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//* {Synthetic Tectonics} ::
*//{2009.05.18 ~ Seminar/Extracurricular, University of California Berkeley}

It was always disappointing to see that what I could really master in terms of form boiled down to so little.
~Alberto Giacometti

//*Three & Thirteen-Sixteenths
The seminar in which this project was initially imagined was taught by professor Maximilano Spina and functioned as a workshop for testing and generating tectonic studies through all forms of digital tools and manufacturing techniques. The challenge was to “develop formal and spatial configurations that demand the development and use of new hybrid, synthetic, or composite tectonics, in which not only the form but material incarnation is integral to the architectural expression.”

This project began as a tectonic investigation as a part of a class, but became emblematic of a variety of latent issues I was interested in, that would later form and culture my thesis research. Like much of contemporary practice, the desire to fabricate complex, doubly-curved surfaces forces the issues of fabrication to be considered from the outset of the design process. Rather than abstractly stylizing and shaping a surface and reverse-engineering it to form, the conceit behind this project is really to let the materials and fabrication systems do the talking from the outset of design, in a precise way. I was interested in what grain they could provide to the formal resolution of the project, and thus allowed them a front seat as drivers of form – however had yet to realize or actuate the benefits of associative parametric design tools and scripting practices.

I think what is important to understand about the gestation of the project is that from the outset of the design process, there was a precise understanding of machine and material limitations, and that they were contiguous to the formal strategy. Care was taken in understanding the behaviors and tolerances specific to each material, and the idiosyncrasies of the process of fabrication, and these in turn were used as the medium - and strategy - to inflect the form of assembly in an accurate and measurable way. A full-scale mock-up was built of the first section of fifteen in order to gain valuable feedback with which to inform the design.

The design is a simple surface that provides the program of storage, lighting, two seats, and a bed for living/traveling in a Ford Econoline van. The project takes the name “Three & Thirteen-Sixteenths” as a reference to the vertical limits of the Techno Isel CNC router which would be used to fabricate it, as it became the primary driving parameter in form. The design specifically exploited this maximum millable depth as a parameter to determine the tessellation, creating a direct relationship between surface deformation and panel size - where deformation was greater, the panel size was smaller, creating a scalar modulation. There was a back-and-forth throughout design to ensure reasonable panel sizing and numbers through finessing the surface geometry, yet a concerted effort was made not to sacrifice complexity and idiosyncrasy to convenience or simplification.

Into Parametric’s and Scripted Relationships ::
This project was really eye-opening in terms of realizing the potential for new parametric design tools and scripting languages to be used in creating systems of constructional knowledge and material crafting which are not explicit or finite, but rather relational, in order to eliminate much of the tedium that bogged down and limited the project throughout gestation. Paradoxically this one-off static model served to illuminate a paradigm that is entirely parametric: while details were hand-instantiated in this case, they were nonetheless simple mathematical and geometric relationships which could be easily set, then automated to produce the g-code machine toolpaths used to fabricate the parts – precise to thousandths of an inch in infinite arrangements - & inherently mass-customizable. Calibrating the design for fabrication and assembly up front proved to be both generative of architectural form, while harboring intrinsic constructional resolve. The shortcoming was primarily my inability to script or parametrisize these crafts to allow for greater evolution, sophistication, and precision of the system throughout its design and construction, or possible further iterations in different geometric arrangements and scales.

The work illustrated that it is possible to forward engineer form based on precise fabrication and material contingency. The problems were many, but it was apparent that if these simple machine and material based relationships could be made into mathematically accurate ranges and automated (parametric design practices), the project could be instantaneously and infinitely permutable to any desired surface condition, yet never beyond the limits of this designed, understood, and precise constructional solvency. Further, since it was largely CAM produced, the output and fabrication could be automated as well (scripted). This is of course an example of a customizable architectural product, which could be easily given to a variety of applications and further evolve to enjoy some of the associated benefits of lean production techniques and mass-production. What became evident however through futher thinking, and much more interesting than mass-customization alone, was the possibility of parametrisizing or scripting material and fabrication limitations to derive the possibilities for form given a set of parameters. This project aspired to generate a tesselation based upon the limits of one particular CNC machine, but what if we could generate architecture in a precise way based upon a number of days for construction, the bending radius of a given thickness of plywood, or zero material waste? What if the physical possibilities for the form of architecture could be understood by a given material choice, or fabrication technique, from the outset of design in a measurable way?

The project served well to elucidate one potential application of these nascent tools for the practice of architecture, paradoxically by not deploying them, but rather by rendering a mandate for their use, research, and development. Within these methodologies the value and power of computation can be actively exploited, for both unprecedented economies in the production of architecture, and the generation of novel form tighter to its material and fabrication incarnation. Realizing that architecture is a material practice, and that its incarnation invariably will confront material and fabrication contingency, this project and description - albeit retrospectively - aspire to reveal a praxis for the use of new parametric tools and digital fabrication techniques that could be both constructionally solvent, and formally generative.