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Detail machines: generating design at full-scale

Abstract

The pedagogical position of this paper is that making at full-scale is not simply a means to an end, but is actually a powerful design tool that can provide specific feedback distinct from other modes of design inquiry. Particularly at the scale of the detail, the process of enabling the simultaneity of design and construction as a technique can illuminate and reveal the forces of mind and hand working together, embedding tectonic (The word tectonic used here refers to Eduard Sekler’s definition, as that which “…cannot be described by construction and structure alone. For these qualities, which are expressive of a relation of form to force, the term tectonic should be reserved.” This definition is distinguished from a Semperian understanding of tectonics, as pertaining exclusively to the frame and lightweight linear construction.) (Sekler, 1) qualities directly in the work itself. Instead of moving from general to particular; from abstract idea to physical manifestation, we begin with the physically constructed material joint as a generative origin. Detail Machines can facilitate an embodied and haptic mode of learning through making that connects students to materials and techniques of construction through active experimentation. This is in marked contrast to the highly abstract and codified representational tools and exceedingly scenographic techniques typically deployed in architectural design today.

Introduction

In a period of architectural production giddy with the euphoria of hyper-real renderings and computer-generated form, the messy facts of construction- weight, material, weather, touch, and smell- have been supplanted by clean virtuality. Gone are the nuances and inflections of the hand and body leaving indelible traces of time, place, technique, and humanity in the work- the resistance of real material cannot be experienced in the realm of the digital. The prevalence of MDF, polyurethane foam, and plastics as the primary prototyping materials in many digital fabrication labs underscores the desire for virtual materials that respond predictably to computer-controlled machining. It is likely this recognition that fuels the fire in experiential learning and design/build studios throughout the world today. Students are hungry for the directness and physicality of the constructed artifact- made even more cogent as a result of our increased dependence on digital tools and our disconnection from manual ones, and exacerbated by the new norm of social distancing and self-isolation. Several architecture schools, most notably the Rural Studio at Auburn University, and Studio 804 at the University of Kansas, have responded to this rift by embedding the teaching of construction, materials, and technique in a studio environment, where students design something and then construct it themselves. While this exposure to construction can certainly contribute to a better understanding of the complex relationships between the work of the architect and the work of the builder, the process is typically linear– design followed by construction.

I propose to re-situate the interrogation of detail to the beginning of the design process rather than the end. Conventional architectural drawings are eschewed in favor of experimenting directly with materials at full-scale. This might be akin to sketching with material– working with what is at-hand, responding to local conditions, searching for the latent and serendipitous rather than being bound by an abstract set of explicit instructions. My primary interests are in the unexpected behaviors, resistances, tolerances, and serendipitous discoveries that can only be realized through this heuristic technique. The term Detail Machine will be used here to underscore the productive and generative role of these constructed artifacts. The detail machines thus contain the embedded DNA of their own making, and can anticipate future constructions by positing explicit material and intellectual strategies that can be applied across a multitude of situations.

Position

“No money, no details, just concepts.”

The quote above, attributed to Rem Koolhaas, succinctly summarizes a position upheld by many contemporary architects. Concepts are drivers, with details as a means to an end, subjugated to the role of solving problems of form. Details are consequently standardized and generic, often culled from manufacturers websites as digitally constructed technical solutions of proprietary components. Vittorio Gregotti warns about the danger of entrusting the development of details to industry and construction cultures, suggesting that “This might be convenient and economical for the project-maker, but it leads toward an unprecedented decay in architecture.” [2] Exacerbating this ease of appropriating readymade details, 3D modeling programs enable young architects to visualize quickly and accurately, yet with no regard for weight, gravity, or the resistance of materials. Forms magically float in space, taut thin lines stretch endlessly without camber, and complex shapes are created with ease. While our ability to virtually define forms and surfaces quickly with multiple-decimal-point accuracy is increasing exponentially, our intimate knowledge about materials, construction, and assembly has continued to atrophy at an alarming rate. Contributing to this virtual shift is the effortless availability of intoxicating architectural imagery from around the world. We gorge on these images; collecting and creating our own sharable virtual libraries of ethereal architecture, while yearning for the tactile, corporeal, and sensual that only the built can satisfy.

