Tangential Fabrications

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Computer



Jan '12 - Aug '13

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    Fabricated at Michigan: Helix

    Aaron Willette
    Jul 13, '13 2:33 PM EST

    Another project from Brandon Clifford and Wes McGee of Matter DesignHelix was designed and fabricated for the BSA Space and pinkcomma's 2013 Design Biennial Boston exhibit. The half-scale precast concrete stair stems from the interest in stereotomy that has informed the duo's earlier works such as La Voûte de LeFevre. For simplicity's sake I'm going to default to the project's official text for a basic description:

    "... the piece celebrates its imprac­ti­cal­ity. It is both col­umn and stair, yet hangs from the ceil­ing. Its uncer­tainty and changed scale inject play­ful char­ac­ter­is­tics into the sur­round­ing space, while main­tain­ing an alle­giance to the past and known... The solid, heavy, and vol­u­met­ric action of cast­ing con­crete trans­forms a liq­uid mat­ter into a solid mass that wants to crack. The stair’s rounded, plas­tic, and cur­va­ceous treads reflect the material’s ear­lier liq­uid state. Its twist­ing accel­er­ates as it wraps around the sup­port col­umn, appear­ing to re-plasticize the fig­ure. The entire construct’s organic and mal­leable appear­ance is coun­ter­in­tu­itive in light of the zero-tolerance sys­tem of nest­ing and key­ing from unit to unit."

    Since we (Wes McGee with assistance from yours truly) were handling the initial prototyping at Michigan, there was a very specific scope of work that had to be addressed:

    • Develop and fabricate the molds for casting identical treads.
    • Refine the specs for the concrete mix.
    • Figure out best practices for the pour to minimize air pockets.

    The geometry of the tread was developed in T-Splines to precisely mate with its neighboring pieces in a very specific manner. Since any deviation in the cast geometry from the design geometry could spell big problems for the assembled stair, great care was given to the series of molds that were produced. The design geometry was oriented to provide the necessary draft angles, eliminate areas for air pockets to build, and minimize the visual impact of the seam the two-part mold would produce. Once positioned, the geometry was split into mating halfs. A male of each half was milled in high-density tooling board (aka 'Jolly Rancher') and an offset female of each half was milled in laminated plywood. These two pieces were used to cast a rubber liner for the plywood female, enabling the demolding process once the piece was cast.

    With the first pair of molds complete (above) we next refined the concrete mixtures through a series of test pours. Wes has notable experience with casting concrete from a previous job casting sinks and countertops, and back in my civil engineering days I was a licensed concrete inspector. Between the two of us we're more than comfortable playing with concrete mix ratios and additives. We did a number of test pours (with varying results, of course) to finalize the concrete mix and get the pouring process figured out. A plywood base similar to that which would be used for the final installation was milled, allowing us to mock up the assembly and verify that the pieces would sit properly with each other and the threaded rod that would structurally tie them into the ceiling.

    Once everything was given the green light, we made a couple more pairs of molds that were shipped to Boston. That's when the real work began, with Brandon and his cohort producing an ungodly number of treads at Simp­son Gumpertz & Heger. My involvement with the project dropped off at this point, although I would get occasional progress updates via Wes. I've included images of the fabrication and installation below as they're necessary to tell the whole Helix story, but its not something I can really comment on since I wasn't there for any of it. From what I've been told the installation was fairly straight-forward with no catastrophic failures of the stair or the BSA ceiling. I wasn't able to make it to Boston to attend the opening but I think the images of Helix say plenty regarding the success of the project.

    For me, dealing with none of the design and only the prototyping (all the headache, none of the heartbreak), it was a rewarding project to assist with but not in how I would have expected. Without doubt a Helix is a project indebted to its authors' fluency in 3D modeling software and digital fabrication, but it explores a territory larger (and with greater implications) than its means of production. Its not about T-Splines or 5-axis milling or concrete experimentation, its about an attempt to return to an architecture of solid and an exploration of what that may entail. As I slowly plug away at my 10,000 hours in the FABLab, I've come to understand that these types of projects use the technologies at our disposal in the most sincere manner. Their celebration of said technology is subtle and appropriately understated, employing it as a means rather than an ends. Craft does not equate content, although each relies on the other for its clarity. It's a thread that runs through most, if not all, of Matter Design's work and is perhaps the most valuable take-away from working with Wes and Brandon.

    A slight end note:  I promise I'm not a shill for Matter Design, although I do consider both Wes and Brandon good friends. Yes, all the Fabricated at Michigan posts have been their projects, but these are projects that I've been personally involved, have had access to the documentation for, and are damn sexy. The next installment will highlight some damn sexy work that was made in the FABLab by someone different, so just stay tuned.


    HELIX (2013)

    Bran­don Clif­ford + Wes McGee

    in col­lab­o­ra­tion with:
    Matthew John­son — Simp­son Gumpertz & Heger

    project team:
    Aaron Wil­lette \ Austin Smith \ Christo­pher Miller \ Daniel Clark \ Edrie Ortega \ Eliz­a­beth Galvez \ Enas AlKuh­dairy \ Johanna Lob­dell \ Justin Gal­lagher \ Lina Kara’in \ Luisel Zayas \ Matthew Sher­man \ Patrick Lit­tle \ Rebecca Priebe \ Sixto Cordero

    Fab­ri­ca­tion sup­port by the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan TCAUP FABLab and Simp­son Gumpertz & Heger.
    Mate­r­ial dona­tions by Boston Sand and Gravel (Aggre­gate and Addi­tives), Lehigh North­east Cement Com­pany (Type III Cement), and Head­wa­ters Resources, Inc. (Fly Ash)

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An in-the-trenches view of digital fabrication, academic research, post-hardcore music and whiskey. Not necessarily in that order and often in combination.

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