As part of my research over the past year into the nature of craftsmanship in digital fabrication, I've done a handful of interviews with individuals engaging the topic in some manner. Ranging from craft researchers to fabricators, every conversation has yielded amazing insight not only into my own work, but also into how other fields are engaging the digital tools we have started to take for granted within certain circles of architecture. Rereading each text as began the format them for my research documentation, I began to feel it was wasteful to just bury them in the appendix and will be posting some of them here in the blog.
One such conversation occurred this past March with Rives Rash. I had met Rives a month earlier while assisting a friend with a workshop at the University of Kentucky College of Design where Rives teaches. Although that was the first time we talked, I had known of Rives by his reputation for a number of years as stories of a punk kid out in LA had made their way back to me, a punk kid out in Boston. In addition to teaching at UK/COD Rives is responsible for RASH, a full-service design and fabrication studio in northern Kentucky. His professional life coupled with his schooling at UVA and SCI-Arc make him the most 'architectural' of my interviewees and the best starting point for the conversations I'll be sharing here on Archinect.
This interview touches on some fantastic points regarding the business of digital fabrication, a topic some Archinectors may find interesting. This side of the equation is regularly overlooked in digifab discussions, which remain largely academic despite the industrial nature of the tools. To say that this facet of the topic demands addressing is an understatement, as there are a growing number of professionals looking to incorporate these tools into their practices. Its a long read but the points brought up by Rives are relevant to everyone and anyone looking to engage fabrication, digital and analog, outside the confines of the research environment.
Rives Rash (center w/ sunglasses) and Kyle Miller (left) teaching a digital design and fabrication workshop with Shanghai University students @ the University of Kentucky College of Design.
Aaron Willette: I was hoping you could elaborate on your background for me a bit more. I know you did your grad degree at SCI-Arc, but fill me in on what’s happened since that brought you to University of Kentucky.
Rives Rash: I’ll take us a few steps back. I was groomed to be building stuff without even knowing it; my grandfather always had me messing around fixing cars and doing all kinds of weird shit like that. For college I went to the University of Virginia School of Architecture – I only applied there and figured if I didn’t get in I would go into the Marines. I had Evelyn Tickle my last semester and we did a shipping container project. We turned that thing into a mobile atelier. That that was the first experience where I realized you’ve got to think out of the box and build stuff.
I applied to SCI-Arc because I didn’t want to go to a place like Columbia or Princeton because of all the paperless studios. At UVA it was all hand drawings and everything was constructed to scale, and I had never even learned to use a computer. When I got to LA Hernán Diaz Alonso was my first professor and we were immediately immersed into the digital. Jumping into the computer for the first time, I took to Maya like a fly takes to shit because of the background that I had with hand drawing. It was really easy to pick up on the geometries and figure out the software. At the same time Hernán was starting to blow up, so I approached him and said, “I want to figure out how to build this stuff, I don’t think you’re going to figure it out. I’m going to do it.” And from there I started trying to figure out how to do the weirdest stuff on the computer and physically make it.
After graduating I worked for Eric Owen Moss off and on for a few months. That was interesting because I started to find out that I wasn’t a mercenary as much as I was an assassin. I would come into an office, jump on a project, figure it out and that was that. It was good and bad: bad because I was always looking over my shoulder for the next job and good because I had to figure out how to meet other people. All of which landed me at the doorstep of HypeArc. That place was amazing, but they’re out of business now.
AW: (laughs) I sent them many a resumé in my time.
RR: Basically if you show up at a place, don’t care whether or not they pay you but are able to glean techniques from them about how to make and build, they'll eventually hire you. Me and my buddy Ramsey Daham, who now runs Breakform Design in El Segundo, ended up there and the whole time we were watching and learning how to do metal work while simultaneously learning how to farm out projects. We were maybe 23 or 24 years old with an obsession with cool ass, big tools and were spending a lot of time in Gardena going in and out of steel yards and anodizing companies. Next thing you know we found ourselves having conversations with the owners of these companies, guys like Ron Kong of M+K Metals, who had been in the industry forever, and they were just unloading all kinds of incredible information on us.
After about six or eight months I quit HypeArc because the two founding partners were splitting up and going in different directions. Hernán's PS1 hit right after that – I helped make that and the project got a lot of publicity, it was crazy. Somewhere between HypeArc and PS1 I started my own business, and that’s all she wrote. From there I basically was meeting and greeting as many people as I could, greasing palms and making my way to whatever the next job was.
