Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Splendor of Excess

Metalmorphosis by David Černý. Photographs by Flickr user Rick_28105.

What a splendid waste! Metalmorphosis is a 7.6m tall animated sculpture by Czech artist David
Černý. The fountain, which is 14 tons of rotating stainless steel plates, adorns the courtyard of a corporate center in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. As a sculpture, it is a work of artistic and mechanical wonder. The head of the any-man slowly rotates in and out of existence - a thousand pieces in all directions - a confused mind in pure blinged-out ignorant bliss. It's powered by internal motors which are controlled by the artist via internet link. You can watch a live webcam of the fountain here. Metalmorphosis is an artistic statement in engineering that kinetic buildings and other large-scale public objects could become commonplace. The many potential applications limited only by doubt.

As a symbol, it excels even that of it's engineering. The shear size and materiality of the sculpture renders it visually and physically grand. It's familiar form and incorporation of water make it feel playful and whimsical. A grand statement for any successful corporation, indeed. However, rotating in it's Sisyphean glory, the continuous rotation and flow of water belies it's own inherent imagery of excess. What could possibly be a better symbol of waste than one spitting out water in perpetuity? It is, at once, a grand gesture of accomplishment and the spoils that come along with it.

Seen on
DesignBoom and Colossal.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mediated Matter - Neri Oxman at Greenbuild Toronto

Neri Oxman, who directs the Mediated Matter research group at the MIT Media Lab, recently spoke at Greenbuild 2011 in Toronto. The group studies the naturally occurring relationship between structure and function within the natural environment, and how digital fabrication technologies can shape the way synthetic materials are developed. What is the natural material logic? Once we understand the natural logic of a material and how it relates to the function and response of the macro-structure, how can we translate this material logic to built form?

In her presentation, Oxman discussed a fundamental difference between the way natural materials are generated and the way in which we "build".
When we construct objects today, we use a component-based design logic. Each element within the object is a distinct layer with a separate function. A typical wall section might include vertical and horizontal structural elements for support, layers of sheathing and barriers for containment, insulation for temperature mitigation, and glazing for visibility and aesthetics. In this approach, various layers are assembled to produce a "functioning" element. This is where Oxman sees a fundamental flaw in the design process.

In nature, form is dictated by a combination of structure and environmental performance. Rather than "separation and distribution", natural materials are derived from "continuity and distribution". Plants are composed of one type of material, but utilize different genetic variations to respond to different needs. Bone is also a naturally occurring material that develops with different densities depending on where they are located and what function they accommodate. Bone is able to directly respond to changes in it's environment. The bone structure in pregnant women is known to grow more dense to accommodate the additional weight, whereas bone that spends time in the gravity-free environment of space tends to grow less dense.

It is this distinction in assembly and response that Oxman sees as the future of material technology. She envisions a future where materials are designed to modify themselves in response to external factors. Building skins are able to modulate themselves in response to the micro-climate. In the next 100 years, she sees the rise of bio-fabrication and construction in which material distribution and density are controlled by use at a micro-scale. Structure is fluid - strong and stiff where necessary, flexible and light where not. In the next 1000 years, Oxman is even more progressive, extolling the possibility of genetic construction where materials and structures are "grown".

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Of Buildings and Time

Image via SciFiReality.

The earth is big. But amazingly, it's scale is still small enough for us to visibly measure its impact on our practice and understanding of events. From the beginning of our existence, most of our actions have revolved around the rising and setting of the sun. Tall buildings may introduce a strange new paradox to our experience of time and routine.

Time is a very tricky thing in theory, but it also gives us a simple, equitable way to mark out the actions of our lives. Routines are developed around regular time periods - breakfast in the morning, work during the day, sleep at night. Routines tied to time occur over all intervals. Many religions promote regular acts of faith that occur periodically over longer lengths of time.

Ramadan, for instance, is an Islamic holy month, in which practicing Muslims spen
d that time fasting and promoting spiritual betterment. Many Muslims fast during the day and do not eat or drink from dawn until after sunset. After sunset, families traditionally break fast in a meal called the Iftar.

