☰ Workshops

Structures in Building Culture

Skin and Bones (2012)

Most solutions in architectural making seem fixed at first sight. Books are written about how to make buildings, how to calculate structures, and what standards and regulations to use to do it correctly. For educational purposes this model fulfils the needs well. Aspiring architects can learn from conventions and create a solid base to progress further. However, in professional practice, fixed solutions are less favourable. On the one hand designers risk knowing that a certain solution works, but are poorly informed about how it exactly works. On the other hand, the increased rate of technological change has destabilized our traditions in architectural making and therefore favours an adaptive and reflective approach (Waks, 2001).

To free solutions from conventions, ‘frame-experimentation’ is often used in cognitive psychology, media and political science studies and holds, in my opinion, great potential for studies in architectural making. By changing circumstances, frame or conceptual framework, you are capable to challenge older experiences in new situations (Waks, 2001). As a result, you are able to rethink and reconnect problematic situations, introduce new concepts and experiment with lesser preconceptions (Schön, 1983) (Östman, 2006). With this strategy, students are able to rework solutions bottom-up, and generate knowledge of knowing-how instead of knowing-that.

Like frame-experimentation, the frame and the concept of framing is of considerable importance in social sciences today. In this context, frames help to render events and organize experiences. In architectural making, frames are very promising in guiding action in reflective research (Benford, 2000).

The frame and the conceptualization of framing originate from the work of Erving Goffman. In his work Frame Analysis (Goffman, 1974), Goffman discusses the relevance of a condition in which a certain given is understood. By understanding within this ‘world’ or ‘reality’, selective attention organizes experiences and generates meaning within a certain event. In other words, the frame is understood as ‘background’, ‘setting’ or ‘context’.

In architectural making today, framing is well used in, for instance, ‘biomimetics’ or ‘biomimicry’ experiments. The content of both concerns ‘the abstraction of good ideas from nature’ or ‘learning from nature’. Compared to biomimetics, the biomimicry frame-set stresses the importance of sustainability. Biomimetic studies are more focused on the study of biological systems as an inspiration for design (Pawlin, 2011).

In biomimetics, models are often studied in micro scale and magnified into a macro variant for use in architectural making. Studies involve, for instance, the work of Frei Otto and Bodo Rasch. Their work shows important examples for lightweight engineering and membrane design (Otto, 1996). By studies in soap film, sand or foam, Otto was able to recreate and study biological phenomena. The studies still show their importance and value in progressive and lightweight architecture today.

Similar studies have been conducted in other small-scale techniques like textile arts and paper folding and are often inspired by biomimetics. Studies in the resemblance of weaving and molecular structures and diamond-inspired folding techniques serve as influential concepts in design and engineering. On the one hand, one can find solutions by studying architectural problems in these experimental frames. On the other hand, new problems are introduced simultaneously. Apart from a change in scale, for example, often the function also changes, together with material and properties as discussed in the Stoffwechseltheorie by Gottfried Semper (Semper, 2004).

Stoffwechselthese or Stoffwechseltheorie (roughly translated as ‘change of material’ or ‘Rematerialization’) is introduced in the book Style in the Technical and Tectonical Arts. Semper describes that by transforming a matter through a change in its original materialization, the object becomes a composite of both the primeval type and the current form. Changing the material multiple times generates a model consisting of all materials, techniques and transformations used in the procedure (Semper, 2004). The artist or craftsman who created the objects may be aware of the qualities through this metamorphosis indirectly. Semper’s text doesn’t describe the theory as being used as a design tool by its designer or maker, up front. Still, using Stoffwechselthese as an active design tool can be a constructive asset within the strategy of frame-experimentation.

During the Erasmus IP 2011 workshop in Belgium, the materials we used were wooden multiplex and chipboard. Because the geometry of plate materials greatly resembles that of paper sheet, studies were heavily inspired by origami and paper arts. In the experimentation process some challenges had to be overcome. While the geometry of both products is alike but scaled up, the properties of the material itself are very different. Where for paper, folding geometries are possible, for wood, bending is limited. Where in the scale of paper arts the material itself seems endless, in wood geometries the designer is limited to plate sizes. Apart from the change in material property, the function of the study changed as well. Where origami has mostly ornamental value, the wood studies had to incorporate structural stability, detailed connections and material extending solutions.

In the Erasmus IP 2012 workshop in Poland, the challenge was hidden in scale experimentation. With the basic concept of wicker, students were inspired by textile techniques like weaving and braiding. Challenges like material not being endless and bending being limited remained, but they were partially answered by an introduction to the rich tradition of basket weaving. Compared to Erasmus IP 2011 the scaling-up of the micro techniques into macro variants was not accompanied by a change in material. The same material as used in basket weaving was applied in studies on an architectural scale. In this situation the introduced conventional solutions didn’t apply. Classical small-scale solutions had to be rethought and reworked into an architectural scale.

As shown in the Erasmus IP workshops, frame-experimentation can be a valuable asset in rethinking traditional techniques. With most applied frames being tacit or describing tacit knowledge, the practical approach is favoured to accompany head-knowledge with physical reflection. The applied frames may conflict in scale, medium or property, but with a challenging overlap, frames can resonate well into one another. In the cases discussed, challenges are resolved with interesting and promising solutions.

by Ivo Vrouwe
Sint-Lucas, School of Architecture, Belgium