Le Chaise Grotesque for Hernan Diaz-Alonso. Image courtesy of Frank Doering.
AW: How was the transition from working for others to working for yourself?
RR: Being 24 years old and starting your own business isn't always the best idea and a lot of times I would eat it. I did a bench for Duncan Nicholson that was part of a James Turrell skyspace, an ellipse that looked like a 23-foot long pew. They hadn’t figured much out yet - basically all they knew was the material and the basic shape that they wanted. I was the third fabricator they picked to figure out all this stuff and they paid me $35,000 for the job. Take that $35,000 of mine and wipe out $15-18,000 in material and I'm looking at maybe $10-12,000 over eight months after all is said and done. I was an idiot. But it was a defining project for me. I took it on and I went for it and I got it done.
And that went on for a little bit. Wheeling and dealing, robbing and stealing. But I was more or less deteriorating in L.A. as a one man show trying to compete with larger companies. It was very boutique-y and it kind of sucked.
I had met Drura Parrish around 2005, linking up right before PS1 and doing odd jobs together here and there. “Hustling” is really the only word to describe any kind of business we were doing. He left LA and started teaching at University of Kentucky, and thinking that Michael Speaks would never want to go to Lexington, Kentucky I made a haphazard backend deal with Drura that if he could get Speaks to come to Kentucky I would move out there too. Three years go by and Drura helped make that happen, and six months after Speaks becomes dean I get a phone call from him asking me to come fix up the UKY shop.
Within eight months or less of being here Drura and I landed a huge Zaha Hadid job, followed by three or four more fairly affluent jobs. That allowed us to not only donate things to the school to get the shop up and running better, but also allowed us to get our business off the ground and start the Land of Tomorrow gallery. Eventually it started paying for tools and for us to be able to do what we wanted to do and go after more business.
2009 hit, wiped out the country and almost wiped us out, too. We started inventing new business models to try to generate work and revenue. Drura was talking to firms all over the world trying to scrounge up business and meeting a lot of new people. It worked on like a PR level, but it didn’t exactly work on actually getting jobs. We didn’t take $1 and put a lot of cost out there.
Now Drura and I have had to restructure our company and split, but in a good way. He’s pushing more in a curatorial/production sense as the Land of Tomorrow gallery has taken off. I’m going to be moving all of the equipment we've acquired over the years up to Northern Kentucky and setting up shop there. Each of us are going to keep on doing what we’ve been doing and link up on jobs when it’s necessary to link up on jobs.
Sky Space Bench at the Price Residence
AW: In many of the projects I've worked on as fabricator there comes a point where they start to feel just as much my project as who ever I'm making them for. As someone predominantly involved on the fabrication side of things, where do you see creative authorship coming into play?
RR: Let’s try and define what a typical person like Joe Blow on the street would think a “fabricator” is. They would say, “A guy who makes things.” In order for that person to make things, they're given a set of drawings that are all figured out and they go and fabricate directly off of those drawings. What I actually get paid to do is the three weeks or three months that it takes for me to draw and figure it out what I'm given so that I can fabricate it. I don’t know what to call that front loaded area but that’s really the only thing I am getting paid for and its what a lot of companies don’t know how to do. They have an idea about what they want the end product to look like and they think they’re paying me for that end product. But what they’re paying for is the time immediately after they hand over the file. It gets into a discussion about intellectual property, which is part of what you’re talking about. Where does the intellectual property exist and when does it change from what was originally given to you to what you actually figure out?
I think IP is more of a contractual agreement that needs to be nipped in the butt up front when you take a job from somebody, especially if the details aren't figured out. I typically go in there and say, “I get that this is what you want it to look like. I’m going to do my utmost best to not change anything in terms of that say, exterior envelope, but I’m going to work backwards on the inside and figure out all of the guts.” And if they haven’t figured out the guts then that becomes mine. Obviously they get all the pictures and all the press but at the end of the day I was the one that figured it out.
White Elephant for Jimenez Lai
You’ve got consultation and you’ve got fabrication: consulting is brains and fabrication is brawn but somewhere in between there is - I don’t know - “consabitation” or whatever. I’m perplexed about how to bring something like that to market because it's very much where the value is added for anybody that wants to get something made.
