Buchtipp: Beyond Bending, Tragkonstruktionen neu denken
Only available in English.
In the last several years the use of new technological advances in architectural design and engineering has shifted away from mere virtuosity or form finding for the sake of complexity and towards the application of technologically-driven research in the real world, constrained by pertinent issues such as the availability of resources. Emerging from the proverbial ‘dust’ of the divisive 2016 Venice Biennale exhibition “Reporting from the Front” curated by architect Alejandro Aravena, the book Beyond Bending: reimagining compression by Philippe Block, Tom Van Mele, Matthias Lippmann and Noelle Paulson provides potential pathways for this shift to evolve down through the realization of innovative architectural design and engineering projects. These projects were exhibited at the 2016 Venice Biennale in the Corderie dell’Arsenale, the main centerpiece of which was the limestone freeform Armadillo Vault. The works take an ambitious and optimistic approach to applied design research, aiming to demonstrate that innovation can come from a very simple act of looking backwards (at the past, in particular Guastavino vaulting and the King’s College Chapel), and what is already in front of you (at simple yet plentiful resources, notably brick and stone), in order to move forwards. Effectively, the argument is how to do more, with less – in terms of material, labor and cost – but in a way that is informed by precedent rather than distanced from it.
The book takes the form of a monograph that includes the outcomes of research that was developed over the course of a decade between the team that exhibited at the Biennale: the Block Research Group at ETH Zurich, the engineering consultancy of Ochsendorf Delong & Block and the masonry masters of the Escobedo Group. The research begins with a singular and challenging question: what if reinforced concrete slabs are designed to work in compression rather than in bending as they are typically? The consequences of this proposition are manifold and exponential, as the reader discovers throughout the book. In order to delve into the possible answers to this question, the book is split into two major sections. Following introductory pieces by Aravena and John Ochsendorf, the first section takes the form of a series of four essays titled after aspects of the exhibition itself: “Beyond the Slab I – Building with Weak Material”, “Beyond the Slab II – Building with Less Material”, “Beyond the Dome – Exploring Form and Forces” and “Beyond Freeform – Extending Stereotomy”. The second section “The Making of the Armadillo Vault” is comprised of three conversations framed around particular issues. Each conversation is also between different parts of the team for the project, titled “Form and Structure – Engineering the Extreme” – a conversation with Ochsendorf Delong & Block, “Stereotomy and Fabrication – Informing Geometry” – a conversation with the Block Research Group, and “Construction and Assembly – Balancing Craft and Machine” – a conversation with the Escobedo Group. Photographs of the built prototypes themselves as well as the associated design research drawings are included throughout the book. Architect Gilles Retsin provides an apt commentary in the afterword on the value of a research-driven practice.
The essays and conversations demonstrate the progression of the main research question. Primarily this is through an interrogation of archetypes of the past such as double-curved masonry thin-tile vaulting, here reinforced only with tension ties in the pieces of work included in the first two essays, to the geometric potentials that computation enables for compression-only domes on a circular space, to the compression-only freeform structure of the Armadillo Vault. This is a story of letting go of bending, but also, as a result, a story of letting go of reinforcement (or having faith in this process). Finally, it is a story of letting materials be, to paraphrase Louis Kahn, better than they have been.
The first two essays looked at using ‘weak’ or ‘humble’ materials such as locally-available soil in the designs of the Mapungubewe Interpretative Centre in South Africa, the Sustainable Urban Dwelling Unit (SUDU) in Ethiopia, and a prototype for the Droneport project by the Norman Foster Foundation and EPFL/Redline (the last piece also exhibited at the same biennale). In the third essay, sand comes into play as a 3D printing material for a compression-only floor system. As the researchers discover, utilizing these materials and techniques would save huge amounts of cost in both materials: up to 90% in some cases with soil and 70% material saved with the 3D printed sand prototype. The consequences for this is in terms of the savings therefore reduces the impact on the environment, the amount of human labor necessary and the amount of time needed to execute the construction and assembly of buildings. It is in the fourth essay and in the second second section of the book that the theses presented in the first section are synthesized in the Armadillo Vault. The reader engages with the project first through the technical description of the process in regards to various challenges - geometrically, materiality, structurally in terms of design, fabrication and assembly. Following each short essay on these topics the project is expanded upon through the first-person narrative experience of the team in various conversations. While an interesting means of giving access to the project – the conversational tone means one literally feels their anxieties, stresses and accomplishments – it does mean that there is a degree of repetition through these conversations that becomes – to use a ‘technical’ term – redundant. The Armadillo Vault is a great accomplishment that symbolises a possible future for architecture and engineering, the book could have benefitted from a more nuanced approach describing the experience of the project itself, instead perhaps speculating on its impact on a larger scale or in a different context. However, regardless of these criticisms, the innovations presented in this book can be summarized through the significant contributions they make to a more ethical and responsible approach to design in the 21st century.
It is a shame that despite the quality of the work being of the highest professional and academic standard, there wasn’t more resources put into the physical book itself – the content is worthy of a higher-quality publication rather than the dissertation-esque bind with low gsm paper. This may have been due to the turnaround from the closure of the exhibition in November 2016 to the print date in October 2017. One can also assume this is the case as the newest content for the book is the conversations. But one could argue that it is much more important to get a book like this out into the world quickly – representative of the nature of the timeline of the projects within it – rather than to let the work stagnate in the processes of editorial production.
As such, the honesty that the book espouses is plentiful (sometimes to a fault), and this isn’t just a reference to the materials used in the projects within it, nor the above comment regarding publication quality. From the unpretentious and not overly technical language used throughout the book to the interviews where various authors of the books and the projects discuss the challenges they faced and fears they had, Beyond Bending stays consistent in its ability to convey the difficulty of achieving such projects and the importance of a unified team. This is to some degree due to the nature of the projects themselves being for a public exhibition and thus not constrained by capital in the asme way that applying the research in a different or more macro context would, but it also says speaks for the team involved. If the future of architecture and engineering is inter- and cross-disciplinary research-driven collaborations of this nature, where outcomes may have a long gestation period but huge impact upon delivery, the work in Beyond Bending speaks honestly about working hard to develop, nurture and then protect those collaborations over the course of many years before having the chance to brilliantly execute them through building. Now more than ever, in a world which is becoming more and more compromised due to the exploitation of available resources due to high energy demands and energy outputs by the built environment, the kind of work produced for the Beyond Bending exhibition, and the eponymous book the subject of this review, is of utmost importance.