Monday, 7 May 2012

Manufacturing the Bespoke

Bob Sheil, Bartlett Director of Technology & Computing, has edited a new book of essays from international architects and academics. ‘Manufacturing the bespoke’, celebrates latest processes of architect self-building, laying claim to new emerging practice in which the immediacy of building is fundamental to securing the future role of the architect. For Sheil’s we are at an ‘event horizon’ in which new digital tools have extended the creative process within construction and enabled more reflection, fine tuning and testing by architects before delivery of the best possible design.

Many of the examples in the book, such as work by Sixteen* makers, Nat Chard, Phil Ayres and Philip Beesley use the latest fabrication techniques to make work, principally, for gallery exhibition. Adopting tactics and techniques championed by artists interested in ready-mades, initiated by Marcel Duchamp in 1913 with ‘Bicycle Wheel’, a wheel and stool assemblage. Early manufactured craft is also found in the strange readymade post-war hybrids made my enthusiastic amateurs from decommissioned military hardware. Later examples, include adaptations by furniture designers Ron Arad 1981 ‘Rover’ chair and Mark Newson 1986  ‘Lockheed Lounge’, both use manufacturing processes to design and assemble limited edition furniture from industrial components.

For architects, as Reyner Banham said, reflecting in the Architectural Review in 1960 on the modernists sincere flattery of technology, “a trend that has been with us since the beginning of the century; the marriage of the logical objectivity of abstract aesthetics to the experimental objectivity of advanced science. It goes back to Perret, it also has roots in de Stijl and Constructivisim, In the guise of the ‘logical formalism’ of Mies van der Rohe it has served the important function of easing the acceptance of curtain walling and other additive prefabricating systems as ‘architecture’ in a sense that can be assimilated to the lore of the operation.” For Banham, technology will naturally lead architects to examine and reassess all building components as a means to maintain authorship.

Design authorship is questioned by Stephen Gage: “The introduction of an auto-bespoke approach to architecture will inevitably diminish the role of the individual designers and craftsmen, who will always seek to mould the world according to their own particular vision. This applies whether the procedure of replicating given forms is mechanical or whether it is done by hand. In the 15th to 19th centuries (and indeed much of the 20th century), all the repeats and modifications of pre-existing ideas were drawn by hand by poorly paid draughtsmen and then either made by machine or by hand by poorly paid craftsmen.’ Gage who does not seem to lament the demise in craft and skilled workers sees benefits in ‘the goal of today’s researchers in the technical and formal field is to be able to move directly from the model to fabrication. “Auto-bespoke architecture, like auto-bespoke suit production, offers the possibility of reducing design-thinking time and therefore cost.” For Gage, technology will counter the possible loss of authorship in this self-build process and offer a “digital thumbprint of the designer observable in the work”. 

Similarly, the self-building students at the Auburn University Rural Studio are offered by Sheil as an example of a new way of practice in which architects design as they build. Here complex geometries is achieved by shear numbers of spatially aware architecture students who emulate the digital manufacturing techniques by building what they draw and follow the guiding principle of Samuel Mockbee, the Rural Studio founder. Anderson Inge writes of Mockbee who “recognised knowledge and professional training in architecture as a form of wealth that could be shared to positively influence the quality of life for people and communities that were impoverished. His focus was almost exclusively on the goal of connecting the architect-in-training with a ‘client’ who quite simply needed fundamental help, help with homes or community buildings.” Inge misses one of the key advantages in this relationship of immediacy to building and that is the architect’s tendency and skill to simplify the construction in order to facilitate it. There has to be a reliance on simple labour intensive methods of construction using screw-fix fasteners, how else does one capitalise on using so many students to build? This reiterative process of building to simplify building is key as it distinguishes Rural Studio self-build from that practiced by sixteen* makers where fabrication from computer facilitates complexity. Both can be repeated and replicated and reassuringly, neither can be mass-produced. You only need to recognise the design investment of 75,000 drawings needed to assemble six million components to build the first of 1,200 Boeing 747s to realise how far from manufacturing architects remain. 

Sheil should be credited with revealing the inherent contradiction in digital technology. It is possibly the last uncharted frontier of architectural evolution, offering either a place of refuge for a dying profession or new opportunities for a profession just getting into it’s stride in which architects are sole authors of making and have capacity to offer design and build services. However, one only has to look at the application of technology in manufacturing, traditionally to de-skill production and transfer authorship from local craft to global conglomerate. This either points to a future in which mega-size architect practices compete for global design blueprints maybe in the vain of earlier mass housing derivatives championed by Jean ProuvĂ©’s La Maison Tropicale or Eric Lyons Span House Developments. Or, a future of universal emancipation in which technology facilities a transfer of the methods of production to the proletariat who not so much as seize the socialised means of production, but are ‘gifted’ it. A point pre-empted by Frederick Engels in his 1877 manifesto, at which “Man, at last the master of his own form of social organisation, becomes at the same time the lord over Nature, his own master – free.”

(A printed version of this is available in Blueprint Magazine issue 315)

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