☰ Workshops

Structures in Building Culture

Skin and Bones (2012)

1. Fields of experimentation

For the past five years seven European design colleges have organized an Erasmus IP summer workshop that looks at how a material can generate a form. Each workshop involves examining a particular material for ten days within a specific ‘Field of Experimentation’. The process of making is the driving force behind the study. The secrets of the chosen material are discovered through craft and experimentation. Awareness of the material, and of its structure and details, develops through the act of building. A material is therefore not forced to adopt a form. Rather, the form is derived from the material and its properties.

In November 2012 the IP summer workshops were presented at the Scaleless-Seamless conference in Münster. The themes of this conference touch directly on the objectives of the workshops. The organizers of the conference are looking for (digital) pedagogies that can best ensure the seamless and scaleless integration of the designer and the maker and how the computer could support this process. With our summer workshops we are searching for this seamless and scaleless integration of the designer and the maker, but we do not use computers or CAD in the process. Our tools are the materials we are working with.

‘The computer is an indispensable and indisputable tool in designing. The computer is also a fundamentally different tool from the traditional instruments of drawing and methods of making,’ The way in which we can deploy the computer as a tool in the process of design and making is therefore not obvious. Depending on how we wish to shape the relation between the designer and the maker, how we wish to build up knowledge and resources, and how we wish to make students aware of this relation, we can determine why and how we deploy the computer.

The participants come from seven European countries, each with its own language and local material. That allows everybody to bring their own experience and expertise to the table, which are then exchanged through the material experiments. Communication is also conducted largely through the vehicle of the structures made. Participants talk through the material and with their hands.


2. To an Architectural Scale

After brick, dry-stone walling, concrete and plywood, the summer of 2012 focused on experimenting and building with wicker. The wicker weaving technique is associated with the traditional manufacturing of small objects, like baskets. This technique, practised in Poland for centuries, stands out for its potential to build complex and resistant shapes thanks to the flexibility of the fibre and rigidity provided by the weaving.

During the first two days of the workshop the technique of wicker weaving was explored and practised. After that, the students made architectural structures out of wicker. They developed various technical strategies to translate the scale of the object into an architectural scale.

Weaving easily produces rounded forms owing to the properties of the material and the technique applied. The process of weaving depends largely on the flexibility of the material. That allows forces to be absorbed by the structure through ‘pre-stressing’. The curved wicker wants to ‘return’ to a straight position, and the resulting force released lends the woven structure its strength. This makes it difficult to coerce wicker into a particular form. Instead, the form emerges partly through the process of twining strands. You can guide this process to some extent, but in the end the power of the material determines the curvature and, hence, the form.

In scaling up the basket to an architectural structure, one must rediscover the technique of weaving, as has been stated. Wicker lends itself extremely well to making curved surfaces and arched sheet structures. These curved shapes help in making large spans. Adding tension to the material makes surfaces strong and sturdy. This can be done in different ways. A prefabricated plane can be bent into a shape. But tension can be introduced into a structure right from the start. During the wicker workshop the students tested a range of weaving and knotting techniques in order to make the jump in scale.

A dome. How do you make a round shape if the wicker does not let itself be coerced into a shape. The first efforts in making a spherical shape always led to impure egg-shaped objects. Inspired by Leonardo’s dome made a year earlier, the students started weaving the dome from the centre. As a result, the form emerged of its own accord on the basis of the weaving method. The structure is a ‘randomly’ woven surface. Adding tension to this structure results in a sturdy rounded shape because the curved wicker branches press inwards. Weaving in a controlled manner results in a geometric shape.

A column. A tall structure becomes unstable very quickly. During the experiment a model emerged in which the wicker is woven, not straight up but warped into a column in such a way that triangles are created. Weaving the wicker at the intersections of the wicker branches into planes produces fixed-moment connections. These, in combination with the triangles, produce a sturdy structure that can easily reach a height of three meters. Making the knots very accurately results in columns with an industrial and organic character.

An arch. As the object increases in size, you need more material to maintain its strength. One way of achieving this is by grouping a number of branches together to form wider lengths. The students in this group developed a method of ‘extending’ the grouped branches. This enabled the creation of a construction taller than the 1.5-metre length of the wicker branch. Further development of this weaving technique ultimately led to an object with an arched interior space you could stand up in, but the object is also so strong that a number of people could sit on it.

5. Process of Making

Wicker connections are often derived from techniques of weaving and knotting. In these textile connections the hierarchy between the various parts of the structure is often not clear at a first glance. In the dome constructed, each branch of wicker is technically equal. Even so, the right sequence of adding each strand is essential in achieving the intended result. All wicker branches are also equal in the arch constructed, even though they join to form bundles in many places to create a stronger connection. In the column we can still see an architectural hierarchy. We can still recognize clearly different structural elements. Becoming aware of this order, or (precisely) the lack of any order, is an important discovery and helps the student to establish the relation between the technique of making and the appearance of the design. Every decision in the process of making influences the appearance. Understanding the structure, the construction and the junction ensures that the process of designing and making becomes more precise, more discussible and more negotiable.

In this way, the studies of ‘rounded’ and folded forms do not emerge on the basis of an image defined in advance, nor on the basis of a computer exercise. Rather, the forms appear as one sketches with the material in the hand. The resistance of the material allows the maker to sense the shape the form wants to adopt. This gives the builder a physical awareness of the relation between material, structure and form. As a result, a vocabulary of forms we are familiar with from the computer-generated blobs and folds now becomes tangible, tactile and directly experienced at the human scale.

6. Drawing with the material

By experimenting with various materials, the Erasmus IP Workshops raise awareness among the students and tutors about the reciprocal relation between designing and making. This awareness is fed by repetition, intuition and reflection. The focus of all exercises is to foster an attitude of research and reflection in relation to designing and making. Can the computer act as a supporting tool here?

In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes in a section entitled ‘Torn skills’ about the complexity of Computer Aided Design. In addition to its qualities, Sennett lists the possible limitations of the computer in the creative process: the static and purposeful method of designing with the computer. Sennett quotes Renzo Piano, who talks about repetition and practice: ‘You think and you do at the same time. You draw and you make. (Drawing… is revisited.) You do it, you redo it, and you redo it again’.  Sennett observes that the binding circular metamorphosis described by Piano is disconnected by the computer. If the computer is to fulfil a meaningful role in this cyclical process, then it will have to be able to integrate the circular movement into the CAD process.

That brings me back to the question: how can we deploy the computer to enhance awareness among students of the relation between design and construction? How do we connect the designer and the maker? The ‘CAD model’ is just one possible connection between the two. This model or drawing lacks the genuine experience of gravity. The model lacks the resistance of the curved wicker, the sense of the tool, the feeling as the thumb guides the curving of the wicker. The CAD model does not permit intuitive actions such as these easily. Herein lies the challenge presented by the computer and CAD as a tool that can bring about an intelligent interaction between design and construction. How can the computer make the drawing less static? A drawing as a fluid open product that offers space for experimentation and improvisation, space to admit intuition and tolerance and space for the designer and maker to embark on an interactive game to discover, refine and execute innovative architecture. The drawing as a space, and a field, of experimentation.

For me, the direct relation between hand, head and material still remains essential in connecting the designer and the maker in a meaningful way.

by Machiel Spaan
Academie van Bouwkunst, Amsterdam