A cleric from Dubai suggests that people living in the upper floors of the Burj Khalifa - the worlds tallest building at 828 meters tall - should fast longer owing to the fact that the sun sets later according to the vantage of the upper floors.

Burj Khalifa. Image: Hadrian Hernandez/Gulf News

Per the BBC,
"...Dubai cleric, Mohammed al-Qubaisi, has been quoted as saying that people living above the 80th floor should fast for an extra two minutes, while those on the 150th floor and higher should wait for three more minutes before eating or drinking."
Therefor, a person fasting at the ground level of the Burj Khalifa will be able to break fast three minutes prior to one fasting at the top floor - say 8:57pm as compared to 9:00pm. Given that the two individuals at fast exist in the same moment of time, the building's immense geometry has allowed it to physically span our combined perception of time by allowing a routine to exist simultaneously in two states, daytime at one end of the structure, and nighttime at the other. There is precedent, however. The earth's rotation causes day and night to exist simultaneously in time, as well as localized differences in day and night at mountains, but those are natural occurrences. The Burj Khalifa may be the first example of a human-made structure impacting our time-based routines at the scale of the earth itself.

Time Dilation.

Is a tall building a form of time travel? Not really - it's more of a time-bender. But at certain heights it can alter our perception of it. The experience of day and night, as interrupted by our built environment. As the scale and complexity of our creations grow, the implications of their physical nature will continue to generate and inspire unforeseen consequences.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Of Bridges, Counterfiet Money, and International Relations

The Ponte Vecchio. Photo by Flickr user Stevehdc.

bridge has long been both a physical and symbolic construction of positive connectivity. The theory goes that a bridge connects two distinct areas by spanning some obstacle, be it physical or metaphysical. The bridge as structure stands particularly noble when connecting nations. It's materiality promoting development, commerce, and, at it's most basic, trust.

1000 AFRO Note by BIG.

1000 Euro Note by BIG.

BIG, The Bjarke Ingles Group, has designed a series of monetary notes consisting of a 1000 Euro Note and a new corresponding 1000 AFRO Note, in an effort to promote a "United African Currency". Both banknotes graphically portray a proposed bridge that would span from Africa to Europe via the Strait of Gibraltar. The bridge, massive in scale, would provide commercial development, residential property, and other public functions as well as the typical modes of transport.
According to BIG:
The bridge is conceived as an inhabited overpass uniting Euro-African typologies—such as Firenze’s Ponte Vecchio and Le Corbusier's Obus Plan for Algiers—into an intercontinental hybrid of city and infrastructure. The investment in concrete and steel doubles as load-bearing structure for living and working spaces for the many immigrants anticipated over the next decades, and will help establish the bridge itself as a bicontinental city in its own right.
The Strait of Gibraltar as seen from space. Photo via NASA.

The bridge is materialized space that attempts to connect two landmasses with physical infrastructure but also to stimulate economy and relations.
Because of this, it is ironic and somehow just, that real money would be the perfect medium to convey and promote such a project. The structure represents a real connection between Europe and Africa, which in turn, promises increased movement, commerce, and their effects. Both sides are guaranteed a double-edged sword, experiencing both the benefits and headaches of this improved connection. But in the end, new and ever-evolving economies and relationships could be forged by the bridge - an ambitious, yet honest physical structure.

Seen first on BLDG BLOG.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wear Your Grass on Your Sleeve

Grass Skin Rug by earthwormstudio.

It's like a bear skin rug - without the bear. Hopefully the bear left behind is out there somewhere, being a bear. Instead, curl up and watch your favorite movies on a nice piece of the countryside. The right patch of grass can be downright comfortable and even adds a great splash of green to any naturally day-lit room.
And why stop there? Strike a pose in your best Grass Yeti suit.

Yeti, by Misstika at Figment Festival in New York. Seen on Wooster Collective.

