Algorithms and technology in architecture

Associate Professor Roland Snooks uses robotic fabrication and algorithmic generative design to explore new depths of his discipline.

Multi-agent swarm algorithm

Each semester, RMIT graduating classes follow a time-honoured ritual: the university chancellor leads faculty and graduates into the assembly hall for the investitures. Heralding the entire procession is a 1.2 metre ornate mace borne by the university secretary. The sceptre symbolises the chancellor's authority as ceremonial head of the university. 

In 2015, a new mace was forged, freighted with fresh symbolism. Made from titanium, it was designed and produced using 3D printers and the expertise of the university's silver and goldsmiths. This is entirely fitting. Beyond its ceremonial role, the new mace symbolises the importance of collaboration at RMIT (this time between RMIT Architecture, Industrial Design and its traditional 'smithing' departments) and the university's position at the forefront of architecture and computational design in Australia.

In collaboration with Scott Mayson, Dr Roland Snooks designed the mace using a "multi-agent swarm algorithm" (pictured above). Two types of algorithms come together, Snooks explains: "The swarm starts off as a cloud of points and almost unravels into surfaces and forms into complex curved surfaces."For the mace, 1.1 million agents interact to create the intricate lattice structure. 

"[The mace is] a demonstration of the intensity and the complexity that's possible with the type of algorithms we're developing," says Snooks. 

For the past seven years, Snooks has combined these two algorithms in many projects, including the multimedia art installation Floe at the National Gallery of Victoria (pictured below), and interiors such as the Sensilab Studio at Monash University, and the New Design Centre at RMIT's Brunswick campus. Where the mace uses titanium, these projects employ polycarbonates. The complex forms that emerge from the swarm algorithms are not just a Snooks signature, but "an obsession," he says.

Within RMIT Architecture, Snooks heads a 10-strong research group. Each member explores their own topic, from 3D printing biological materials like mycelium to integrating carbon fibre into large-scale 3D printing.

"It's the leading research group in Australia dealing with the combination of robotic fabrication and algorithmic generative design," says Snooks. "Our ambition is to compete with the major research labs in Europe."

Boeing is one of the partners sponsoring part of the RMIT Architecture group's research. The project involves casting carbon fibre strands inside a polycarbonate structure. In much the same way steel reinforces concrete, the carbon fibre provides strength to the polycarbonate.

 "The carbon fibre project we're developing with Boeing is the most technically sophisticated project we've worked on," says Snooks. 

An installation of the carbon fibre integrated structures will be showcased at the Shenzhen biennale, and subsequently included in an international exhibition of emerging technologies at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2020.

For Boeing, the outlook may see interiors or even fuselages made from 3D printed structures. But Snooks says, "there's no particular deliverable outcome expected. The collaboration is highly speculative. It's a way of exploring and seeing where research might lead and what it might be applied to in the future." 

He first became attracted to computational architecture in 1997 after attending a lecture by pioneering US architect Greg Lynn. 

"It completely changed the way I thought about what architecture could be," says Snooks, who at the time was a second year undergraduate at the University of Canberra. "Lynn presented a whole new set of possibilities in terms of form and radically different types of spaces that could be made. I came to RMIT because I knew that work was being embraced here."

If Tom Kovac, Pia Ednie-Brown and Mark Burry played important roles in his education, Paul Minifie was the most influential. 

"He's the person who really introduced me to algorithmic design and sparked my interest in writing code," says Snooks. "He supervised my thesis project at RMIT. I worked for Paul for a number of years on the Victorian College of the Arts Centre for Ideas, one of the first architectural projects in Australia to use algorithmic design."

Floe installation at National Gallery Victoria

For his masters, Snooks studied on a Fulbright Scholarship at Columbia University in New York, where Lynn had been a catalyst in architecture's digital transformation. But Lynn was about to leave the university. Instead Jesse Reiser filled the mentoring role. It led to 18 months work with Reiser Umemoto on the O14 tower in Dubai. The experience on that project's concrete exoskeleton would influence Snooks' early exploration in concrete casts and the realisation that with computer aided machines every cut can be unique.

"The first ten years of my career involved generative digital design, writing algorithms and speculating on what type of forms, organisations and structures could be designed and created through self-organising systems," says Snooks. 

The work was getting more and more complex, culminating in a design for an architecture school in Helsinki, when Snooks called time. 

"We just stopped and realised this is impossible to build," he recalls. "That was the critical moment. Do we simplify it to make it buildable within the current paradigm, or do we have to figure out new ways of building? It was our desire to maintain the complexity of the architecture we were designing that  really led us into all this work with innovative fabrication."

For the past seven years, realising these complex digital forms has been his focus at RMIT. 

"I've been setting up the architectural robotics lab, as a platform for developing new ways of building."

In this world of high-end fabrication, robots act as large-scale 3D printers extruding materials like polycarbonate and metal. But the team is also experimenting with robots in combination with cameras to help grow mycelium, the root stock of mushrooms. The fibrous biodegradable material grows quickly (a brick - or any form - can grow in a week) and could potentially replace petrochemical-based foams used in buildings. 

Just as his swarm-based algorithms were inspired by nature, this area of research explores the relationship between biological growth and digital algorithms. 

"Different densities can be achieved by the way it's grown," Snooks explains. "The robot and a vision system become the mediator between the two. The vision system can see what the biological growth is doing and then the digital algorithm can respond to that - either extruding more mycelium or adding nutrients, or heat, or figuring out where it wants to put moisture, and effecting the way mycelium grows. You can't entirely predict what it's going to do, which is why you need the vision system that constantly analyses and responds to the growth. The idea is to create something which is neither biological nor computational, but somehow a hybrid of those two things."

Portrait of Associate Professor Roland Snooks Associate Professor Dr Roland Snooks

An important milestone in Snooks's work is the Sensilab Studio at Monash University, the 20sqm 3D printed polycarbonate interior his practice designed and was fabricated by the RMIT Architectural Robotics Lab. 

"We were able to demonstrate that polycarbonate 3D printed structures can meet building and fire codes," says Snooks. "As soon as you can do this at the scale of a small building element, there is no reason you can't scale it up." 

The work led to Snooks's practice being commissioned by RMIT University (in collaboration with Paul Morgan architects and Zilka studio) to design two studios in the New School of Design (Building 515) at RMIT's Brunswick campus. These studios will be partially wrapped in translucent 3D printed polycarbonate walls which are reinforced with carbon fibre.

"Our process is focused on developing ideas through iterative testing," says Snooks. "Through designing, prototyping and building highly speculative projects, you learn from the failures, and then integrate that understanding into the next step."  

"From a 3D printing point of view, it's about scale," says Snooks. "There's been a lot of scepticism about the idea that you could 3D print architecture from plastics. We're now at a point where the combination of Sensilab, Floe and Building 515 at Brunswick Campus will demonstrate that this is not a whimsical thing. It's actually something that can be achieved."

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