Broadening Horizons in
by Joel Nolan
In his trip to South America, Bruce Chatwin, acclaimed British travel writer, encountered Maria Reiche, a German archeologist walking the desert carrying an aluminum ladder on her shoulder. She was there studying the Nazca Lines, a series of ancient geoglyphs located in the Nazca Desert in Southern Peru. From her viewpoint standing on the ground the stones made no sense, appearing more like random clusters of gravel strewn across the desolate landscape. However, from the height of the stair those stones took shape and suddenly became a bird, a jaguar, a tree or a flower.
This year the 15th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, Italy would like to offer a new point of view, much like the one Maria Reiche had from atop the ladder. Given the complexity and variety of challenges that architecture must respond to, the biennale, titled Reporting from the Front, will be about listening to those that were able to gain some perspective and consequently are in the position to share knowledge and experiences with those of us standing on the ground. The advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life. Given that life ranges from very basic physical needs to the most intangible dimensions of the human condition, consequently, improving the quality of the built environment is an endeavor that has to tackle many fronts: from guaranteeing very concrete, down-to-earth living standards to interpreting and fulfilling human desires, from respecting the single individual to taking care of the common good, from efficiently hosting daily activities to expanding the frontiers of civilization.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, titled The Armadillo Vault, works to capitalize on the recent interest architects and designers have shown in contemporary applications of masonry by utilizing an ancient construction resource and methodology implemented through the use of computational and digital fabrication. The limestone vault is the result of a collaborative effort between the engineering firm Ochsendorf, DeJong & Block (ODB), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Escobedo Construction out of Austin, Texas. ODB’s focus is engineering consultancy with expertise in the assessment of historic masonry structures. Through their work they aspire to evaluate and preserve existing masonry structures and to provide designs which reinvent masonry construction, making it economical, sustainable, and relevant in current building culture. Masonry can be seen as an antiquated construction approach, so ODB has elevated their design method through the exploration of innovative fabrication technologies. Their partner, Escobedo Construction, has found a niche market by combining traditional chisel and pointing knowledge and skills with the precision and dexterity achieved through the use of a digitally controlled five-axis masonry router, the only one of its kind in Texas and one of three currently being used in the United States.
The Armadillo Vault’s 399 individually cut stones, unreinforced and without mortar, embody the beauty and elegance of historic masonry structures held together through the use of uncomplicated compressive forces. However, unlike those historic archetypes, the complex geometry produced in this instance created a considerable challenge to the group, for the engineers as well as the fabrication team. Through the use of digital fabrication the team was able to better understand the flow of compressive forces in three dimensions, therefore eliminating excess steel, conserving natural resources, and showing how humble materials like earth and stone can be reimagined for the future. The vault spans 52.5 feet with a minimum thickness of only 2 inches, utilizing tension ties to balance the form and funicular geometry to allow the vault to stand in pure compression. Each stone is informed by structural logic, by the need for precise fabrication and assembly, by the hard constraints of a historically protected setting in the Biennale’s Corderie dell’Arsenale, as well as by tight limitations on time, budget, and construction. To simplify the fabrication process and avoid the need to flip the stones during cutting, the limestone wedges are planar and smooth on the exterior while their interior sides are marked by a series of grooves resulting from initial rough cutting. Rather than mill these surfaces away, they remain as an expressive feature, aligned with purpose to serve as visual reminders of the flow of forces. After its initial fabrication and assembly by Escobedo Construction in Texas, the vault was carefully measured and marked, disassembled and shipped to Venice, where the same team of master stonemasons reassembled it on site over two-week timeframe. Like an intricate 3D puzzle, it could be deconstructed and built again at future locations. The final result is the most complex stone vault to have been built in generations.
Buildings are made from a complex series of parts, their assembly relying on techniques of manipulating and assembling a wide variety of materials that must respond to each other and their unique environments. The subtle variation of a system of components, the alteration of discernible materials, and the instinctual response to viewing the result of intensive material accumulation have been digitally redefined into a vocabulary by which architectural language is transformed. Now, in a world of computational design, architects are able to pursue new frontiers where architectural design can be generated through the writing of algorithms and modifying software, where interactive physical mechanisms can be built that respond to their environment, adapting and evolving as necessary. Decisions as to which type of machine and method to use must combine design intent with machine capabilities. It has now become necessary for digitally astute architects to understand how these tools work, what materials they are best suited for, and where in the tooling process the possibilities lie. Along these lines, architects have begun to combine form and process and revisit tectonic systems as a means to produce material effect. They seek to elevate standard building materials perceptually through nonstandard fabrication processes. Surfaces form buildings, and they can do so through smooth, undifferentiated expanses, or they can be constructed, textured, assembled, patterned, ornamented, or otherwise articulated. Digital fabrication opens onto a sea of possibilities. Punching, laser cutting, water-jet cutting, CNC routing, and die cutting are just some of the automated processes fueling this design domain.