Tectonism in Architecture, Design and Fashion - Innovations in Digital Fabrication as Stylistic Drivers
Patrik Schumacher, London 2017
Published in: AD 3D-Printed Body Architecture, guest-edited by Neil Leach & Behnaz Farahi, Architectural Design, Profile No 250, November/December 2017, 06/Vol 87/2017
Recent advances in numerically controlled fabrication technologies increasingly feed back into the formal repertoires prevalent in avant-garde architectural design, product design and fashion design. This is feedback is actively and strategically pursuit by the current protagonists of parametricism who are experimenting with new digital fabrication technologies, not so much to empower their prior design sensibilities and intentions but in order to discover new sensibilities and repertoires in the new rather particular sets of affordances and constraints that come with the different fabrication technologies explored.
On the basis of industrial robots as generic fabrication infrastructure, the specific technologies explored are developed within the experimental architectural studios themselves - mostly within and around schools of architecture - rather than being delivered ready-made from outside. While the manifest explicit agenda is the rational utilisation of the new productivity enhancing technologies, i.e. the designers are manifestly invested in technical functionality, I argue that the latent, implicit agenda is the expansion of architecture’s design repertoire and morphology. The pragmatic promise of fabrication efficiency is an attractive premise for designers but not the most important motivation here: What attracts designers to the new technologies is their promise of new creative and expressive powers.
We indeed witness an intense new investment in architecture’s stylistic resources. We are witnessing the formation of a new style: Tectonism.
From Engineering to Style
Tectonism implies the stylistic heightening of engineering- and fabrication-based form-finding and optimization processes.
However, this style does not spell a departure from parametricism. Rather, tectonism is the currently most prevalent and promising subsidiary style (sub-style) within the overarching paradigm and epochal style of parametricism. In retrospect we might distinguish tectonism from earlier phases of parmetricism like foldism and blobism. These older sub-styles are still practiced, just as during the era of Modernism the earlier white Bauhaus style continued in parallel with the later Brutalism.
In contrast to these earlier sub-styles tectonism is embedding a series of technical rationalities that secure both greater efficiency as well as greater morphological rigour, while maintaining sufficient degrees of design freedom to address programmatic and contextual contingencies. Since the principles tectonism utilizes are inherently plural and open ended, this additional rigour comes along with additional tectonic variety and thereby offers a new reservoir of morphological physiognomies. This empowers designers to give a unique, recognisable identity to individual projects. Tectonism delivers much more expressive variety than foldism or blobism, without descending into arbitrary form invention.
While the overarching general design agenda remains parametricism’s pursuit of adaptive versatility and complexity, tectonism pursues these with a much richer set of parametric drivers and constraints than earlier versions of parametricism. These drivers originate in sophisticated computationally empowered engineering logics that are now available to architects at early design stages via structural form-finding tools like RhinoVAULT (for complex compression-only shells) and physics engines like ‘kangaroo’ for ‘grasshopper’(to approximate shell or tensile structures), via analytic tools like Principle Stress Lines analysis in ‘Karamba’ that can also be turned generative, and via optimisation tools like structural topology optimisation (e.g. available in ‘millipede’). Various fabrication- and materially based geometry constraints can also be embedded in generative design processes that are then set free to search the characteristic solution space delimited by the constraints. At ZHA CODE we are developing a lot of our own custom tools to model the particular constraints of particular fabrication processes.
All this leads to uniquely characteristic morphologies and features that nevertheless all remain recognizable as variants of tectonism and indeed parametricism because all these techniques follow the overarching methodology of parametricism favouring parametric malleability. In earlier writings I had identified Frei Otto as the only true precursor of parametricism. This identification and honour also applies in relation to tectonism: Frei Otto and the legacy of his research institute are a huge inspiration to the protagonists of tectonism.
Tectonism delivers both new technical rationalities as well as new articulatory riches that emerge from the new probing attempts to invent and utilize new forms of robotic manufacturing, including various forms of robotic 3D printing. It is important to note that tectonism - like the earlier stages within parametricism’s development – is already operating across the various design disciplines, although architecture remains its heartland.
