Active Matters: Will Programmable Forms Change Design – and the World – Forever?


Research into self-forming materials find inspiration in these red ants building a raft

Research into self-forming materials finds inspiration in these red ants building a raft

I can recall sitting on the grass in my chiton, waiting for my turn to throw the discus in our 4th-grade reenactment of the Olympic Games. Whereupon a swarm of red ants bit my butt! The pain and embarrassment sting to this day! Thank Zeus our quick-witted principal came to the rescue.

One might think there’s a special place in hell for these red ant buggers to borrow a phrase from Madeleine Albright.

But not so fast!

Now it turns out red ants are the latest heroes of the revolution taking place in design and architecture. Researchers have shown that in a cluster red ants have the uncanny ability to act as a solid or to transform into a liquid, depending on their situation. Dropped in water, they quickly form a raft. Bombarded with falling pennies, the identical cluster “liquefies” to let the pennies pass, while all the individual ants in the cluster remain unharmed. Now, what if you could program building materials to act the same way? Such was the thrust of last December’s Active Matter Summit at MIT, a window on the future of architecture that opens to a whole new world of possibilities.

Virtual home additions will soon be opening on virtual views

Virtual home additions will soon be opening on virtual views

And this new world of possibilities couldn’t come at a better time. Given everything our society is asking of design, today’s brief would look impossible to achieve without some intercession from Zeus himself:

  • Protect us from global warming and rising tides
  • House the world’s sixty million refugees
  • Give us a sense of community in the mega city
  • And so on and so on!

But with materials programmed like red ants, imagination in architecture becomes the only limit. For example, just take a look at this presentation at the Active Matter Summit by Achim Menges of the Institute of Computational Design at the University of Stuttgart. Note this is the same university where, not coincidentally, the renowned author of Biology and Building, architect Otto Frei (1925-2015), was a professor emeritus and remains a dominant influence.

I especially liked the pine-cone imitating wall that opens by itself when the weather is dry and closes when humid. No blinds to pull here! Or forget local weather altogether and build in space, or in the ocean using “Air Assemblies.” According to MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, its Aerial Assemblies project is “part of a series of investigations looking at autonomous assembly in different environments (water, air, space etc.). Aerial Assemblies focuses on large-scale modules that can assemble in the airspace high above land, construction sites or complex environments.”  

Ever seen 3-D printing in action? It looks like a regular inkjet printer, only it’s spouting out stuff in layers – clay, for example, or paper pulp. Impressive to be sure – and at the same time, I found the actual, slow-going process disappointing. Everything we made at Figulo in Boston’s Innovation District had to be small enough to fit in the little 3-D printer box, and then smaller still to fit in a kiln for hardening. The revolutionary nature of construction on this scale was lost on me, though it’s actually pretty clear if you look at what’s coming out of the MakerLabs cropping up around the world.

Sean Solley back from Berlin

Sean Solley of the New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University, Boston, MA

A professor and architect, Sean Solley showed me at a post-sabbatical exhibit of his MakerLab work in a converted brewery in Berlin, the tables and chairs and lamps he was able to turn out most likely signal the end of the mass-produced, as well as mass marketing. Why? Because with 3-D printing, lasers, and programmable routers designers can now prototype anything cheaply.  To create something the way Prof. Solley has done using molds would have costs thousands, necessitating mass production of the object just to recoup those costs. At the same time, Prof. Solley admits it’s exasperating to watch these little 3-D printers take hours to make a fastener out of industrial waste – no matter how revolutionary. Thanks to experiments in the aerospace industry building jet engines, 3-D printing is about to scale up, way up. It’s time to think Yuge – to borrow from the Larry David/Bernie Sanders shtick on Saturday Night Live. Soon it will be standard practice for architects to program robots that can bust out of the 3-D printing boxes you see now. The robots’ arms and spouts will be the size of large cranes, programmable and capable of  “printing” in macro scales: giant dams, skyscrapers, McMansions! Here’s how WinSun Ma of the eponymous company printed ten houses in a single day out of construction waste and concrete. And here again, is a short video on how contractor Andrey Rudenko designed and programmed his own extruder to build a concrete castle in Minnesota.  

Otto Frei's 1972 Olympic Stadium

Otto Frei’s 1972 Olympic Stadium

But then again it may not be necessary to design and build very much in the real world at all. Soon designers can use mere projections of Virtual Reality to create spaces and places out of thin air. Beautiful illusions may be the real future of Sarah Suzanka’s Not So Big House. It’s not so big because in Virtual Reality it can be made to look and feel vast. I can easily picture four hundred square feet of living space as more than enough when it gives on a Palladian villa tricked out with views of a park by Capability Brown (1716-1783) – complete with James Bond’s Aston Martin waiting on the virtual curb. Really, why not?

For more and better on the use of Virtual Reality in architecture, check out VR evangelist Nacho Martin’s piece in this month’s ArchDaily — VR Architecture: Why the next design frontier will be in virtual spaces.  Think all these programmable materials and futuristic ideas represent a Pandora’s Box of troubles, a swarm of red ants readying to bite through our Olympic dreams of changing design and the world? I’d love to hear from you

 

1 Comment

  1. Professor Sean Solley

    A fascinating cross-section of ideas; the possibilities seem infinite. Many of these innovations present new challenge for designers too. The work of Charles and Ray Eames is testimony to their understanding of constraint.
    I’m inspired to think of Christopher Alexander who, even as far back as the sixties, feared that we might oversimplify design complexity to meet the operational capacities of computing. The technologies that Archie shares can enable us to confront some very complex cultural, societal, economic, and political challenges and we must use significant will power to ensure that we do not succumb to our own human frailty and create another world as imperfect as the current one.

    Reply

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