Computing with Matter, Shapes and Forces | SMArchS Thesis

Computing with Matter, Shapes and Forces: Toward Material and Structural Primacy in Architecture

This thesis broadly fits into three areas of the discipline: history, construction, and computation. The objective is to demonstrate a way of working that promotes a greater understanding of the matter, shapes, and forces at play when designing architecture. The motivation for this project comes from an observation on the shortcomings of computation in design: the tools alone are not enough to produce creative work because they lack a means of working that is open-ended and based on visual intuition, rather than mechanical formation. This thesis takes a critical approach toward technology and proposes a slow computation methodology as a means promoting material and structural primacy in architecture design. At the scale of architecture, issues of material and structure are unavoidable. A greater understanding of the matter, shapes, and forces at play can be used to catalyze creative production of designs that can be built, making it possible to intuit and improvise structures by working directly with “stuff” of architecture.

The project will implement the theories and mechanics of shape grammars and graphic statics as a productive means of addressing contemporary issues in architecture through historic inquiry. Working between traditional architectural media - drawing and masonry construction - a new way of looking at unreinforced masonry structures will be presented that makes material, structural and constructive concerns explicit and visual. An inquiry into Andrea Palladio’s Villa Foscari, will seek to develop material, structural and constructive knowledge. From a scholarly perspective, very little has been done in terms of looking at the stability and safety of Palladio’s buildings as unreinforced masonry structures - and yet, the villas in particular were made primarily out of brick. Design rules will be extracted from this close study of Palladio’s villa to define the generative machinery for a slow computation design system. The new structural algebra defined by the design system (characterized by equilibrium constraints) permits architects and designers to work visually with material and structural primacy - to feel the forces in shapes. The contention is working this way offers a means of designing masonry structures that bares on contemporary disciplinary concerns by showing how designing within the constraints of a masonry arch does not have to be mechanical or deterministic, but rather is open-ended, imaginative and creative. To be clear: this project is not about finding compression-only forms - rather - designing WITH them. Although the methodology proposed does not extend to making designs of complete buildings, the way the rules are set up within equilibrium constraints results in the possibility to construct anything in the algebra of shapes. Furthermore, this way of working only produces designs that can be built, which in turn expands the capacity of what architects design in the future.

A builder’s tactile experience working with materials gives way to a visual understanding of the relationship between form and forces. This perceptual understanding of what materials to use and how assemble them in space is at the heart expanding the creative capacity of a contemporary designer. The current lack of integration of material and constructive intelligence in contemporary design methods has resulted in buildings that are overly structured and wasteful. Today it is ethical and essential to work toward designing buildings that are more efficient and constructing them with sustainable materials. Working immaterially is counter-intuitive and limits the capacity of what architects design and how buildings are constructed. Learning to compute with matter, shapes, and forces, brings to light the relationship between current design technologies and methods, and our necessity to make breakthroughs in techniques of assembly and construction.