Few would disagree the bare bone common language of design disciplines is Geometry -- a system to help measure, before being tainted by dimension, discourse and meaning. And yet, Geometry has an agency: the drive to smooth differences between all things brought to its common roof, and, in that process, confuse them with their models.
The 2012 Smartgeometry Conference took place in March 19-24th and was hosted by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, NY, and the EMPAC Rensselaer, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.
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The venue started in 2001, through a collaborative effort of its directors, growing to a platform and community of peers from a variety of practices that exchange projects and information about common interests problematic and visions relating geometry, modeling and fabrication. In the recent past, the themes ('challenges') of "Working Prototypes" or "Building the Invisible" reflect the focus on advances of digital tools of representation, interpretation and translation of data, computation and scripting techniques associated with modes of production. Bentley -- a major software development company -- has been a continuing major sponsor of the events.
SG2012 - "Material Intensities -- Simulation, Energy, Environment" -- engaged some of the least controllable and certain aspects of object and space design, providing a challenge back to the platform.
"Material Intensities" emerged from intense collaboration between SG organization and RPI Architecture School members -- namely Demetrios Comodromos, Jefferson Ellinger and Gustavo Crembil - who applied to host the conference at RPI with a unique vision for a thematic and space Troy could offer to the event, as well as strong insights on the natures of productive differences Cluster Leaders and Speakers could provide.
In the words of co-coordinators Demetrios Comodromos and Jefferson Ellinger:
"Material Intensities had a two-fold effect for smartgeometry. On the one hand, the challenge offered a clear link to and subsequent usage of the last two events, digital fabrication in Barcelona and data mining in Copenhagen. Where ... the clusters were working towards a 'materially intense' solution. So in this sense it was a clear extension of the smartgeometry legacy. On the other hand, this challenge also represented a necessary return to the analog... challenges outside of the computer, whereby computation was then used to provide feedback to the system from the models."
The event comprised three types of events. Clusters were three days workshops where selected teams exchanged toolsets and insights, producing a project evidencing found techniques.
Themes included material research -- such as "Ceramics 2.0", and different takes on responsive polymers such as "Bioresponsive Building Envelopes" -- and integrated modeling and real-time responsiveness -- such as "Reactive Acoustic Components" and "Material Conflicts" with integration of multi-parameters, or "Micro Synergetics" exploring micro changes in material structures and impact on social and space and design.
During the Talkshop day, Cluster Leaders exchanged insights and broader reflections on the venue. Changing paradigms of simulation models; accessibility and integration of knowledge; and how to find balance between explorative work and industry and commercial demands;
the need and challenges of interdisciplinary work brought by language gaps across technical expertise.
On the Symposium day, Clusters results were presented among key note lectures. The day started with an energetic lecture by Enric Ruiz Geli, principal of Cloud 9, calling for smarter design of buildings. ERG work includes the use of smart solutions - use of fluorescent coating as illumination; arduino (physical computing) based autonomous sensors that monitor and automate buildings -- a design thinking attitude to which he attributes a reach of 95% CO2 reduction in some of his built works. Robert Hull, an RPI researcher in material sciences showed opportunities for design in nanoscales - specifically nanoelectronics - ; Manfred Grohmann (Bollinger+Grohmann Enginnering) showed a series of challenging projects whose authors include Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Gehry and Partners and SANNAA among others. As well, a lecture by artist Perry Hall - interviewed here - and a final talk by Dean Evan Douglis (Architecture School - RPI), presenting insights on visionary futures for the discipline as a experimentation based cultural practice. Dean Douglis lecture showcased current design work on glass - experiments that started with previous architecture projects - reflecting on the creative collaboration of production processes.
The event reflected the internal discussions of involved disciplines, namely the juxtaposition of the virtues of pure scientific exploration to drives of optimization that cater to industries and the making of products. A debate mirrored in architecture design discourses of the last 30 years, with the persistent battle of the 80's in search for disciplinary autonomy in a sea of becoming multidisciplinary; the 90's desire for new models that can create unique explorative and research trajectories on space design in offices inundated by demand, in a world of a becoming homogeneity; and the 2000's thirst for integration and measurement of all things, and connective drive to erase the borders that define buildings, environment, people, nature.
Among submitted articles, the tone was set by "Shape Cheap, Materials Expensive" by Julian Vincent, on biological structures being built from information (DNA), consistently avoiding the use of energy, differently from our techno-engineering energy-intensive paradigm. In "Scale Matters more than Matter", Salmaan Craig, member of Specialist Modeling Group at Foster+Partners, produces a short history of materials up to nanomaterials, the exploration of material properties space, and complexity acquired in biological structures from relatively few elements, concluding with qualities of composites and polymers as analog accessible material innovation.
On how to continue making a challenging Smartgeometry, J. Ellinger and D. Comodromos reply:
"An underlying agenda within ... Material Intensities was understanding material behaviors differently, ... where material performance and behavior is inextricably linked to energy... The intention was not to be 'green' warriors but to rather shift the design thought process to one where energy matrix is always present as a design parameter. Moving forward for smartgeometry, I think it is important that this paradigm shift be continued and that the matter/energy relationships be explored further."
If, often times, Tools, and Design itself, work to bring contact and acclimatize us with unfamiliar aspects of reality, further integrating matter and energy simulations in Design can perhaps convert the taming instinct into a natural aptitude to navigate more boldly the irregular, asymmetric, unexpected, contradictory, and mutable character of natural processes.
Carla Leitão is an architect, designer and writer currently living, working and teaching Architecture in New York. Practice and academic works interests in ubiquity and intersection of new media and architecture.