Much like a musical score or a recipe, an architect’s modus operandi is primarily abstract and meant to be interpreted by someone else, a unique combination of words, graphics, and numbers used to accurately fix location and relationships of constituent components – “a set of instructions for realizing a building.” [3] Throughout my own education as an architect, I have been fascinated and perplexed by the high degree of abstraction involved in this understanding. How could someone without experience in the building crafts possibly provide instructions for building? As young architects, we were expected to orchestrate materials, structure, and space that we sadly had no empirical understanding of, with drawings and models as our only tools. In his book Small Buildings, Michael Cadwell laments the lack of meaning in the conventions of plans, sections, and elevations, as he no longer knew what the abstractions stood for, yearning for what he calls “sensual knowledge” that embraces the tactile and the temporal [4]. This dilemma seems to be at the very core of architectural education, particularly in the United States, where our current academic, professional, and legal constructs make very clear distinctions between intent, which is the architects charge, and means and methods, which have been disconnected from the architect and have become the responsibility of the builder. The absurdity of this separation is brought to light by Nader Tehrani in the forward to Michael Cadwell’s book, Strange Details. “How can one not, for instance, differentiate between a cast-in-place concrete wall and a pre-cast one, without simultaneously broaching significant material and philosophical questions? Severing the architect from the means and methods of construction is somewhat like permitting the writer to use a certain vocabulary, but disassociating it from the very alphabet from which the text emerges.” [5] This bifurcation of idea and its subsequent manifestation in architecture is nothing new. Although the rift between draftsmanship and craftsmanship began during the Renaissance, the digital age has served to make the separation even more pronounced. In his opening address upon being appointed Chair of the architecture department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1985, Rafael Moneo laments this rift. "The intimacy between architecture and construction has been broken. This intimacy was once the very nature of the architectural work and somehow was always manifested in its appearance…and to be an architect, therefore, has traditionally implied being a builder; that is, explaining to others how to build. The knowledge (when not the mastery) of building techniques was always implicit in the idea of producing architecture. The knowledge of construction principles should be so thorough as to allow the architect the formal invention that always precedes the fact of the construction itself…Architects in the past were both architects and builders. Before the present disassociation, the invention of form was the invention of its construction. One implied the other." [6] As a result of these fractures, many architects have been marginalized as image-makers, steadily losing control of the increasingly complex outcomes of the design and construction process. The rich dialogue between intentions, materials, techniques, and form has been lamentably obscured in the contemporary education of an architect. Architects must somehow increase their embodied understanding of the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of materials and processes if we intend to orchestrate them – through architecture – in a meaningful and critical manner.

Vittorio Gregotti summarizes contemporary attitudes about construction by positing that “Gothic architects transformed materials into architectural facts—we assemble products.” [2] If we accept this assertion, then it follows that the joint between these materials and products might be one of the few opportunities to embed meaning in the work of contemporary architecture. Marco Frascari’s seminal work, the Tell-the-Tale Detail, describes how architectural details can be understood “as the minimal units of signification in the architectural production of meanings. [7] Ed Ford, in his book, The Architectural Detail, amplifies these positions by suggesting that “The good detail is not the part from which the whole is generated, not the idea of the whole carried into the part, not the consistent application of a set of principles, not the paradigm for the totality of the building … At its best, it is an autonomous activity, and, at times, even subversive.” [8]

An alternative approach to the education of an architect might begin with a close-grained interrogation of the detail at full-scale, using the transitive power of iterative prototyping as a design tool. The fertile gap between the abstraction of drawing and the constructed outcome has been neglected as a source of inspiration and meaning. A robust period of material and assembly explorations, full-scale prototyping, testing for fit, all combined with simultaneous refinements, modifications, and immediate feedback constitute a significant part of a holistic and empathetic design process that has somehow disappeared in the work of most architects.

Material

“My sister-in-law’s daughter sent those clothes down here and told me to give them away, but didn’t nobody want them. That knit stuff, clothes from way back yonder, don’t nobody wear no more, and the pants was all bell- bottom. We ain’t that out-of-style down here. I was going to take them to the Salvation Army but didn’t have no way to get there, so I just made quilts out of them.”