The grass family is one of the most abundant plant forms on earth. It is important in every ecosystem it inhabits - providing a vital energy source to the food chain around it. It also helps to filter rainwater into the soil below and even holds the top layer of earth in place. And it's entirely renewable for the cultavatively curious. Why wouldn't you want some grass walls, floors or clothes?

"Calm down. Stroke the furry wall."

Get Him to the Greek

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Tall is Too Tall

Photograph by Declan McCullagh Photography.

We often say that we should follow the biological examples set forth by nature when we design. But what happens when our ambitions are greater than the limits of natural design? Take the height of a tree for example - in many cases, the taller the tree, the more energy it can harvest. Since trees naturally grow close to one another, they need to grow vertically to reach the sun amidst it's neighbors. The taller the tree grows, the more access to life-giving sunlight it has. However, any successful quest for the sun would surely be folly - and nature knows it. At the upper limits of a trees structural and functional capacity there is a point where the need for more height becomes obsolete. Growing taller would mean too much energy is invested in moving water from the roots to the upper branches and leaves. The quest for height is counteracted by the physical limits of the trees natural capabilities and thus, an upper limit is reached.

Coastal Redwoods via Coastal Care.

The tallest tree now generally accepted as the tallest living is a 379.1 ft (115.56 m) Coast Redwood in Redwood National Park, California. The height of the Coast Redwood Tree is within the upper limits of a trees natural boundary. Any taller, and the energy required to function would be too great to validate it's successful existence. What are the upper limits of buildings?

The Burj Khalifa.

The tallest building in the world is the
Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE. It measures 2,717 ft (828 m) tall. The building, designed by Skidmore Owings Merrill, is undeniably a marvel of modern design and construction. The sheer enormity of the structural, mechanical, and planning needs of a building this tall alone warrant it's status as one of humankinds greatest achievements. The structural system of the building was an elegant solution to excessive height. According to Gulf News:
"To support the unprecedented height of the building, the engineers developed a new structural system called the ‘buttressed core', which consists of a hexagonal core reinforced by three buttresses that form the ‘Y' shape. This structural system enables the building to support itself laterally and keeps it from twisting."
The strength of this revolutionary system allowed the engineers to add more floors than building was originally designed for. The building will apparently also use solar power to heat 140,000 litres of water a day for use in residential and commercial use in the tower. However, the building still consumes a massive amount of resources to operate. Consider the comparison by The Red White and Green:
  • Water: Around 250,000 gallons of water a day
  • Electricity: At peak times, roughly 40,000 kilowatts — the equivalent of 500,000 100-watt light bulbs burning at the same time
  • Raw materials: Nearly 40,000 tons of steel — enough to stretch a quarter of the way around the earth if laid end to end
  • Wasted space: The upper 30+ floors are so tiny, they can only be used for storage.
The building is an enormous achievement of excess. Beautiful and terrifying.

But can they become bigger without some type of radical new technology? Can a building of that size exist without consuming more than it takes to operate? Give back even?

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

A building twice the size of the Burj Khalifa boasts of the idea of reaching for the gods - a true Tower of Babel. A feat that surely will be attempted, and probably even achieved some day. But like the tree before it, will it do something for humanity, the earth, or for something else altogether - our ego and physically awe-inspiring proof of our dominion over this planet. Will the world be better with it, than without it? That's what nature knows. and is trying to tell us. It only allows for something to exist when that something is a both a benefit to itself and everything else around it.

Inspired by What is a Tree's Maximum Possible Height as seen on i09.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Of Bricks and Bacteria

On average, the kiln-drying process for one brick emits 1.3 pounds of carbon dioxide. Every year, 1.23 trillion bricks are made around the world. The environmental pollution associated with this process totals more than that of all aviation pollution worldwide. Fire-kilned brick has been around for over 5000 years, making it one of the oldest - if not the oldest - manufactured building material in the world. Introduced to the world by the Romans, the technology surrounding brick has changed little over that span. However, as manufacturing and technology increases, the environmental impact of the material is being unearthed. The traditional method has never changed because there was no reason to change it. Now there is. And now you can grow a brick.

