Text and photos by Terri Peters
SmartGeometry is an international community of academics and professionals who hold annual workshops and conference days at academic institutions around the world. Now in its ninth year, this year´s theme was Material Intensities and both the four-day workshop and conference day was held at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York. Sponsored by software company Bentley, the next event will be held in London in 2013. Previous Archinect features reported on SmartGeometry 2009 in San Francisco and SmartGeometry 2011 in Copenhagen.
This year, there were ten workshop groups and about 100 participants in the ten research “clusters”. Each cluster presented a challenge to its participants relating to an idea about materials, with the aim to develop digital tools and physical prototypes during the workshop. Rather than a traditional teacher-student workshop dynamic, the SmartGeometry groups are arranged as collaborations between multi-disciplinary designers based on their interests and expertise.
There were clusters experimenting with ceramics, bent wood strips, electroactive polymers, thermally active paint, glass façade systems, clay, CNC cut foam, and plexi-glass. But it was how the materials were used that made the work even more interesting. The clusters experimented with robotic arms, arduinos, Microsoft Kinects, and making their own materials using various laboratory facilities. As with previous years, the groups used a mix of digital fabrication methods and making by hand, often mixing techniques in the same project.
The workshops offered the chance for practitioners from top international offices such as UN Studio, Foster+Partners, SOM, Arup, Aedas, Grimshaw, 3XN and others to work side by side with researchers from Harvard GSD, the Architectural Association, University of Pennsylvania, California Collage of the Arts, University College London, RMIT Melbourne, University of Oregon, and others in a non-competitive and collaborative environment. The intense workshop format and way that the groups all worked side by side allowed participants to learn from the in progress work of other groups, accessing inspiration and expertise as needed.
The Responsive Building Envelopes cluster was led by Bess Krietemeyer (an RPI Ph.D. Student at The Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology (CASE), Anna Dyson, (Architect and Director of CASE) Neil Katz (Architect at SOM), and Satoshi Kiyono (architectural designer at Turner Construction, Virtual Design and Construction). This cluster allowed participants to engage with the technology for a patented system of thin film electropolymeric display systems for glazing which is currently being developed in a multi-disciplinary partnership for architectural applications as a programmable frit pattern. The idea is that this dynamic façade could be used to respond to energy flows on a site. Walking into the workshop, by the second day the group had set up a large screen that people could interact with and create different patterns by moving around the screen. Moving closer, the pattern breaks up as if allowing views out a building to the environment, and standing back, a pattern is created of pixels as though shielding light and heat. With Phd students, other researchers and practitioners all working on this project and technology far in advance of the workshop, participants could jump into the middle of a research project, rather than direct its goals as with many of the other clusters. This gave the cluster more of a feeling of a practical architectural project. The group asked how could architects choreograph a façade? And could this way of creating a moving frit pattern embed real time environmental performance feedback?
While all of the clusters used the fabrication, display, meeting and staff resources on site, the only cluster that actually used the state of the art EMPAC acoustic facilities was the Reactive Acoustic Environments cluster. This cluster made use of the special acoustic environment in the largest sound studio to create and test acoustic effects. They also used the rigging facilities to hang and manipulate their sound sculpture to respond to gestures and control through an iPad. (Read more about this cluster's project in the Archinect News.)
The Beyond Mechanics cluster led by Simon Kim (Immersive Kinematics Research Group at University of Pennsylvania Department of Architecture), Mariana Ibanez (Harvard University Graduate School of Design) and Nick Puckett (Joint faculty at School of Architecture and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Kentucky) aimed to make responsive polymers and design full scale prototypes. Through experimentation with smart materials, the works showed the potentials of architectural “skin” as folded, doubly curved, complex and able to be manipulated. In only four days, the participants formulated, manufactured, and began to implement responsive polymers in physical prototypes.
At SmartGeometry, the focus is always on developing the tool and the method over the actual object or prototype, but the work of the Beyond Mechanics cluster actually produced beautiful objects as well as innovative material experiments.
As in previous years, after the workshop, there was a Talk Shop day of lectures and discussions, which included short talks by a diverse group of speakers including researcher Sal Craig from Foster+Partners, architect and author Branko Kolarevic from University of Calgary, architect Kasper Guldager Jørgensen from 3xN, architect Martin Tamke from CITA in Copenhagen, furniture designer Zoe Coombes from design studio Cmmnwlth and engineer Jan Knippers from Knippers Helbig. The final Conference Day highlights were lectures by material scientist Robert Hull, beautiful material videos and photography by visual artist Perry Hall and some rather strange antics including paper throwing from architect Enric Ruiz Geli.