Mary Lee Bendolph

Mary Lee Bendolph [9] is one of a small group of women in rural Alabama that have achieved international attention through their bold and innovative use of scrap material. The quilts of Gee’s Bend challenge conventional textile techniques and composition, and are fabricated with a technique of construction that utilizes small strips of fabric sewn together in a non-regular pattern. Scraps of material are often used in their entirety as found, and assembled simultaneous to the emerging design. This is in stark contrast to traditional quilts that follow strict patterns, utilizing material that is consistently deployed through color, texture, and size. Both forms of quilt making rely on a social construction that values communal authorship and the presence of a process or framework for design (Fig. 1). The quilts also embody sustainable attitudes, with varying degrees of allegiance to the source material. This notion of working together, and using leftovers, or industrial detritus, is at the heart of the detail machine projects.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Gee’s Bend quilt on left, with community quilting in center, and traditional Amish quilt on right

Stan Allen addresses this unique method of working within a framework of constraints as field conditions. “Field conditions move from the one toward the many: from individuals to collectives, from objects to fields. The term itself plays on a double meaning. Architects work not only in the office or studio but in the field: on site, in contact with the fabric of architecture. “Field conditions” here implies the acceptance of the real in all its messiness and unpredictability. It implicates architects in a material improvisation conducted on site in real time. Field conditions treat constraints as opportunity. Working with and not against the site, something new is produced by registering the complexity of the given.” [2] This recognition of working within a context, with what is given, clearly resists the abstractions and assumptions involved in treating each design as a tabula rasa. Much like the quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend, the students begin their detail investigations with discarded manufactured objects as a primary source for the detail machines. Instead of implementing new and emerging materials and technologies for form-making and manufacturing, we instead focus on evaluating the incredible array of waste and embodied energy resulting from such practices, searching for inspiration in piles of leftover stone, wood, metals, and other discarded manufactured products (Fig. 2). This distinction of source material is critical to the learning outcomes of the students, as they carefully examine and experiment with the actual physical properties of the materials at-hand, rather than relying on abstract or pictorial representations of the objects.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Discarded industrial detritus: Piano hammers, telephone components, metal cut-offs, rejected tiles, stone profile cut-offs, and 100-year-old salvaged wood joists

Using what’s available locally also connects sustainable thinking to regionalism, an architectural idea that parallels the cultural-gastronomic-agricultural-economic term terroir, a French word used to denote the special characteristics in wine or food that a particular geography bestowed upon them. Terroir can be very loosely translated as a sense of place which arises from the land itself and is embodied in certain qualities of the product. These qualities result from aspects of technique as well as effects that the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product. For example, the identity of Cincinnati, Ohio has long been tied to processes of transforming waste into something useful. Proctor and Gamble started as candle and soap makers, exploiting the waste product from the meat packing industries of the “Queen City” of the West. This symbiotic relationship between manufacturer and waste was an early model of sustainability, and has roots in the can-do attitude and straightforward work ethic of the Midwest (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
figure 3

A regional inventory map identifying resources for industrial by-products

Process

The detail machines typically begin as a jump-start to a studio project, enabling students to understand that the conventional hierarchies and linear habits of design (site, then building, then detail), can be recast as a simultaneous investigation across several scales. Students gather materials and components, and a slow period of playful yet rigorous experimentation begins. The design and construction of the work is intended to be simultaneous, creating a feedback loop; a unique phenomenon of learning through making. Starting with manufactured objects with high embodied energy necessitates a suspension of disbelief, as students are asked to see the material for what it is, and to posit new possibilities for alternative contexts. This involves an intentional undermining of origins to reveal latent potential, and a deep investment and analysis into understanding properties of the materials and components at-hand. This requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, as students are accustomed to working in a linear fashion, from idea to thing. Sheila Kennedy’s book, Material Mis-use was a provocation to re-examine industrial detritus as a rich resource for our work.

“The inspiration for our design begins with the discovery of what could be termed a catachrestic use of post-industrial materials. This involves a careful account of the specific physical properties of the material, combined with an amnesia with regard to its standardized applications and a willingness to invent new uses for it. Such new uses are, in fact, both a 'misuse' of the material and a radical demonstration of its fullest use. Although it has become fashionable today to speak of 'new' materials, it is important to look again at materials that seem to be already known. The antagonism between 'new' and 'old' materials, or between 'high' and 'low' technologies of production, may be dispelled through strategies that deliberately mis-use materials as a form of political action in architecture. This reflects a practice that both accepts the economy of the standardized conditions of building materials as products, and deliberately seeks to exceed them.” [10]

Risk and failure during the iterative process of making the detail machines are essential, as no real innovation can happen without them. David Pye, an architecturally trained woodworker from the U.K., illuminates the significance of risk pertaining to craft, suggesting that the workmanship of risk is “…workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on judgement, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works.” This is distinct from what Pye deems the workmanship of certainty, which is embodied in industrial production where the outcomes are predictable and predetermined [11]. The discoveries made in the iterative process are among the most enlightening, as happy accidents often move the designs in unexpected directions.

