Prefab Parametric!

In this post I’d like to talk about an exciting new possibility – the impending death of parametric architecture!  When it happens, we’ll have Povilas Cepaitis, Luis Enrique, Diego Ordoñez and Carlos Piles of the AA School of Architecture to thank as they’ve developed an Efficient fabrication system for geometrically complex building elements. It was the winning entry in the Next Generation category of the Regional Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction 2011 Europe. Here’s their idea, summarised.

a11eung1uk-gallery003xGet it? Basically, what they’ve done is devise a means by which any parametric shell shape can be modularized and prefabricated for more efficient manufacture, storage and transportation. As they explain,

The use of complex geometries in contemporary architecture is common nowadays. However, known methods for creating such geometries, at least in the construction industry, are associated with considerable waste of time and materials. This affects the overall costs of a building project and damages the environment.

Agree. They claim their product has the following sustainable benefits.

1. Design: Instead of building passively what has been designed by the architect, the system proposes checking during the design process the feasibility of construction under efficiency and sustainability principles.

Well, ignoring the first part – for what contractor ever builds “passively” what has been designed by the architect? – the rest is fair enough. However, just because something can be built efficiently and sustainably doesn’t mean it should be built. “Is this building necessary?” should be the first question that has to be answered. Or, to put it another way, “What need is this building satisfying?” Project Management Step #1 is to ask oneself “Can we do it?” AND “Should we do it?” More on this later.

2. Fabrication: The innovative idea of production, which does not require specific molds and formworks, reduces the use of material resources and minimizes the production of waste.

In principle, yes, but by the time you’ve flown enough CNC machines over from China so that the entire envelope of your building can be fabricated within a reasonable time, I have my doubts. Construction machinery still needs to be transported. (Remember when 25% of the world’s construction cranes were in Dubai?) Unless of course, it’s the building that gets flown around the world. There’s a precedent for this – the Chanel/Hadid Art Container. Here’s a cheeky photo from Vanity Fair as well as more information and photographs from Dezeen.

Basically, the building was designed so that all the pieces could fit into crates of the one size for ease of transportation. “Efficient Fabrication System” rationalizes this idea further.

3. Transportation: The components are stacked in towers using the space in the most efficient way, which reduces time and pollution.

In principle, yes, but by the time you’ve shipped enough cranes back from China …

4. Construction: The innovative idea of production, which does not require specific molds and formworks, reduces the use of material resources and minimizes the production of waste.

In principle, yes, but … I’d also like some more information on how the pieces actually stay joined together after they’re fitted together. We don’t know what these components are made of. Step (4) in the diagram above seems to imply that some sort of liquid material is squirted into a vertical mould. Is it plastic? Is it concrete? The pieces may fit together cleverly, but how do they attach to each other? In other words, how does the structure support itself? Okay, it’s only a competition entry you may say but this is a very serious question – we’re making buildings, not footpaths.

5. Demolition: The system follows the principles of Design for Disassembly, substituting demolition by disassembly.

This sounds fine although, once disassembled, the parts can only be used to make the same obsolete building or sent to the crusher or landfill like everything else. But all this is neither here nor there. What I find irritating is this.

We believe that everyone deserves to enjoy spatially interesting architecture and, therefore, one of the main goals of the project is to design a system that fabricates geometrically complex architecture affordable to anybody.

The image below is their idea of interesting architecture. Notice the deserving everyone enjoying it? Notice how it’s assumed that the primary enjoyment of a building comes from looking at it?

Moreover,

Apart from the unquestionable visual attractiveness and spatial quality of the geometrically complex shell structures, with their folds, double curvatures, openings and textures, the investigation pursues the beauty of those architectural projects which, by their overwhelming simplicity, are able to achieve more with less.

I would like to question the unquestionable. If a building has only a (questionable) visual attractiveness to offer, then is it sustainable? Is it even moral? I’d even like to question whether what we are looking at here is actually a building. I’m not asking this in the sense of “has this redefined our definition of what a building can be?” but in the more basic sense of “where are the walls? where are the windows? where is all the useful stuff that makes a structure into a habitable and useful building?”

If this is a pavilion as is suggested, then all of it’s designers’ claims to sustainability could be true. Like Hadid’s Art Container but on a smaller scale, pavilions like these could roam the country, bringing the “enjoyment” of “spatially interesting architecture” to poor people nationwide. It would be even better if this could be done for free, but I suspect it would be another example of Pop-up, Pay-per-view architecture – a bit like the Serpentine Pavilions. (I must confess – on a recent trip to London, I simply forgot Zumthor’s recent pavilion was even there.)

Or maybe these enjoyable shells could be employed as something useful like bus shelters? This is the exciting possibility as this would mean the death of parametric architecture. The “unquestionable visual attractiveness and spatial quality of the geometrically complex shell structures, with their folds, double curvatures, openings and textures” would really be something for everyone to enjoy, and something that would really have a purpose. When this happens, parametric architecture will have lost its status, it cachet, it’s appeal. It’s happened before.

Le Corbusier, Maisons Jaoul, 1954-1956

Corby’s Maisons Jaoul used brick walls to support exposed concrete slabs. It was a good idea.

James Stirling, Ham Common Flats, 1955-1958

James Stirling thought so, and used it in his Ham Common Flats not too much later. (Check out the ground level drainage overkill!)

Greater London Council, Somerset Estate, 1963

And so, the idea of brick walls and exposed concrete slabs proved to be too inexpensive and too useful for too many people.

Prefabrication is another example of the same phenomenon of a good idea becoming associated with the “wrong” market for architecture. Architecture is basically a money and status thing. I’m not saying this is good or bad, it just is. IKEA’s BoKlok housing is proving that the cost-efficiencies of prefabrication are too good to ignore.

BoKlok

These four guys don’t understand that history of top-end architecture is the history of new ways of making buildings more expensive and more exclusive. What else do starchitects do? When some new process makes their buildings available to everyone, it suddenly isn’t something to aspire to have or experience anymore. But never mind, sooner or later, another value-adding designer aesthetic will come along to make buildings expensive again.

So there we have it. If this “efficient” fabrication system for geometrically complex building elements takes off, then we will start seeing geometrically complex buildings everywhere and it will quickly come to be seen as downmarket as exposed concrete and prefabrication are generally seen to be. Until that time comes, some people will continue to say parametric architecture is the bee’s knees.

Patrik Schumacher
Dr.-Phil., Dipl.-Ing., Architect, RIBA, ARB.
Partner at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA)
Co-director AA Design Research Lab (AADRL)

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 1, A New Framework for Architecture, published by John Wiley & Sons, 2010

It’s ironic that by democratizing parametric architecture, Messrs Cepaitis, Enrique, Ordoñez and Piles’ posh prefabs will bring about its passing. That the Prefab Four hail from the same place as parametric architecture’s most famous practitioners, is poetic.

One thought on “Prefab Parametric!

  1. Jonathan Strauss

    Beauty bonser.
    Sorry bout getting a go in here a bit late. Looks like have more to catch up on now as well.
    Absolutely spot on. Crudely, a brick is a parametric object. By specifically, heavy fabrication and construction is traditionally parametric. Ship yards, subways and the like. The designer sets rules about the sizing, shaping and situating of components dependent on constraints such as span, height and width to be supported. Though and interaction are required, demanded.
    We now no longer need to think. We just need to arbitrate on the form. Beauty is beholden to the eye.
    Some Starch itects have doomed us all. Their progeny lap up the cream, and send us back fur balls.

    Reply

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