Impact of robotics and automation on contemporary architecture17 November 2017
As entries close for the ABB LEAF Awards 2017, we sit down with the hugely influential architect and academic Sir Peter Cook, a member of this year’s judging panel, and Katrin Förster of event headline partner ABB to discuss the impact of robotic processes and automation on contemporary architecture, how digital innovation is impacting the way in which the discipline is taught and practised, and why one must never lose sight of the fundamental qualities necessary for a successful building.
Awards and the arts make for strange bedfellows. Can tragedy and comedy be judged by the same metrics? Is it fair to compare an oil painting with a video installation? How does one declare a novel superior to the tens of thousands of others printed in any given year?
And what are the criteria for pronouncing one building tangibly greater than another? Within the architectural milieu, we all have our own set of standards: practical, philosophical, political and personal priorities for what we want our buildings to achieve; their form and function, concept and context. While there may be no absolutely right answer when it comes to making a final judgment, one only has to have had minimal experience of serving on an awards jury – or an active Twitter account – to know that there are plenty of wrong ones.
“It is certainly somewhat strange and unreal,” agrees Sir Peter Cook, the acclaimed architect, academician and theorist, when we meet in the offices of CRAB Studio, the London-based practice he runs with Gavin Robotham. “We all like what we like. Is consensus even what you’re aspiring to? The significance, I suppose, is to celebrate the work; putting great architecture and ideas in front of people. That’s the value.”
Cook has enough faith in said value to serve as a judge for the ABB LEAF Awards 2017. Taking place in London this September, the annual event has been running for over 15 years and covers 12 categories. ABB is making its debut as LEAF headline partner in 2017, the latest in a number of relationships that the Swiss robotics, power and automation technology multinational has forged with international architectural events, including the Women in Architecture Awards, the Society of British and International Interior Design Awards, and the World Architecture Festival. ABB global key account manager Katrin Förster shares Cook’s opinion that such ceremonies should be viewed through the prism of celebration rather than competition, explaining that her company’s involvement is the culmination of a concerted effort to reposition ABB as a collaborative partner for the architectural community.
Förster and her team were inspired enough by Sir Peter Cook to support his ‘80 at 80’ exhibition earlier this year, a retrospective of the Archigram founder’s work as he enters his ninth decade. Held at the Bartlett School of Architecture, an institute he chaired for 15 years, Cook believes such events are essential for promoting and evolving the architectural discourse. His drawings and projects are on permanent public display at leading museums and galleries around the world, including New York’s MoMA, London’s V&A, and Paris’s Centre Pompidou.
“I started showing at the Royal Academy in my 20s and, in my naivety, thought that if I displayed enough of my funny little drawings, they’d make me an academician – that didn’t happen until many years later,” he says. “But what I asked myself as I persevered was how else can the stuff we do, which is a little weird, be seen by what I call ‘the mums and dads of Guildford’?” We’re talking about people who hardly look at architecture but do visit places like the Royal Academy.”
Break the mould
Injecting fun and prompting debate are qualities that have long been synonymous with Cook’s career, and nowhere more so than in his impact on the world of academia. Under his stewardship, the Bartlett doubled in size and became the preeminent school in the UK. Cook insists that most of this was down to the talent he brought in during that time – particularly in his earliest days, when the institute was in need of a dramatic overhaul – but there can be little doubt that he also imbued proceedings with his unique brand of mischief, creativity and inquisitiveness.
They are traits he feels are now lacking from a great deal of architectural education, a judgment he delivers with no small amount of regret. “My reputation, the knighthood and all that effectively comes from running schools. It sounds rather pompous, but they’re what I know,” he says. “Sadly, I look around the world and it strikes me that they’re more narrow-minded now than they were 30 years ago, and that is not good news for architecture. What happened to the hordes of talented young architects?”
Cook puts much of this down to a perceived need on the part of architecture schools to be “academically legitimised”, valuing PhDs above building experience and, in the process, entrapping talent in the world of academia at the expense of our built environment. “It might be unfashionable, but I happen to think we ultimately do all of this to build actual buildings,” Cook says. “What you’re left with are two worlds: academia and commercial architecture. Then there’s a tiny sliver where the building output isn’t entirely commercial and another sliver where the people who actually design things are allowed to teach.
“Conversations go on around the world about curricula, meetings upon meetings, more of this and less of that. It’s a load of bollocks if we’re still talking about delivering these new curricula with the same third-rate people.”
There is one area that gives Cook cause for optimism in terms of the talent it attracts and the work produced. “Often, what makes me most excited when I visit a school these days is the digital stuff,” he says. “A lot of the key people, the most interesting ones, are in the digital world – many weren’t from there originally but have joined it. All this excitement isn’t just because it’s all so new; it’s where we’re seeing real creativity.”
As a case in point, earlier this year, students at the Bartlett announced that they’d devised a method for turning felt into load-bearing structures, presenting a fabric wall unit that formed one side of what they hope will one day extend into a full pavilion. The belief is that such a ‘flextile’ could significantly decrease building mass and increase performance.
