La Voûte de LeFevre

We are truly con­flicted. We are pre-occupied with com­pu­ta­tional design and dig­i­tal fab­ri­ca­tion–com­monly assumed to be rapid, fash­ion­able, and sur­fa­cial, though simul­ta­ne­ously pre-occupied with vol­ume–thick, heavy, ancient, and per­ma­nent. We also main­tain an empha­sis on spec­u­la­tion, and yet our ded­i­ca­tion to real­ity resists this claim. We intend to inno­vate and trans­form the future of archi­tec­ture, yet we look to his­tory in order to do so. Some­where in this milieu of con­fu­sion and con­flic­tion is the ker­nel that defines us.

Marc Jar­zombek recently sug­gested one could deter­mine how well a soci­ety is doing by their abil­ity to pre­cisely carve stone. We like his met­ric for its sim­plic­ity, but also for its assump­tion that we must not be doing so well today. So much of the dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing dig­i­tal design has focused on the sur­face. We are not immune. Much of our pre­vi­ous research has dealt with the eco­nom­i­cally friendly sheet mate­r­ial, while main­tain­ing a com­mon thread of a ded­i­ca­tion to vol­ume. This ded­i­ca­tion orig­i­nally man­i­fested in vol­u­met­ric occu­pa­tion through bend­ing from 2d to 3d. More recently this desire has for­mal­ized into stereotomic (the art of cut­ting solids, most typ­i­cally stone) research with such projects as Periscope: Foam Tower and Tem­po­ral Ten­ancy. These projects mined the past knowl­edge of stereotomy as a way to robot­i­cally carve foam for tem­po­rary instal­la­tions. The irony of these projects is they apply knowl­edge from heavy stone con­struc­tion to light tem­po­rary projects that require ten­sile cables to stand. While the irony exists, these exer­cises in carv­ing solids could also be applied to mate­ri­als with sig­nif­i­cant mass as a way to re-engage the thick, heavy, and per­ma­nent compression-only archi­tec­ture of the past.

La Voûte de LeFevre is the result of a call for help. This call is sim­ple. It asks archi­tects to cut it out with the addic­tion to the thin. It begs for an inter­ven­tion, which came in the form of a one-year fel­low­ship ded­i­cated to exper­i­ment­ing with this request. This year was a form of re-hab. “You will build a heavy, per­ma­nent, and vol­u­met­ric archi­tec­ture. You will learn from this process and report back to us.”

When posited the task of build­ing a full-scale project with heavy and vol­u­met­ric process, two obsta­cles emerged—assur­ance and ambi­tion. How can we guar­an­tee a vault with sig­nif­i­cant mass will stand, and how can we build a project of such vol­u­met­ric scale on bud­get and sched­ule? The answers existed in these two words—com­pu­ta­tion and fabrication.

The vault is com­puted with a solver-based model that elic­its a compression-only struc­ture, from a non-ideal geom­e­try. The model requires a fixed geom­e­try as input, and opens aper­tures in order to vary the weight of each unit. This dynamic sys­tem re-configures the weight of the units based on a vol­u­met­ric cal­cu­la­tion. If unit A con­tains twice the vol­ume of unit B, then unit A weights twice as much. It requires that the mate­r­ial of the project be con­sis­tent, and solid (hol­low does not work). The com­puted result pro­duces a project that will stand ‘for­ever’ as there is zero ten­sion in the sys­tem pre­cisely because of the weight and vol­ume of the project, and not in spite of it.

The vault is pro­duced with Baltic Birch ply­wood. The ply­wood is sourced in three quar­ter inch thick sheets await­ing the ‘thick­en­ing’. Each cus­tom unit is dis­sected and sliced into these thick­nesses, cut from the sheets, and then phys­i­cally re-constituted into a rough vol­u­met­ric form of their final geom­e­try. These roughs are indexed onto a full sheet and glued, vac­uum pressed, and re-placed onto the CNC (com­puter numer­i­cally con­trolled) router.

On the topic of ambi­tion, this project is pro­duced on a 5-axis Onsrud router. The carv­ing bits are larger than life. The tool-paths uti­lized are ded­i­cated to remov­ing the most mate­r­ial with the least effort. These tool-paths are called swarfs. Instead of requir­ing the end of the bit to do the work, this path uses the edge of the bit to remove much more mate­r­ial. Because this method traces the geom­e­try with a line as opposed to point, it requires the units be con­sti­tuted of ruled sur­faces. This require­ment results in the conical-boolean geom­e­try. As these units tran­si­tion down to the col­umn (below the cal­cu­la­tion as the columns con­tain only ver­ti­cal thrust vec­tors) the rhetoric of the units con­tinue as if to say the weight is increasing.

The pur­pose of this research is not to revert to this ‘anti­quated’ archi­tec­ture. It is intended to re-engage in a prob­lem unfa­mil­iar to our con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. This unfa­mil­iar ter­rain pro­duces a new mon­ster. An archi­tec­ture that is some­how ancient yet con­tem­po­rary, heavy yet light, famil­iar yet alien.