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