Computational design, robotic actuation & robotic fabrication in the arch. education & practice. An interview with Alexandros Kallegias

Computational design, robotic actuation & robotic fabrication in the arch. education & practice. An interview with Alexandros Kallegias

Computational design, robotic actuation & robotic fabrication in the arch. education & practice. An interview with Alexandros Kallegias

London, UK

Alexandros Kallegias is an architect and a researcher. Alexandros graduated from the Architecture School of the University of Patras, Greece and completed his postgraduate studies at the Architectural Association Design Research LAB (ΑΑDRL) in London, UK. His practice background includes having been a Senior Architect at Zaha Hadid Architects and BIM Coordinator for different projects in different countries. Alexandros research focuses on exploring generative design techniques, incorporating design through coding coupled with large-scale digital fabrication tools. His work includes the investigation of urban data and biomimetics as drivers for design, interaction, and robotics in architecture. His research has been presented and published in peer-reviewed reports and international publications like eCAADe, CAAD Futures, and SimAUD, among others. Alexandros also directs the AA Visiting Schools in Greece he teaches. He gives lectures in the UK and abroad while he has been an invited in juries like the Archiprix 2015 in Ankara, Simaud and IsArch. He has taught as an Associate Lecturer at the School of Architecture at Oxford Brookes University, at the University College London (Bartlett)and in the School of Architecture of Liverpool University.

VG: Alexandros, design through coding, smart technologies urban data and biomimetics receive a great deal of focus in architecture schools right now. Why is that? How diffused is this tendency in the UK, in architecture schools and practices?

AK: It is truly remarkable, the speed by which the new digital era in architecture has been spreading across academia. This turn, however, has been formulating for some time now. Several years after the ‘80s, after the first CAAD programmes (Computer Architectural Aided Design) were made to assist the architect’s production of drawings, the use of computers and machines started having a more extensive influence in all phases of an architectural project. Currently, modeling techniques through coding and use of data enable architects to extend and to go beyond the traditional graphics media. Complex forms through design computation are not mere conceptual representations, they can carry critical information, they can be replicated and it is less time-consuming to make them. This is thanks to the advancements of modern-day computing. It has changed the approach of the architect towards the design of a project. It became a new stimulus and a way to control complexity. The classical approach of having early architectural concepts and visualizations prior to a final design is no longer the only valid approach. Advanced technology, coding, computation allow the final form to be almost represented by the early steps of design. It is a tendency that reshapes the architect’s creativity; one that is acknowledged by all architectural schools and practices in the UK. While this tendency is highly diffused in the UK it comes with different concentrations among the regions of the country. The government, however, aims for even distribution in order to promote growth that is more balanced. And it does so via practice-based research programmes in order to transform the creative industries.

Currently, I am partaking in one of these programmes, working with universities in the North West of the UK and in London.

VG: Specifically, your work both as a researcher but also as an architect reveals a tendency to explore more the crossing point between using new technologies, fabrication and the design process. How did you come to be interested in this field? How does this interest overlap your work now?

AK: My interest in that crossing point derives from the classical view of what the Renaissance architect represents. Architecture is both the process and the result of that process; it refers to the design, the planning and the fabrication of an edifice. Architecture conveys ideas, promotes culture. It is also a set of tangible structures. It provides more than sheltering us from nature’s elements, it represents the times that we live in. It is a built, visible statement of what can be feasible. Historically, civilizations have identified themselves with their surviving architectural accomplishments. Hence, in my eyes, the architect has an obligation to be trained in the design as well as the construction process and to be informed in the advancements of technology. Cutting-edge architecture and design are perceived as good indicators of the state of contemporary technology. The use of 3D printing, of robotic arms and of drones and the use of Virtual Reality are a few of such indicators. In my line of work, I enjoy methodologies that make use of advanced digital fabrication and design computation. I apply them in ways that they facilitate my workflow but mainly their application provides me with another rash of creativity and inspiration.

VG: What is the research – design product that is born by these intersections? What do people mean when they refer to the use of biomimetic in the design process? To make it specific: and how do you think technology advancements (and ICT) alters or influences the urban and architectural design process?

