Line/Shape/Space Ι March 2, 2016 

Imagine robotic architectural-fabrication components that can wiggle, crawl, and amble together into architectural space, more or less unbidden. The London-based Spyropoulos Design Lab at the Architectural Association’s Design Research Laboratory (AADRL) is working to make that a reality.

At first, it sounds like a cold and impersonal way to create architecture: Taken out of human hands, these self-assembling structures are the mysterious results of algorithms.

But that’s not how people react to the work of the AADRL, and there’s amoment on its collection of stylishly DIY videos that pulls this curtain back. In it, AADRL’s OWO prototype, an ungainly oblong collection of air bladders and pneumatic tubes, haltingly wriggles across a table, toward an AA student who’s cheering it on like it’s an infant taking its first steps. When it reaches her, she coos praise and pets it, beaming. It’s far less cute than a new puppy. So why treat it like one?

“People seem to have an ongoing conversation with these elements,” says Theodore Spyropoulos, the AADRL’s director. “In the beginning, it could be novelty, but it translates into something that I think is about a deeper curiosity.”

That humanistic, warm interaction is the skeleton key to much of Spyropoulos’ work with the AADRL and his own firm, Minimaforms. Instead of focusing on a loss of control that designers might experience by handing over design authorship to robots, it focuses on what’s to be gained by collaborating with them in direct and intimate ways.

The prototypes Spyropoulos is developing reimagine architecture as the self-assembled product of human need and intuition with robotic flexibility: small armies of devices that autonomously flood in to fill a need and create a space—and then reform and revise it just as quickly.

They’re robots that invite you in and ask for your input, engendering connection and a sense of give-and-take impossible with most building-making tools and components. It’s architecture that’s no longer static infrastructure; it’s an “active participant in the everyday,” he says.

“The work looks toward developing an ecology of self-aware, self-structuring, and assembled elements that are mobile and have the capacity to collaboratively create space,” Spyropoulos says. “Beyond form and the finite or ideal, there is a desire to create an evolving partnership through active engagements with information, matter, and machines.”

To accomplish this goal, much of Spyropoulos’ work operates on two intersecting tracks: engineering robotic, modular mechanical systems and programming their social interaction with people and each other. Neither of these endeavors is strictly indebted to architecture. Spyropoulos’ work reaches out in equal measure to the art world and the technology sector.

Three of Spyropoulos’ AADRL projects (assisted by colleagues Mostafa El-Sayed and Apostolos Despotidis) highlight the mechanical-locomotion methods of his first research track:

  • The HyperCell uses an elastic skin containing rigid plates powered by pistons that reshape it from a stable cubic shape to a mobile, rolling sphere. An internal counterbalance gets the spherical shape moving, and magnets allow units to climb and connect to each other.
  • The noMad requires five to six individual units to collaborate with each other before it can become mobile, torquing like a pair of mechanical legs.
  • OWO uses pneumatic action to move. A spring structure is surrounded by a series of air bladders that expand and contract, powering movement somewhere between a roll and a slither. Each end of the wormlike creature is a smooth sphere with a suction cup, allowing units to connect to each other and walk upright—Erector Set evolution that snaps into place instantly.

The second track of Spyropoulos’ research focuses on subtler relationships of communication and is best expressed by a friendly tentacled robot he’s put on a five-year world tour. Developed with his partner at Minimaforms and brother, Stephen, Spyropoulos’ Petting Zoo invites visitors to interact with a multitentacled robot as directly and simply as they might stop to pet a neighbor’s dog.

The robot learns from past interactions and takes on a variety of moods (angry, bored, happy) indicated by colored lights. It listens and sees and reaches out for embrace, developing a basic sense of conversational give-and-take. Ideally, Spyropoulos would like as little mediation between human and robot as possible. Using a smartphone app for on-demand instructions is too remote; asking a robot for a certain reaction, service, or space would be one step; having the robot sense this need before it’s articulated would be even better.

The most practical benefit to architecture Spyropoulos envisions is the ability to put robotic systems in places where assistance is usually slow to arrive: disaster zones and ultraremote locations, places where rapidly changing context needs to be matched by structures that are equally dynamic.

Building without builders means no scaffolding, little management, and near-total flexibility. It’s not hard to imagine a volcano eruption displacing nearby residents into a refugee camp of swarming modular robotic structures. If the volcano erupts again, these buildings could break apart, skitter further away from the encroaching molten earth, and reform—a sort of cellular-scaled Archigram. “We want to move things beyond the fixed and finite towards more adaptive and collaborative strategies of space making,” Spyropoulos says.

But these robotic systems aren’t exclusively meant for the surface of Mars and earthbound locations only slightly more hospitable. Spyropoulos is developing transit-centric and residential prototypes that could put these robots in more familiar contexts.

Architects and planners have been issuing top-down demands on what cities should look like and how they should work since time immemorial. Spyropoulos’ robots are at least programmed to listen and be enlisted like team members, not dumb tools. Spyropoulos wonders, “Could it be something that stimulates people, or is it just trying to be something that’s in servitude to people?”

This research recasts architects not as form makers but as programmers and system designers—setting the table and context for robots to determine form. “It challenges explicit ideas of top-down control and also of a single solution [to] space,” Spyropoulos says.

Architecture has historically resisted sharing design credit and authorship. It’s one thing for the lone architectural genius to produce a brilliant napkin sketch and share credit with the underlings in his office. It’s another thing to share credit with a robot. But that just may be what the future holds.

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