Two Minutes With // Fabio Gramazio, of Gramazio & Kohler

Hi everyone! We are excited to publish our interview with Fabio Gramazio, of Gramazio & Kohler, based in Zurich, Switzerland. With their insight on digital design and fabrication, Gramazio & Kohler add a much needed dimension to our interview series. In their research they examine the changes in architectural production requirements that result from introducing digital manufacturing techniques. Their special interest lies in combining data and material and the resulting implications this has on architectural design. Check out their website to see more projects.

Images courtesy of Gramazio & Kohler, and François Lauginie, respectively.

VT: It can be said that timeless design is formed by the influences of nature. In what ways do your projects such as the Gantenbein Vineyard Facade complement and enhance the environment in which they exist?

FG: We believe that architecture is formed by a broader scope of environmental influences of contextual and cultural nature. Nature is one of these, but not the only one. In the case of the Gantenbein Vineyard Facade the specific qualities of the “natural” environment of course enter a dialogue with the architecture. In this dialogue the architecture does not merge with nature but affirms its autonomy as the result of a cultural and technological process. Following our concept of “Digital Materiality”, whereby materiality is increasingly being enriched with digital characteristics, the facades of the vineyard express the digital derivation of their design and robotic fabrication paradigms, while being formed and permeated by functional requirements, like the selective filtering of the light and the mass of the material, which guarantee for a stable inside climate. What results in a sort of ephemeral ornamentation, that changes its expression according to light conditions and to the position of the viewer, is both extremely physical and as such “natural” or “familiar” and digital, belonging to an “artificial” or “alien” dimension. Maybe one could say that, although our work is not inspired by nature and clearly belongs to another domain, it often possesses a complexity and resolution which reminds of nature’s intricacy.

VT: In a previous interview you reference the “sensual qualities” of digital materiality. How does this mixture of digital and traditional lend itself to design that heightens the end-users experience and senses?

FG: Our focus is not so much set on the “traditional” understood as the “vernacular” but on the physical and the material dimension of architecture. Of course in the specific case of the brickwork these dimensions converge, as the materiality of the brick conveys the sense of its history, constructive tradition and feels “familiar” in a cultural sense if the term. By juxtaposing and overlaying it with the “digital” logic of its organization (bonding) we register, despite its abstract and technical derivation, a strong resurgence of sensual qualities that have been missing in digital designs so far. We think that this specific form of “enhanced sensuality”, which we call “Digital Materiality”, originates by the fact that these artefacts not only directly address our senses but at the same time challenge our intellect.

VT: Gramazio & Kohler created a modular research building that will test architecture and its systems under real-world conditions. What impact will NEST have on the future of architecture and society? Is modularity the future of design as it allows for interchanging and easily optimized parts?

FG: Although this is a fascinating perspective, which has a long tradition in last century architectural history, we do not think that modularity, in the sense of plugins of interchangeable parts represents the future of design. In our mind this ideas have developed further and are finding their contemporary expressions in more abstract concepts like parameterization and adaptability of design, which are intrinsically related to digital fabrication and innovative constructive systems. As for the NEST Project, the modularity is just a direct consequence of its specific and singular programmatic concept. As a living laboratory for constructive experiments the so called “backbone”, being the permanent spatial (infra) structure, is conceived as a shelf, a vertical stacking of building plots, where architectural spaces can be temporarily erected (or inserted) in a very simple manner as the “backbone” provides for the accessibility of people and technical media. As such NEST is a laboratory for the development of future building concepts but not an example of them, as its function is to offer a maximum in flexibility permitting as diverse experiments as possible to be conducted. Of course, as architects of the Backbone, we very much like being able to design such an unconventional building and are very aware of the strong historical references such a program evokes!

VT: The implementation of robotic fabrication can be seen in your projects, Ofenhalle, Gantenbein Vineyard, and Flight Assembled Architecture … (yes, Flight Assembled Architecture!). Compared to where you were, a decade ago, how has the use of robotics changed your outlook and design process? What do you think is on the horizon for robotic fabrication?

FG: This question is very broad and we have tried to answer it in our new book “The Robotic Touch” which we just released a few weeks ago. For us the robot, starting with the industrial robot we installed in our lab 8 years ago and ending with the quadrocopters which built the FAA installation at FRAC Centre in Orleans, is both a technological enabler as well as a conceptual door opener. The robots allow us (designers) a deeper engagement with technology, whereby the process of construction and fabrication of architecture becomes formable beyond the traditional schemes and enters the domain of design. Robots, as opposed to specialized fabrication machines (as for example mills, laser cutters, etc.) are generic, meaning that they have not been designed to perform a singular fabrication process but represent the basic possibility to reach a point in space in order to perform a physical action. The definition of the tool (or end effector) is open to be custom designed for a specific fabrication process. It is important to note that we are not interested in the machine “per se” but in its relationship to us humans. We think that the machine needs the human as much as the human needs the machine and that the true potential of future implementation is to be found in collaborative processes. Such an approach goes beyond the traditional stereotypical competitive relationship which has been typical of industrialization and still dominates the majority of the debates. We believe that a complementary understanding of our relationship to machines can lead to a future in which automation will not be exclusively driven by rationalization and cost optimization anymore but concentrate on the (architectural) added value which emerges from combination of our and the machines strengths.