AK: The rate by which advancements are made in applying computation in the design and fabrication process is constantly getting higher. As academics, we are able to speculate and explore the various possibilities of using advanced techniques in architecture. In various schools and institutions, experimenting using computation is not a mere “discovery trip” but it aims at revisiting the current scheme of our practice, at identifying opportunities for improvement. In that way, it aims to redefine the industry itself. As an applied science, however, the industry is slower to adapt as it is governed by numerous complicated ways of conducting business.

Regarding the term biomimetic, in the design process, this is used when people refer to a process or a phenomenon that is observed in nature and that defines their own special project formations. In contrast to movements such as the Art Nouveau, where designs are inspired by the looks of natural forms and structures, the biomimetic approach focuses more in-depth about the actual reasoning behind a natural creation.

After observation and analysis, the process gets to be applied in different ways for the birth of an architectural project. The term biomimetic refers to an approach that is enabled by the use of advanced computation. It goes “under the surface” and is capable of containing critical information about a project. Within our practice, this kind of approach is proven to be an efficient method of tackling with complexity. We are observing improvements and efficiency when dealing with multiple factors that affect the architectural process. With digital tools, we are able to understand natural processes and dynamics in relation to human agency. We are able to represent dynamics that are constantly changing with a more accurate result. At an urban scale, the planning process can be optimized in regards to the number of buildings, their heights, their clustering and their location in a city’s fabric when it comes to making changes. At the architectural scale of a singular building, it is possible to factor in variables that are indirectly linked to the design. These are economic factors and factors of fabrication feasibility. Reflecting on these cases, one can see the benefits of using a computational and informational design approach to architecture.

VG: Could you give us an example of how you work with a specific project/ projects when integrating robotics, design through coding, biomimetic together?

AK: While working with the Architectural Association, school of architecture in London, my interest in robotics coupled with coding has been manifested in a number of research-based projects. Aside from their pedagogical character, they also encompass all aspect of a built project, from concept design to fabrication. However, in the AEC industry, the use of robotics and coding is new. While in academia a number of institutions and schools nowadays explore this approach, the applied side of the discipline has not yet fully adapted to it. Moreover, the term robotics may refer to different types of machines. And these have found their place in different parts of researching an architectural project.

In the case study that follows, the use of robotics was focused on the production line for the components that were part of the final structure. The aim of this team-based project was to create a public pavilion. The example comes from the work of my students in the University College of London (Bartlett) where they would be making use of Artificial Intelligence in order to optimize their design outcome by a series of repetitive design explorations. The code would run for a number of times and the output of each time will be analyzed and evaluated in order to find the design solution closer to the project’s fitness criteria. The selected final form was then prepared to be fabricated with a 3D printing robotic arm that also had its’ end-effector customized for extruding transparent plastic.

Fig.1 Robotic assembly, Pentahedron team, Bartlett UCL
Fig.2 Data-driven structure studies, Pentahedron team, Bartlett UCL

Another example is from the programme that I am directing with the Architectural Association in Greece.

During the initial stage of the programme, coding through Rhinoceros Grasshopper was used in order to investigate different designs. The forms of these designs were following specific criteria such as surface area, maximum height, and accessibility among others. And the form-finding process was driven by design formation rules of natural phenomena. For instance, recursion was used, as the repetitive action of or items in a self-similar way such as a glacier cracking or a bacterial culture. By acknowledging the natural world efficiency in design, these phenomena were simulated in an abstract way in order to maintain a certain system in the pavilion’s design. The aim was not to replicate the spread of bacteria or the breaking of a glacier here but to learn from nature while engineering the built environment. That is how biomimetics was embedded for the making of the wooden pavilion. Further, in the fabrication process, the final form was rationalized and divided into pieces of wood veneer and timber slabs that would be used for assembly. As the form itself, is non-conventional the construction was made in a specific sequence following the design.

Fig.3 3D printed gear as part of Twine’s construction, Architectural Association

Other projects like the ones I did in Greece used robotics as part of the final structure. A set of intelligent machines those are able to observe the surrounding space and instigate specific actions, thus enabling a kind of interaction among the people inhabiting that space. Overall, creating strong associations between computational design methodologies, robotic actuation and robotic fabrication processes are examples of the architectural possibilities of our times.