These structures are developed with the assistance of digital modelling tools and robotic sewing machines, and generated through parametric modelling software. Playing a fundamental role is an ABB 120 robot, which prepares fabric for use in the process by interlocking fibres into felt sheets.
Such work alongside academia is clearly something Förster takes seriously and, like Cook, her ultimate goal is to empower students to actually build. “In terms of materiality, we have worked extensively with the Bartlett and ETH Zurich, developing digital production for construction materials,” she says. “At the Detmold School of Architecture in Germany, we helped found an entirely new department for lighting design and building automation, things you simply weren’t taught about previously.”
Simplicity through technology
It’s not just at the universities where ABB seeks to collaborate on the cutting edge of new building techniques. Förster cites work with a number of practices, large and niche, alongside which ABB is seeking answers for a more sustainable future. A prime example is Project Blade Runner, an investigation into the affordable production of free-form architectural components led by GXN, an internal division of Danish studio 3XN, which is dedicated to ecological design research through digital processes and innovative material solutions.
“They are using an ABB robot to create hyper-complex moulds for facade components,” Förster enthuses. “Suddenly, we are seeing forms that would have previously been impossible without paying millions. Here are technologies helping architects realise forms and structures they never thought possible before, while, at the same time, driving down price.”
It can seem counter-intuitive for a power company to be committed to making the world consume less of it, but Förster is insistent that technology and sustainability should go hand in hand. While ABB is dedicated to investigating the furthest realms of what technology can achieve in this regard – the group invests $1.5 billion annually in R&D – there are also solutions somewhat more mundane than parametric design and digital cutting processes. Building automation forms a major part of these efforts, and Förster believes that practitioners who fail to embrace these new possibilities risk being left behind.
“The architect needs to investigate what’s out there,” she argues. “It’s something I think they often neglected in the past. The trend has been to go very regional and site-specific, and interpret sustainability through quite low-tech solutions. Of course, those are extremely important elements, but you need to build upon those solutions and go beyond merely finding historical answers. That’s where automation comes in – it’s not a question of either/or.”
This idea of combining solutions to find more nuanced answers is something that also appeals to Cook, a man clearly weary of any absolutist dogma or fanaticism. “Technology should never be considered a universal panacea,” he begins. “You still need there to be very strong cross-currents of other methodologies, in the same way you need cross-currents of multiple tastes and cultures. Even the po-mo [postmodern] guys I might occasionally sneer at – I’m still glad that they’re there, irritating me, making me think.
“All this technological advancement should ultimately make for better architecture but not as a religious fetish. There’s a difference between things that are useful and applicable, and those elements we feel compelled to include for inclusion’s sake.”
Förster agrees, insisting that building control technology must be integrated into overall design rather than positioned as a stand-alone element. Furthermore, one should never be overloaded or blinded by tech; different buildings require different solutions. “In terms of automation, it has to be planned right from the start; it’s not something you just hang on the wall,” Förster says.
“Questions must be asked before the first brick is laid: what are you looking to achieve? Each project needs a different level of controls in terms of their integration across the building services, according to how the user wants to interface with the building. One thing is certain, though: digital natives will think it absolutely normal to control the home with a mobile phone. If you’re constructing a building and not putting in the wiring – the backbone – you’re failing to future-proof it. Architects should be working in collaboration with their clients and MEP consultants to find the right solution. That consultative aspect of an architect’s work has become so much more important.”
ABB offers two automation systems: the high-end ABB i-bus KNX, using the world’s only open standard for the control of all types of intelligent buildings; and free@home, a control system for smaller residential properties, with reduced delivery costs, as the installation and commissioning can be done by the electrician who is already on site. Both use the same cabling, allowing upgrading if necessary, and Förster acknowledges that the most complex solution is not always what’s required. “It’s not about complicating things,” she says. “You should always be looking to solve problems, never to create them.”
Where once elements of the architectural community were suspicious of new tech, luddites are now notable by their absence, and practitioners have come to embrace the performance and creativity capabilities such innovations afford. Nevertheless, some fundamental values continue to hold true.
“Zaha Hadid was a great friend of mine and I was lucky enough to be one of 200 people that the state of Azerbaijan flew into Baku to visit [Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center],” Cook recalls. “During the concert, I needed to go for a pee but couldn’t find a toilet anywhere. I ended up in the band room, then a cupboard, before finding a fellow traveller in the same predicament. We joined forces and eventually found an unsignposted bathroom just in time.
“I loved Zaha dearly but I don’t think she cared about old men like me needing a pee at the interval. I remain a functionalist: door handles that work, being able to find things, materials that are fit for purpose. Common sense is a design issue, and I get irritated by buildings that are so precious you need a map and kid gloves to use them.”Hopefully, there won’t be too many of those on show at this year’s ABB LEAF Awards – and it’s also interesting to know what some of Cook’s judging criteria will be. As for any fear that all this tech and automation might alienate all but the digital natives, Förster has some words of comfort: “We are always looking to keep things as simple and usable as possible. There will still be light switches for a long time to come.”