Digital Structures and Material Distribution

This course explores the role of computational structural analysis and form finding methods in design and fabrication problems. Such techniques can offer hints on how to assemble and distribute materials in a structurally consistent way with implications in the geometric, aesthetic and tectonic expression of the structure.

In a series of experiments, students will be asked to re-interpret and materialize digital structural models. These methods enable a high level of control over material behavior provided the designer has a good understanding of the underlying principles.

The concept of optimization is both relevant and misleading in this context. It is operational at the level of abstraction of the digital model but becomes problematic within the wider design problematic. This is partly because digital models are imperfect approximations of reality and partly because for real world problems the optimal is multiple. In any case the transition from the model to the material artefact is not straightforward and requires design intuition and interpretation.

Therefore the aim of the course is to explore the role of the designer in the creative interpretation of such quasi-optimal outcomes and at the same time speculate about how the engagement with such methods can alter the intuitive understanding of the problem of structure within a design context.
The theme this year is compliance gradients and primarily how can architects start to think about the differentiation in flexibility and rigidity within a structural system as well as how structural behavior is given expression. Traditionally we have thought of buildings as minimum compliance structures characterized by a high degree of rigidity. We have also thought of mechanical and kinetic architecture as objects made out of mostly frictionless hinges. This binary conceptualization of material assemblies is reflected in the two disciplines of structural engineering and mechanical engineering. However the increased use of buckling and nonlinear deformations in structures opens up the space of solution where rigidity and flexibility are managed and distributed throughout the structure. New analysis, design and fabrication techniques allow us to think of the problem of rigidity not within the binary system of the rigid part and the frictionless joint but rather through compliant and flexible mechanism as a gradient of controlled and intentional deformations. In that sense the compliance of the structure, the way it responds and deforms under different loads and the way it resists such deformations can become an object of design.

Students can work in teams and they will be encouraged to create both digital and physical models. The course is structured as a series of workshops / experiments combining computational tools for structural optimization that will be introduced and developed specifically for the class along with digital fabrication techniques.