Ginger Krieg Dosier, 24 year-old architecture professor
with a passion for microbiology, and chemistry, and winner of the Build a Better Brick competition sponsored by Metropolis, has invented a brick manufacturing process that works sans heat. According to Bustler:
"Dosier's process replaces baking with simple mixing, and because it is low-tech (apart from the production of the bacterial activate), can be done onsite in localities without modern infrastructure. The process uses no heat at all: mixing sand and non-pathogenic bacteria (sporosar) and putting the mixture into molds. The bacteria induce calcite precipitation in the sand and yield bricks with sandstone-like properties."
The brick represents a twofold advantage over the traditional methods of kiln-firing. First, the environmental impact. By replacing the most environmentally damaging part of the manufacturing process - the firing - the process is rendered almost entirely natural. The brick relies on the active ingredients to produce chemical reactions to achieve the brick's hardness and strength. Second, again by replacing the firing process, the physical infrastructure required to manufacture the brick has been reduced. Without the need for large firing kilns, the process becomes much more suited to rural and developing areas where a manufacturing operation can be set up quickly, on site and local, and without permanent structures or facilities.

See the whole process of making a brick here at Metropolis.
As a type of unit masonry, the brick lends itself to small-scale and mass production. However, the idea of growing structural components is intriguing. Could the scale be increased, and entire building structures be grown organically from the ground up? Moreover, if the active ingredients were designed to not just activate, but multiply, could we see structures grown with the precision typically reserved for Mother Nature? Strength where required, and lightness where it is not. This would relate very well to the theories of Neri Oxman and iGem Synthetic Biology.

Seen on I09, Bustler, and Metropolis.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Library as Vending Machine

There is something mysterious and exciting about walking down a dark narrow library aisle - the stacks closing in over top of you, the dusty smell of aging paper, and the possibility of stumbling upon a book you never even knew existed. This is the experience of silently wandering through countless libraries all over the world. Unfortunately, this experience is also at odds with the fast-paced immediate retrieval experience that is the digital age we find ourselves in currently. Starting your search may be as easy as typing in the broadest definition of the topic, and result in countless digital paths of inquiry - akin to browsing through dusty stacks as organized by Dewey. However, if you know exactly what you are looking for, the ability to narrow down feedback results can be as precise as you can type. Results can be almost immediate - and all from the comfort of your home computer or mobile device. This is the wonder and detachment of the internet and digital information.

The new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago has bridged the gap between physical records and digital accessibility with it's "Automated Storage and Retrieval System" that "takes inspiration from commercial inventory techniques". The books and manuscripts are stored in special preservation-condition bins and bar-coded so that the system knows exactly where to send it's robotic retrieval arms for delivery. The user short-circuits the traditional method of library searching, and instead, is greeted by the worlds largest vending machine. Instead of Honeybuns and Cheetos's, pressing B5 will bring you Shakespeare and Darwin.

The technology is indeed highly sophisticated and brings a new level of organization and ease to a process once fraught with uncertainty and confusion. The search for information has become more direct and efficient, however, gone are the days of exploration and tangential discoveries that often lead to new avenues of research. The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library uses an online catalog that allows users to digitally "search" the library holdings. It would be interesting to know if a certain amount of "randomness" could be built into this search so users are given several options to branch out their search. The catalog could have a built-in "I'm Feeling Lucky" function similar to Google's Search Engine, or even a recommendation function similar to Amazon's "User Who Searched for This Product Also Searched For..."

Seen on Gizmodo.
Video via University of Chicago

Monday, March 28, 2011

Of Robots and Clouds

In the summer of 2022, Qatar, a small country on the Arabian Peninsula will host the FIFA World Cup. In the summer of 2022, temperatures are expected to reach, as they do now, up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 C). FIFPro, the global football players union stated that temperature extremes such as this "...[do] not provide suitable conditions for a festival of football such as the World Cup". FIFA officials initially stated that the tournament, which is historically played in the summer months of June and July, would be moved to the winter months, but have since stated it would go on as planned during the summer.

