform curves. A robotic arm does not know the difference between the cuts other than the fraction longer the curved line will take to cut. Once again, the only real difference is aesthetic. In the past, there was a difference in both skill of fabrication and aesthetic design; now there is simply an ever-decreasing skill in fabrication.

Rapid Craft, a design simulating natural morphology by Neri Oxman. Image © Neri Oxman

As the skill in achieving complex forms decreases, so does our societal value of complex formal outcomes. Maybe we need to revaluate our perception of difference, in other words our tolerance for complex design. We need to consider that what were two very different outcomes in the past are now only differentiated by one factor, aesthetics and not skill.

Is a blue cube really different to a red cube, if you do not privilege aesthetics? This is where the true issue of digital design and fabrication lies. What distinguishes one work of digital fabrication from the rest? What gives the work significance now that complexity is no longer intrinsically valuable? Students should not hide behind captivating forms and instead require stronger and stronger justification for their work.

As digital fabrication advances towards its goal of requiring zero tolerance, social tolerance will increase and so will society’s perception of homogeneity. Digital fabrication is devaluing itself through overuse and therefore it becomes the responsibility of the designer, and particularly design students, to reintroduce value into a design by synthesising multiple and complementary sources in a way that is unique and innovative. The challenge for students is not achieving technical or digital brilliance, but rather employing these mainstream tools to achieve architectural brilliance.

Cite: Stott, Rory. "The Depreciating Value of Form in the Age of Digital Fabrication" 13 Apr 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 Jul 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=495089>

12 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    The essay seems to place form separate from the object. As if there are objects that are ‘formal’ and others that are not. Perhaps ‘expressive’ is a better word and it allows the discussion to be again about the performative aspects of the object. Aesthetics is one aspect of a form (expressive or not). Others might be its relationship to the elements (wind, water etc.), symbolic meanings, political meaning (issues of equity etc.). Before I stray too much I’d like to state that the dichotomy that designers have tried to establish between ‘formal’ and not formal leads us to forget about the potential of form.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +13

    Im glad to see we are leaving this initial infatuation phase. Playing with crazy forms has gotten old fast and hopefully we will return to a more mature and critical way of evaluating architecture.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      I half-agree. Style is about fashion. People find organic forms beautiful and interesting much of the time. Its no coincidence that all style before modernism mimicked organic forms. Now, technology is allowing us to return to that – except with 3d space and not just ornamental detailing. I don’t think that is going to disappear anytime soon – however I do think some of the crazy structures I see online appear wildly inconsiderate of their context and the people walking around/through them. There must be a balance.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +12

    Good article. As an architect who also has been involved in architectural metal fabrication for over forty years I had the opportunity to be in on the start of digital fabrication, and enjoy the advantages afforded by 5 axis lasers, water jets, CNC machining centers, CNC press brakes and so forth. I started in an ere of hand setups and scribe marking and progressed the emailing DXFs to the laser downstairs. As in many things the ease of production can lead to trivialization, lowering of standards, lowering of the need for talent and real ideas as the wow factor of the forms take over. After all, carving machines and duplicators existed in the 19th century, but great sculpture did not happen as a result.

    I visited some architecture schools recently. On one hand I was glad to see that more conceptualization was going on in 3-D with real materials and on the other hand alarmed about how the lasers, 3-D printers and so forth made every project look more finished and accomplished than they really were. We see this all over – pitch corrected music, photo shopped this and that – often times resulting in slick, soulless mish mash.
    It is very important to look through the appearances of presentation and keep our eyes on the core of ideas and formal relationships – eye and mind trumps manufactured look.

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    Somewhat have very mixed feelings towards the main arguments, especially on the last romantic sentence where architectural brilliance is decoupled from technical one. I bet it’s very hard to say what the first one is anyway… For sure digital architecture often repeats itself, a lot of students make voronoi diagrams and by innocent play ‘devalue’ the concept, but it is, on the other hand, just a ‘hello world!’ equivalent when starting to play with digital realm. It is a beginning for young people. I would state the opposite, this evil-formal freedom forces students to better think why and where they use these freedoms. And digital/technical brilliance can in no rational way go against architectural brilliance, otherwise I’m missing some point in reality… It is also frustrating to hear this cry for the ‘ever-decreasing skill in fabrication’. I doubt the author has an understand of what level of craftmanship and knowledge an individual needs to gain in order to organize processes needed for exposed pavillions to emerge. And yes, they are pavillions, they do not solve world’s hunger problems yet, but let’s be more patient and let’s not pretend that we know how to reach the Brilliance.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      “And yes, they are pavillions, they do not solve world’s hunger problems yet” really!!
      Dear friend,
      You indeed have missed some points in reality, pavilions or to that fact Architecture never could solve world’s hunger problem neither yet nor ever, in fact it has been brutal to maintain the awe we gasp, with several lives buried dead under. Let us leave that apart, it might be claimed as a necessity to appreciate the ‘craftsmanship and knowledge an individual requires to….. exposed pavilions” but I also doubt pavilion as a resultant is the only escape and thus a reward to be appreciated for using digital tools.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    An excerpt from my thesis:

    There is a temptation to use parametric design techniques as drivers for complicated form, using the processing of information as a design or fabrication technique and creating forms that would otherwise be impossible. However, if the information that enters into the parametric model is linearly processed, is the resultant structure informed or just transformed? Michael Meredith challenges the complexity that emerges out of rote transformation as a “subversion of semiotic legibility” eroding meaning in the quest for a specific aesthetic condition. Transformation, multiplication and proliferation are straightforward tasks using these tools, but does that mean that the digital needs to be obsessed with processed, overly elaborate form? By shifting the focus away from transformation and towards informed interaction, the designer can retain agency while still exploring non-standard spatial arrangements.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    i wonder if there were any essays in the early 20th century called “the depreciating value of cars in the age of mass production”…..wait a minute….

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      I don’t wonder in fact I am thankful that you were not involved in changing the world through any field let alone architecture because clearly consuming or mass producing is not a sign of the best what world could get. Criticism has long been a sharpening blade against all the spoof that happens in the name of ‘cutting edge’ and ‘innovation’ let’s be real.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Though I agree with the premise, such a complex issue requires more substantiated claims. Examples, references, sources; a body of evidence. Who’s to say precisely how this will effect design culture?

  8. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Voronoi diagrams influenced architecture design for a decade and it’s already “old” while Fibonacci I.e. Golden ratio lasted centuries. Architecture drawings seem to fall prey to consumer consumption trends. More about image

  9. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    There is no such thing as “zero tolerance” just because you cannot measure the tolerance with your eyes and some calipers doesn’t make it zero.

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