Fig 4 Kinetic Haze pavilion, Architectural Association

VG: In your opinion, how does architectural pedagogy change when incorporating these methodologies into its agenda? What are the new skills, and the new attitude that is born towards our discipline?

AK: Teaching young architects has taken a turn in the last 10 years. The cause behind this change is the profession’s new direction. It is the digital turn that embeds the analysis of different data in the making of the early stages of the design all the way to its’ completion. New toolsets push young architects to develop a new set of skills; however, this is part of the profession’s long history. What is different is the way that people communicate and cooperate nowadays. The globe is practically and instantly interconnected, with numerous systems in place and this is already changing other disciplines. Having a new attitude towards our discipline would be beneficial, especially when the academic establishment can in parallel with the traditional curriculum, support and develop a more experimental and interdisciplinary one. Regarding design skills, introducing tools that include coding can be key for such an initiative. I am referring to software like the ones I like to teach to my students, software that are open-source. These include Processing, Arduino or Raspberry Pi and they operate in a sharing among- users mentality. Here, the effort and energy for a project is fueled more with cooperation than competition. And, although some of these software are not purely design-based, they enable an understanding of designing and building with information control. In countries like the UK, Australia, Singapore, and others, the workflow is now driven by the BIM approach. Having experience from working with Zaha Hadid Architects and coordinating this kind of work, it is worth mentioning that Building Information Modeling is not defined by one type of software. It is a work method where a number of programmes define the entire workflow. The architectural pedagogy will benefit a great deal by having young architects exploring ways of co-design as well as interdisciplinary methodologies towards design and manufacturing.

Fig. 6 Lighting panel of Kinetic Haze pavilion, Architectural Association
Fig.7 Nanjing International Youth Cultural Center, Zaha Hadid Architects

Industrial strategy response through collaborative associations, Transformation North West

VG: Do you think architects that do not use or are not used in exploring the current technological paradigm will be relevant in the near future?

AK: There is a powerful aspect about the discipline of architecture; that it is inherently interdisciplinary. In that sense, being relevant in the near future requires more than exploring the current technological shift. As people seek new ways of improving and having more efficient ways of working, there will always be a new technological paradigm. Indeed, it is essential to be aware of the advancements in the field, however vocational training around practical skills is not enough. As automation spreads across different disciplines, creativity becomes ever more precious for the future of architecture. That also characterizes my architectural training programmes of the past 8 years. Architects already agree that the art of synthesis is essential beyond the design part. It characterizes all stages and aspects of their work. From planning, time-tabling to management, acquisitions and more. For those seeking to remain relevant and even have leadership positions in today’s and the near future’s AEC enterprises, it pays to focus on developing business and architectural skills as it does technology or cooperative system skills. And always with one eye fixed on creativity. That’s because the key to future career growth and prospects for today’s and tomorrow’s architects isn’t in technical proficiency but in the ability to understand the implications of technology to their business and the architectural industry in general.

Fig. 8 Industrial strategy response through collaborative associations, Transformation North West

VG: From your overall experience of living and working both in the UK but also in South Europe and specifically in Greece, what would you advice a young architect in regards to the skills he/she has to develop for being an active architect in the future?

AK: There is always the case of a never-ending project in the architect’s life. For me, this “project” refers to self- development. A valuable skill to attain here is, keeping oneself aware of the innovative steps that are being taken in our field. It would require one to remain conscious of the various workflows and developments in the industry. However, this is quite a task for architects in the broad sense of the word. From my own experience in teaching in different schools in the UK and by looking at the initial training of young people in order to become architects, most curricula include modules of Theory, Art, History, Material Science, Math and more. In other words, the spectrum for expanding expertise is quite broad. It would require a young architect to already have a notion of their own interest in order to further develop their skills. For those seeking to stay active with the digital development of the profession, I would suggest staying focused on a specific aspect of the industry. And to be unafraid to expose themselves to different working environments. However the industry, in contrast to academia, is not fully digitized yet. In that regard, there are many areas like on-site fabrication, builders’ input, post-built evaluation, etc. that are yet to be revisited as steps of progress are taken with regards to technological advancements. So, as long as a young architect can concentrate on the current technological advancements, he or she may as well become the architect who will redefine or influence some of these areas. Being focused, and persistent is key.

Valina Geropanta and Alexandros Kallegias— 

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