Qatar engineers plan to air-condition the host stadiums through energy collected from solar arrays to combat the excessive heat, but also have a new trick up their sleeve: Robotic Clouds. According to a video clip on BBC, The "clouds", constructed of lightweight, inflatable materials, driven by four turbine engines are powered by integrated solar collectors and would be remote controlled to follow the path of the sun, thus "shielding it from direct sunlight and providing a favorable climatic environment" for the stadium.

This robotic cloud may be part of the natural evolution of the "Goodyear Blimp" phenomenon, which began in 1925 as a platform for advertisement and eventually the television and video broadcasting of sports events. Add to this technology the ability to create remote controlled micro-climates, and a new breed of airships is born. One where, as BLDG BLOG notes "the next step in temporary event architecture will be a remote-controlled swarm of rearrangeable horizontal and vertical surfaces, forming ceilings, roofs, walls, floors, ramps, and stairways."

The idea of a technology enabling users the power to control their environment is not a new one, but is still a
n extremely powerful one. One can easily imagine entire fleets being used to alter entire environments, programmed to mimic the circadian rhythms of far-off regions to enable agricultural production until now rendered impossible due to harsh climates. Or conversely, in a dystopic realization of the technology, climate warfare where fleets of robotic clouds are positioned to disrupt agriculture and other physical and social benefits of the sun.

I am reminded of a scene from the recent The Simpson's Movie where helpless Springfielder's stand trapped under a dome and watch a live feed from their captor on a huge video screen above...

Seen on BLDG BLOG and the BBC.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Nature in Architecture by Michael Pawlyn

In this TED Talk, designer Michael Pawlyn of Exploration discusses the advantages of biomimicry for the future of architecture and design. Pawlyn begins by citing a few examples of nature's own inventive ways of adapting to specific climate needs and indeed, makes a very clever analogy out of this evolutionary advantage:
"You could look at nature as being a catalog of product's and all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period, and given that length of investment, it kind of makes sense to use it."
Throughout the talk, Pawlyn uses examples of existing technologies and projects that learn from nature's example and use bio-mimicry to solve what he sees as the three necessary steps to becoming truly sustainable:

1. Radical increases in resource efficiency
2. Linear to closed loop systems
3. Fossil fuel economy to solar economy

Perhaps the most intriguing indictment against us is expressed in Pawlyns second step - the comparison of our current method of resource use versus the way nature does. Our current mode of design, consists of extracting resources, turning them into "short-life products", and then disposing of them. However, this contrasts greatly with the way nature uses resources. In the natural model, everything that is created is used, - the waste generated in one system, is used for energy in another. By altering our current mode of design to a "systems" model, we are able to add value to waste, which is currently now a completely negative by-product.

Video via TED.
Seen on ArchDaily.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Kowloon Walled City

Kowloon Walled City was an urban Chinese island in the British-owned territory of Kowloon, Hong Kong characterized by it's incredible density, labyrinthine structure, and social make-up of pimps, gangsters, and opium dens. Founded as a Chinese outpost in 920 AD, the city was condemned to demolition in 1987 by the government of Hong Kong. It was demolished in 1993 after a six-year eviction process of it's residents. The city-within-a-city became notorious for it's reputation as an urban construction of hell-on-earth and indeed became a walled zone where most people could not enter without a high possibility of incident.

In 1993, prior to demolition, a team of Japanese researchers was allowed to map the interior of the settlement and produced these colorful section diagrams showing both the social and sectional topography. The tangle of activities and spaces show an existence of incredible complexity and spatial relationshio to the inhabitants surroundings. However, as frantic and limitless as the graphic seems, it stands to reason that the true experience of the space was even more extraordinary than illustrated.

Seen on deconcrete. Aerial image copyright Ian Lambot via ArchDaily. Graphics courtesy of Zoohaus.