Many of the best current protagonists of parametricism might be classified as belonging to tectonism as defined here, including the following architects who were featured in the recent AD issue ‘Parametricism 2.0’: Achim Menges, Marc Fornes, Gramazio/Kohler, Philippe Block, Mark Burry, among many others1. Such a classification does not necessarily require self-identification by the protagonists themselves, some of which might remain sceptical with respect to the very concept of style(s) and might resist to being subsumed under any classification. Some of the recent work of Zaha Hadid Architects where structural and environmental engineering logics as well as fabrication logics play an increasingly formative role in the morphology and tectonic articulation of the design can also be classified as tectonism. In particular the various experimental installations developed within ZHA CODE belong to tectonism, but also projects like the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, the 1000 Museum tower, the recently completed King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, as well as various projects in planning at the moment: projects using reticulated concrete shells, tensile structures, exo-skeletons, articulated timber structures etc. Further we can include some of Nike’s best products like their Flyknit shoes or some of ODLO’s best sportswear. Here fabric tailoring and unusual knitting textures are driven by engineering concerns like temperature management, moisture management and movement management via various directions and degrees of elasticity, with gradient ribbing and perforation patterns etc. These innovations and their aesthetic expression inspired my own forays into fashion design.
In a recent exhibition entitled “Meta-Utopia - Between Process and Poetry” hosted by the Zaha Hadid Design Gallery in London, we displayed a diverse range of experiments in robotic fabrication, including large scale multi-material 3D printing, robotic plastic extrusion capable of printing lines into space without molds, concrete printing, robotic component assembly, robotic hot-wire cutting, as well as robotic curved folding of sheet materials. Each of these fabrication techniques imprints its unique, unmistakeable character onto its products, including the shape-range of the overall form as well as the materiality and texture. This means that the concept of “faktura” is well alive in our era of robotics. (Faktura is the visual trace of the fabrication process in the artefact or work of art. It is seen as a positive, character sponsoring quality of the artefact or artwork. The concept emerged in the context of the Russian avant-garde art and design during the early Soviet Union.)
This new diversity of form making potentials and aesthetic expressions affords a welcome expansion of parametricism’s repertoire beyond the smooth nurb surfaces that had been prevalent previously. This fuels both programmatic invention as well as semiological articulation. According to my theory of architectural autopoiesis2 new styles manifest both new formal concepts as well as a new conception of programme or social function, both connected with the opportunities afforded by new technologies.
As Lei Zheng, the curator of our Meta-utopia show noted in the catalogue: “New aesthetic sensibilities are here as much tested as are technological feasibilities, rendering a possible future viscerally tangible, and querying its desirability.” These works query “technological, aesthetic and anthropological innovations. Fabrication technology experimentation becomes here an engine of both spatio-formal invention as well as socio-programmatic invention.”3
While many current design experiments focus on exploring new technologies and architects/designers are inevitably drawn into engineering problematics and thus become proto-engineers, stirring and steering real engineers to come on board, it is important to keep track of the fundamental disciplinary difference between design (including architecture) and the engineering disciplines. The demarcation between design and engineering is based on the distinction of the social functioning of the built environment from its technical functioning. The clear demarcation of competencies and responsibilities is the more important the closer the collaboration must become with respect to the complex ambitions we pursue in our built environments. While the technical functioning considers the physical integrity, constructability and physical performance of the building, architecture and design must take into consideration that a building’s social function, i.e. its function to order social processes, succeeds via visual legibility. The core competency of architecture/design is thus the task of articulation. However, according to the style and thesis of tectonism, it is the new engineering and fabrication logics that deliver the expressive repertoire of articulation to architecture and design. This double burdening of form selection – where technical and communicative performance must be considered simultaneously – becomes possible only due to the expansive proliferation of technically viable options so that an additional selection criterion that selects and composes an orchestrated subset of all technically feasible forms according to compositional/legibility concerns can be accommodated.
The relationship between the technical and the articulatory dimension of the build environment leads to the concepts of tectonics, or more precisely tectonic articulation4, here understood as the architectural selection and utilization of technically motivated, engineered forms and details for the sake of a legible articulation that aims at an information-rich, communicative spatial morphology, for the sake of visual or tactile communication.
