A speech given by RMIT architecture lecturer Roland Snooks to mark Founders' Day, 7 June, 2014.
Roland Snooks. Photo: Vicki Jones.
This evening I'll discuss a new paradigm in architecture that is emerging through the convergence of complex systems, computational design and robotic fabrication. A convergence that I believe is set to radically alter the built environment.
During the last few decades our understanding of formation has significantly changed through developments in theories of complexity and emergence. A complex system - one in which the interaction of simple elements self-organise to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts - is inherently distributed, non-hierarchical, and has the capacity to form intricate organizational order and structures.
We are beginning to realise that similar complex processes underlie the formation of diverse phenomena, such as organic, social and economic systems. An understanding that is increasingly pervading contemporary culture through the distributed and self-organising role of social media and the shift in the understanding of authorship that has been created through open source platforms.
The particular subset of complexity theory that has most informed my research is swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence describes the collective behavior of phenomena such as flocks of birds, schools of fish, social insects and slime mold. Systems in which individual entitles, I will call them agents, interact locally to generate an emergent order at the macro scale.
We have appropriated this logic for architectural design. By encoding architectural rules or design intention within these computational agents, their interaction leads to the self-organisation of design intention and an emergent architecture.
This is a generative design process - by which I mean: rather than directly designing a building, we set up the conditions from which the building emerges. This is sometimes described as designing the design.
The application of this algorithmic swarm approach enables us to compress a whole set of architectural and building concerns into a single geometry - one that negotiates between structural, environmental as well as formal or aesthetic concerns. This approach creates intricate, complex forms such as this structural skin for this high-rise tower that we designed through our practice, Kokkugia.
Rather than a hierarchical assembly of separate elements, the organic form of the tower embeds structural and environmental parameters as integral to the form rather than being simply applied to the body of a conventional building design.
While the relationship between complexity theory and new digital design processes create compelling new forms - which I would argue are a reflection of the complexity of contemporary society - these projects are not feasible to build in the current construction paradigm. However this is something we are working to change.
To realise or make these intricate projects buildable we are increasingly exploring the implications of robotic fabrication in architecture. Automotive and manufacturing industries have been robotically automated for decades, however the construction industry is still a largely manual process.
For this reason I established the architectural robotics lab at RMIT last year to explore the application of robotics to building construction. The mission of the lab is to develop methods for building the complex projects that we have been designing as well as to look at the influence these new tools will have on how we design.
The use of robotics is enabling the large-scale extrusion of material similar to 3D printing. A method in which thin layers of material are printed by a robot in successive layers to gradually accrete the form.
These processes reduce economic and environmental costs through eliminating waste, minimising transport and logistics and rapidly increasing the speed of construction.
The ability to print buildings from concrete, or more advanced composite materials are radically changing the limitations on building form - suddenly the complexity of the geometry no-longer matters - it is simply the amount of material that affects cost. Consequently the organic geometries that are created through our algorithmic processes are becoming increasingly viable.
There are many pragmatic arguments or those for efficiency that could be made for the convergence of this new set of tools. And while these are important, they are less interesting to me personally than the new space of design possibility and experimentation that is being opened by this emerging paradigm.