If we don’t have our contracts dialed in or forget about the business side of things, then IP gets thrown out the window and somebody takes advantage of us. It just means that we need to be aware and actually go through the diligence of putting that package together and let the client know that when they hand over the file you expect there to be a productive rapport. With some people it takes about a month before we even get to dig into the file because we’re just talking back and forth trying to negotiate the terms of the contract. There are always pros and cons but you pick your battles and you leverage what you can where you can. The biggest thing is knowing that you’re asking the right questions. It’s more lawyer talk but you move on and eventually get to what you’re good at.
AW: You talk about your work as a combination of kind of the brain and the brawn, and in my own research that’s how I have been starting to identify the point where craftsmanship starts to manifest itself. It’s more than just the process of making something, there is also an intellectual conversation that occurs with it. Would you say that this is kind of where you start to see craftsmanship manifest in your work, or do you see it as being something different?
RR: You know, I’m not 100% sure. The traditional side of me would say craftsmanship is making a block of wood perfectly square on all sides. That’s craftsmanship, and questions of proportions, compositions and things like that are a different discussion, an intellectual one more rooted in architectural education. The way I work is I try to actually separate craftsmanship and the intellectual.
I want to have all my drawings done in the computer and then bring the computer with me into the shop because I don’t want to think when I’m in there. The only thing that I’m doing is focusing on using proper techniques for getting things together. It sounds very split but when you look at it as a whole, it’s completely united. If you haven’t already figured out the next three steps your mind can't focus on the craft. It’s also a catch-22, as how do you make the drawings if you don’t know the craft?
AW: In contemporary digital production what people traditionally consider craft has become the realm of technique and technician. The thoughtfulness of the application and how it’s used in the overall scope, that is what I think starts to define craftsmanship within the digital realm. When a lot of people talk about digital craft with something like a CNC machine, they’re hyper-obsessed things like novel tool paths which largely has nothing to do with understanding how you’re working with the material and how that relates back to the overall concept you're exploring.
RR: I think that there are some misnomers out there and some are misplaced. They’re talking up a big game but then they don’t know what they’re doing when it comes down to it. They’re just scratching the surface and not actually understanding the full application value of some of this equipment.
You can’t have digital equipment without traditional means of making. But you can always have traditional means of making without digital equipment, it just may take a little longer. And that goes into using 3D software to help you figure out more in-depth what you need to do. And if it means you’ve got to slice 1,000 more sections rather than just sending the surface to the CNC, then you’ve got to slice 1,000 more sections. Things are slow and some people are ahead of the times and others are behind the times.
AW: They need to move beyond the immediacy of the tool and understand if and how it relates to more 'external' topics.
RR: There’s a fundamental problem with architecture: everything is a one off. A single building takes three years and $350 million to finish. A product like the $2000 computer that you’re looking at exists at a much more manageable scale. At the same time, if they didn’t make 5 gazillion computers, it couldn’t be just $2,000. There is a lot of similar equipment used to make buildings and cars and computers; every company using them needs to have a designer in there to challenge what they’re doing.
I’ve been to so many places that have a dope-ass CNC machine and all they’re doing is cutting out cabinet doors. They have no idea how to cut out a surface or understand how to take an object and get it out of that machine. Thats the best thing we can offer: we have a unique approach about how to problem solve something that needs to get produced and cater its construction towards the machines at hand. The two questions I constantly rely on when I figure out a project are, “What's my bit length?” and “What size doors do I have to get through?”
AW: How do you see all these lessons you’ve learned from doing fabrication work scaling up to the architectural level? A dilemma with a lot of digital fabrication research is that it goes on at a smaller scale, begging the question of how it makes that jump.
RR: I think it’s easier than we think. We’re taught how to figure these thing out, you just have to put your architecture cap back on. At the end of the day it has a lot to do with poché as a that’s the only part that you have to figure out. Sometimes it’s not necessary to have a thick poché and sometimes it is. Frank Gehry? Super thick poché. He has an outside envelope and he works his way back in until he has structurally figured out the shape and the rest is just programmatic details. At the other end of the spectrum is probably Neil Denari or Rem Koolhaas, where program takes precedence and work your poché back out towards the street. It becomes something that’s not aloof, it’s de facto in doing what it needs to do to house the program. For me those are the schools of thought when it comes to scaling up construction.
