In response to a conservative and sometimes fragmented building industry, some architects believe that improving and automating the construction process calls for a two-front war: first, using experimental materials and components; and second, assembling them in experimental ways.
Extra-innovative examples include self-directed insect-like robots that huddle together to form the shape of a building and materials that snap into place in response to temperature or kinetic energy.
The automation battle has already been fought (and won) in other industries. With whirring gears and hissing pneumatics, rows and rows of Ford-ist mechanical robot arms make our cars, aircraft, and submarines in a cascade of soldering sparks. So why shouldn’t robotic construction become commonplace for buildings too?
That’s the common-sense suggestion of one of architecture’s most daring and imaginative dreamers, Wolf D. Prix, founder of the Austrian firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. Working with China-based curtain-wall technology company MSCto create custom robotic fabricators, he’s proposing a simple system of robotic arms that place and fasten panelized façades with off-the-shelf technology. “The only thing different is the programming,” Prix says.
Prix was introduced to the world in the landmark MoMA 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition alongside contemporaries Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid, and his work since then has remained perhaps the most consistent—full of colliding forms, twisting steel, and otherworldly spaces. His was part of the last architectural aesthetic born in a pre-digital era of tracing paper, ink, and freehand illustration, which has been accelerated by the advances in computer design. Today, Prix feels its ultimate built expression will come at the behest of computerized automation as well.
This fabrication method is an attempt by Prix to circumvent some criticism of willful and experimental architecture with better efficiency—to level the playing field of cost and resources between nonstandard spaces and the long-assumed rectilinear model.
“People are always saying these complex shapes are impossible to build, or it’s very expensive and takes a long time,” Prix says. “For years, we’ve tried to find a fabrication method that lowers the cost and is constructed in a very quick way.”
Coop Himmelb(l)au planned to use robotic fabrication in this way at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Planning Exhibition (MOCAPE) in Shenzhen, China. This pilot project, led by Prix, would use robots to assemble the interior façade of its central circulation volume—a multistory silvery drop of molten metal Prix calls “The Cloud.” (Its formal allusions du jour include Brancusi sculptures and Mars’ oblong moon, Phobos.)
This volume knits together the building’s two resident institutions: a contemporary art museum and an exhibition hall used to display the city’s urban planning and architectural evolution—a topic especially relevant in Shenzhen, which grew from the size of a large fishing village of 300,000 in 1980 to one of the world’s largest cities today. Its hovering presence creates a focal point amidst Prix’s swirling crosshatched steel supports.
The building is set to be completed by December 2016, but its clients (the Shenzhen Municipal Culture Bureau and Municipal Planning Bureau) canceled the robotic-fabrication plan for The Cloud, opting instead to install the custom-designed metal panels conventionally. Prix says he’s not exactly sure why this happened, but he has a theory. “I think the Chinese thought we were getting money from MSC because we proposed them so heavily, and they canceled it,” he says.
But there’s still hope for Prix and MSC’s robots. He’ll begin the construction of a hotel tower in Vienna next summer using the same technique.
This is how the robots work: First, a mechanical press forms the panels. They’re trucked to the build site, and articulated robot arms that have been lifted onto mechanized crane platforms will place, weld, buff, and shine them. The same robot performs each of these functions, just with different attachments. It’s configured as a panel system now, but all components are off-the-shelf and recognizable from any heavy manufacturing assembly line. Prix estimates work that would normally take six months can happen in six weeks, and an 80-person job might require only eight people.
Prix sees this method of construction as a way to “set people free” from the tyranny of the omnipresent rectangle, offering greater experiential wonders for people like himself and the design-savvy public. But it also might set builders free from their livelihood, as did the automation that shook the automotive labor force, when it finally forces its way into the building industry.
Prix says the building industry is mostly a “slow and stubborn” place, and every wooden balloon-framed house (technology invented during the Andrew Jackson administration) that pops up on expanding suburban frontiers is a testament to this traditional recalcitrance. It’s a resistance to change supported by conservative and historicist consumer tastes—a stance not tolerated in other industries, as it would doom them to disruption and obsolescence. “If the car industry acted like the building industry,” Prix says, “we would ride on horses still.”
Among his contemporaries, Prix has always been the most bright-eyed and optimistic about the liberating power of pure form. “Architecture gives people the possibility to react in a more fantastic way, and not like they’re suppressed in rectangular, nondynamic prisons,” he says.
“Nondynamic” means the assumed square or “stupid box architecture” as Prix calls it. And this robot-led fabrication technique is a way for Prix to combat the questions that pop up every time he issues a press release about a new building: Can we afford form for form’s sake? Why this swoop of cantilevered steel when a few more straight lines would keep out the rain just as well?
As for the rising generation of architects and designers plotting out more experimental methods of robotic self-assembly, Prix says what they’re doing isn’t yet a practical means to an end.
“The small-assembly things are kind of a hobby,” he says. “We need bigger buildings, as well.” These projects might be good for a park pavilion, but larger structures will require the sturdy, soldered connections inherent in more traditional building methods.
Given Prix’s past history as a provocateur himself, these are the words of an architect who’s past his mid-career post, is more intrigued by practical application than theoretical rumination, and is willing to embrace the conservative end of a raw and speculative field to mark this transition.