It was Neil Leach who first used the concept of tectonics in connection with the digitally based design movement I later termed Parametricism in an anthology entitled Designing for a Digital World5, and then in a follow up anthology entitled Digital Tectonics6. According toNeil Leach the title was intended as a strategic re-appropriation of the term 'tectonics' from the more conservative - and seemingly moralising - way that Frampton had used it in his Studies in Tectonic Culture7.
I welcome this general re-appropriation as a basis for my much more specific concept of tectonics that implies the capacity (if not always the explicit agenda) of communication.
The concept of tectonic articulation applies to all design disciplines from architecture to product design and fashion, and so does the distinction between design and engineering implied in the distinction between technical and social functionality. Within our complex information/network society the built environment and the world of artefacts have to share in the task of information processing and communication: they become an important source of information helping us to navigate and orient within our increasingly complex social world. Thus the social functionality of a designed space or artefact crucially depends on its communicative capacity. All design – across all design disciplines – is to an important extent communication design. In fashion design this is often more obvious than in architecture or product design, but it applies universally across all design disciplines. The designed environment together with the world of designed artefacts – effectively the totality of the phenomenal world that surrounds us – functions as an interface of communication. This includes graphic and web design as well. Therefore all human interactions - whether face to face or mediated - depend on being framed and facilitated by designed spaces and artefacts which should take this crucial function into account.
The history of architecture abounds with examples where architectural elements and features with technical functions become the object of articulatory or “ornamental” endeavours. However, we need to understand the instrumentality of ornament, i.e. we need to grasp ornament not in contrast to performance but as a special type of performance: communicative performance. A technically efficient morphology might thus also assume an articulatory, communicative function. The articulatory integration of the morphological consequences of technical requirements is always the more elegant solution than the attempt to fight and deny them by covering them up with a separate communicative surface. This latter stance would require the invention of additional communicative features because social distinctions desire and require expression. However, the utilization of the initially technically motivated morphological features for the characterization of spaces is not only more economical but leads to a higher level of credibility of the communication because the morphological feature that is now to become a signifier is often already an index of the intended meaning rather than a merely arbitrary symbol. In the terminology of the founder of semiotics, Charles Peirce8, tectonic articulation thus transforms “indexical signs” into “symbolic signs”. This process too gives degrees of freedom to the designer in the selection of the indexical features that might be heightened and systematized to become elements of a semiological system of signification. In order for architects to pursue tectonic articulation they need to guide and orchestrate the engineering investigations and then select the engineering options that most suit their primary task, namely to fulfil the posed social functions via spatio-morphological communications. The adaptive differentiation of load bearing structures as well as the adaptive differentiation of volumes and envelopes according to the building’s environmental performance (with respect to its exposure to sun, wind, rain etc.) as well as differentiations that stem from fabrication logics (e.g. tessellations, tool path patterns etc.) afford many opportunities for differential tectonic articulation. A thus lawfully differentiated built environment would be much more legible and navigable than Modernism’s mute, isotropic order of repetition or the visual chaos of post-modernist collage.
With the development of sophisticated computational design tools - within architecture, within the engineering disciplines, and within the construction industry - the scope for nuanced tectonic articulation has much increased. The realization of this potential requires an intensified collaboration between innovative architects, engineers and fabricators. Although there can be no doubt that architecture remains a discourse that is distinct from engineering and construction, a close collaboration with these discipline’s as well as the acquisition of reliable intuitions about their respective logics are increasingly important conditions for the design of contemporary high performance built environments. These intuitions can be more reliably acquired if architects and designers engage in amateur proto-engineering by using the various physics engines cited above and experiment with fabrication processes. Tectonism is committed to such practises that demand additional skills and knowledge, and that deliver a new, rich formal repertoire of articulation. These new articulatory powers can be employed in a design agenda of communication made explicit: Design is communication.
3 Lei Zheng, Meta Utopia – Between Process and Poetry, Meta-Utopia Catalogue, Zaha Hadid Design Gallery, London 2017
5 Designing for a Digital World, Neal Leach (Ed), Wiley Academy, 2002.
6 Digital Tectonics, Neal Leach, David Turnbull, Chris Williams (Eds), Wiley Academy, 2004.
7 Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture, MIT Press, 1995
8 Charles S. Peirce, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings 1893-1913, Chapter 2: What is a sign?, Indiana University Press, 1998