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Journal - In Progress Leow Jinn Jyh 376016

Architecture a Discourse When I first enrolled into the Bachelor of Environments, architecture is as simply as design beautiful buildings. After four semesters and currently in my fifth, I learnt that architecture so much more complex (and interesting). But still, I could not answer the seemingly simple question: What is Architecture? This question alone could spark a discussion that will last for many years. The responses were, are and will be plenty and constantly changing with new technologies, new materials and new thinking. In a way, built projects are snapshots of the beliefs and trends of the age – the zeitgeist. Architects try to capture it in their designs but it is alive and will evolve. This is what, in my opinion, which contributes to the discourse.

“... [C]omputers will contribute their superb rational and search abilities, and we humans will contribute all the creativity and intuition needed to solve design problems.” - Kalay, Archietctrue’s New Media (2004), p.3

National Stadium, Beijing Herzog & de Meuron Architekten 2008

Recent years saw the rise of architecture produced via the digital medium and so many iconic buildings were produced this way. One prominent example is the National Stadium in Beijing, China. Rooted in the ancient culture yet progressive in its form, this is the reason I like this iconic building. Its circular shape is the symbol of heaven in the Chinese culture yet the complex mesh of steel had blurred the distinction between structural and non-structural elements; it is the structure, the facade and the roof all at the same time. This would not have been possible without the use of digital technology. The sheer complexity of the steel network would lose a lot of information if it were drawn in the conventional orthographic views and the form would be less impactful if it were projected flatly instead of in a three-dimensional view.

This icon is more than just a built artefact. Its architect, Jacques Herzog, see it as a “Trojan horse” to the political climate of China. While the stadium fulfils the requirement of the Olympic Games, it doubles as a public meeting space that allows the public to interact freely out of the regime’s monitor in the odd, leftover spaces. It is a symbol of change and of freedom, a catalyst to China’s progression. Hence, architecture is much more than just a building.

Personal Project: Studley Park Boat House 2011

My project from the previous semester is a retrospective Boat House design based on Mies van der Rohe’s works. As one of the most prominent figures of Modernism, his works look rigid and even cold when compared to the “Bird’s Nest”. Curves are rare in Mies’s works. Therefore, when I was designing this project, I omitted them and instead focused on aduce all the drawings by hand and the few elevations and sections conveyed enough information for the boat house to be understood. The structure, the facade, the roof could be easily identified. It is rational, legible and would be cheaper to be built as many parts could be mass produced unlike parametric projects in which each individual piece is unique.

And this begs the question: could parametric design be the future of architecture in this economically-driven world? My answer is ‘yes’. From my observation, though small scale projects are still largely rectilinear, medium to large scale projects are increasingly parametric. There must be some other factors that drive this trend: rise of awareness of building energy efficiency, creation of an identity, environmental concerns, and tourism just to name a few. Using programmes to find new forms is new, exciting and have endless possibilities. The human mind can only imagine as much as the precedents and preconceptions we have. Computer programmes breaks that barrier and could help us explore new forms we would have never imagined. Competitions such as the 2012 eVolo Skyscraper Competition could further advance the discourse in architecture by challenging the preconceptions, in this case, on skyscrapers. The first place winner’s design for the “Himalaya Water Towers”, for example, might look structurally impossible (and expensive), but it raises the awareness of the water crisis in the region. “Mountain BandAid” seeks to recover the original lifestyles of the Hmong people in China, and indirectly laments the loss of culture due to urban growth and displacement. The design for “Mountain City” came out of the concern of the separation of modern life from the nature. The designs are grounded in real-world issues, yet their solutions are closer to fantasies as there are no real world restrictions like gravity and cost in the virtual world. The digital platform enables one to free oneself from these considerations. It is the ingenuity, the creativity, and the new ways of thinking that will help future architects to produce better and more humane designs. This, I think, is our zeitgeist, and hence parametric design is the best approach to the Gateway project.

With the emergence of parametric design, the construction industry is evolving to adapt to the new technologies. The complexity of parametric designs renders the traditional construction methods obsolete because the curves introduced are no longer a composite of tangent circular arcs and straight lines which could be manufactured easily - but a series of parabolas and hyperbolas joined together (Kolarevic p.15). New ways of production and construction, therefore, has surfaced to meet the new demands. Digital designs often require digital fabrication techniques, and a myriad of digital production method had been developed for masscustomisation. Mass-customisation is the production of dimensionally different but topologically identical parts within the same facility. With parametric design, the components become increasingly differentiated and complex to be produced. For example, Foster and Partner’ toroidal glass roof for the Great Court in the British Museum consists of 3,312 triangular glass panes filled between a network mesh consisting of 4,878 hollow rods and 1,566 connector nodes, all of which has different dimensions. (Kolaveric p.45) Traditional mass production, which is only effective in producing large amounts of components of the same size, would not have been able to cope with this kind of demand. Instead, the glass, hollow tubes and nodes were cut using the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) system which is fast, very precise and just as cost effective as mass production techniques (Kolaveric p.52). Speed reduces delays in construction while precision reduces mistakes and waste, both which would in turn save the cost of construction.

With a budget of $280,000 for the Gateway Project, this becomes very relevant. As argued before, in order to produce an “exciting, eyecatching� structure that captures the zeitgeist of the digital age, parametric design is the way to go. Yet, there are concerns on the cost of construction due to the complexity of the form. However, by mass-customising the components and using digital manufacturing techniques, the project could be kept within the budget.

Of course, complex forms come with more problems, be it performative or constructability. Beijing’s National Aquatic Center (commonly known as the Water Cube) would not have looked the way it is today or even built without the help of digital technology. A major concern over the building is the thinness of the skin, which could pose a fire hazard. Furthermore, the Chinese fire safety regulations require a special coating on the exposed steel honeycomb, as well as fire exits as long as two sides of the building’s length, which will destroy the aesthetics of the building. However, computer simulations of a fire showed that the building is perfectly safe and the two fire regulations were waived. (Nat Geo documentary – Megastructures) Digital fabrication and manufacturing were also used in various stages of this design. It would have been impossible to build a physical model of this structure in time for the competition submission which as 22,000 steel beams in its steel honeycomb that has no conventional straight lines. Stereolithography allowed rapid prototyping of the scale model in time for the submission. CNC cutting is again employed for cutting the 100,00m2 of the ‘bubbles’’ETFE (Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) skin as accurately as designed on a vacuum table, with the least waste of materials. This project also used a digital blueprint instead of a drawn one for its construction to accurately and clearly show all the components to the builders. Hence, these new innovations in construction and design had enabled the realisation of this iconic building.

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