AW: What about individuals who have developed a career around being the middlemen in those situations? Design to Production exist solely to take someone else’s poché and figure out its construction in situations where it doesn't necessarily fall into the realm of the architect or the contractor.
RR: An executive architect or specialized companies like façade guys?
AW: The specialized companies as a whole.
RR: I’d say it’s all about the money. A majority of firms probably still play the role of middleman themselves because they can’t pay someone else to figure that shit out for them. Whereas an architect like Zaha or Rem can hand it off to another party to handle. I don’t know if that’s ever going to change unless starchitecture goes away and becomes more of a middle class architecture. Then those bigger names are going to have to learn more about how to fabricate what they've designed. The façade people and the specialized firms are more on the consulting side of things that we talked about earlier.
I don’t know exactly how it was done during their time, but I think it would be impossible for a guy like I. M. Pei or even Frank Lloyd Wright to not have to use other factions to realize their work if they were around today. Back then the contractors were a little more up-to-speed, but now they aren’t because the architecture is outdating the contractors. Now they’re just thinking about material and labor and don’t include the figuring out. So the architect either hires these other companies to figure things out or does it themselves.
AW: The question of scaling up is more of scaling up the collaboration between the “brain” and the “brawn” factions. Would you say a quality object is the result of involved parties realizing their respective limitations and outsourcing where necessary?
RR: Collaboration is huge because even with small things nothing gets done without it. Whether it’s a collaboration where the contractor and architect are working closely together or it’s the do-all practice collaborating with the client, there’s always something going on. There is a huge place for guys like us in those collaborations. It’s a question of how we bring what we do to market, which is exactly what I'm trying to figure out.
As much as I would like to personally continue to make stuff, I do understand that I’m just not going to be able to lift shit in the future. Those simple physical restraints mean I have to get smart about how I start to market myself and if you’re an entrepreneur these are the questions you definitely have to ask. Otherwise you sell yourself as a consultant working for a bigger company like SOM or Gensler, jumping between 10 or 12 different jobs providing the details they need, which may or may not be that much fun.
I like to talk about this sort of stuff because it doesn’t make its way anywhere. It sure as shit hasn’t made its way into academia. Let’s pretend that you even wanted to be an architect - you’ve got to know how to build, you’ve got to know how materials work. There’s a fuck ton of materials out there and there’s a fuck ton of different ways to build something. I think the best thing is to apprenticeship with three or four incredible people and just try to get every bit of information that you can out of ‘em. If you stumble into a situation where you’re with somebody that has values that you may not, just be sure to sponge.
AW: I'm luck to have that with Wes (McGee) and I'm always trying to pick his brain on why he is making certain decisions. He'll tilt the tool in the 5-axis machine at a very specific angle and I'll be asking him how and why he picked that angle. His response usually is along the lines of, “Well, it just looks right.”
RR: You know what that comes from? If you buy equipment that equipment becomes your baby. You learn the ins and out of it and he’s probably sat there and just studied that machine, looking at the proportions, understanding the inverted slopes from the tool tip to the collet to the tool holder to the spindle. That’s where he’s getting that from.
It’s a different conversation but maintenance on these fucking things is a pain in the ass, down to changing the damn bandsaw blade and having to recalibrating the whole machine to get it to actually work right. That’s the weird hidden knowledge that comes with material research and experience. You get a certain material and simple questions like, how to cleanly cut it, snowballs into more and more things that you have to learn about. These things add up over time and its that knowledge that puts you at the table with companies.
I want to get into all the robot stuff. I bought two ABB robots one time and I just didn’t know what I was doing. I bought them for $300, they were originally welding on an automotive line and they needed everything done to them. I’m still trying to get the school or even myself at some point to purchase one. They’re fairly cheap but then you’ve got to start getting into all the hidden costs of programming and stuff like that that. Its a lot of effort.
AW: Hey, there’s a great program here at Michigan if you want to go back to school. I have a feeling you’d get in pretty easily.
RR: Well that’s good to know (both laughing). Do that or the Marines.
AW: Exactly, one or the other. Nothing in between.
Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy of Rives Rash.
An in-the-trenches view of digital fabrication, academic research, post-hardcore music and whiskey. Not necessarily in that order and often in combination.