The detail machine

The studio exercises are structured to work with the simplest processes and materials– wood, steel, paper, plastics, etc. are subject to operations like burning, bending, sanding, and cutting. These experiments yield assemblies that are worked, studied, hacked, coveted, set aside, and re-worked as the students search for serendipitous discoveries. Drawings and digital modeling are delayed as students manipulate materials and connections directly, feeling weight, tension, fragility, tolerances, and resistance with their own bodies, often for the first time (Fig. 4). Individual students begin these open-ended investigations using found objects, cycling through rather loose and intuitive responses to the materials, slowly gaining traction and direction after several iterations. While the details have no particular use or function at this point, students examine the artifacts closely, searching for tectonic positions that can be further developed and implemented in other situations. In this image (Fig. 5) a series of rigid steel angles were connected with a weaving technique to produce a flexible joint capable of multiple configurations. A kinetic joint was the focus of another detail machine, as students worked to create moving joints using found materials (brake drum, conveyer belt links, worm screws), and custom fabricated connectors with wood and brass (Fig. 6).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Students created custom jigs to forge and bend steel. Several iterations of bent steel of varying thicknesses were tested to discover potential applications, some of which were ultimately applied in the design of an exhibition wall and bench

Fig. 5
figure 5

Detail study showing flexible joints made with wire and steel angle brackets

Fig. 6
figure 6

Kinetic joints

The resulting work could not have been conceived of abstractly and are the results of real-time decisions made at full-scale with actual materials. The students eventually pair off and work in small groups, and through open and regular discussion during studio, begin to gravitate toward a use or application for the details. The work at this juncture depends on both improvisation and empathy, as the students develop families of details that require a high degree of dialogue with each other. Students must look, feel, listen, yield, and respond with varying degrees of individual and collective voices to create work that is coherent as a group composition. This is simply a trial-and-error process, where repertoires of detailed moments emerge from the accumulated stock of experiments, and slowly congeal into recognizable positions (Fig. 7). Former student Shanna Siddell suggests that “"beginning a project with actual materials and investigating modes of constructing developed a collective agility in the studio as we responded to and probed the qualities of found items and their physical compositions. Having a more organic design process that focused on material realities sharpened our instincts as designers of sensory experiences rather than simply as form and image makers."[12]

Fig. 7
figure 7

Aggregated group material and detail explorations dubbed the “cabinet of curiosities”

Subsequent applications for the emerging details are often constructed around the idea of an armature and spatial enclosure, explicitly addressing contemporary construction techniques of frame and skin. For the Louder than a Bomb project, students experimented with materials that had a connection to the Cincinnati, Ohio region with a focus on poetry and rhythm for a national poetry competition held in the city. Book pages and salvaged railroad ties were used as raw material, processed through a series of moves involving crumpling, binding, sewing, slicing, and book-matching. The book pages were sewn together in rows to create a backlit screen with stained glass qualities and beautifully crafted sewing patterns (Fig. 8). The book pages were also used to create a two-sided spatial enclosure with a soft crumpled paper interior surface and crisp folded paper layers on the outside of the armature. The layers were clipped together and threaded to a steel tube and panelized rod frame (Fig. 9). Decaying salvaged railroad ties were cut into thin strips and then book-matched and stitched together with a contrasting white cord, then suspended from a delicate steel frame armature with modified binder clips (Fig. 10).

Fig. 8
figure 8

Quilted book page screen

Fig. 9
figure 9

Crumpled, folded and clipped book pages

Fig. 10
figure 10

Decayed and salvaged railroad-tie slices, book-matched & stitched together on armature

For the Holz und Stein project, students constructed armatures of details that were inspired by an 8-week trip to Europe, capturing the detail and material sensibilities of specific regions. The Italian machine was fabricated from scrap materials from the Midwest, including leather, steel straps, bronze bearings and stone profiles to articulate a language of explicit and exaggerated connections between materials. On the other hand, the Swiss Machine addressed a precise and minimal joinery, predominantly constructed with wood, and utilizing a variety of concealed steel and aluminum fasteners and tensioning members (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11
figure 11

Left, Italy detail machine. Right, Swiss detail machine

The following project, titled Alchemy, demonstrates the simple philosophical position of transmuting base matter into gold, spanning two semesters of graduate studios and two separate events more than 4,500 miles apart. The pavilion was originally conceived to represent the University of Cincinnati at the inaugural “Exhibit Columbus” biannual architecture event held in Columbus, Indiana. From the Exhibit Columbus prompt: "These projects should represent the state of architectural education as well as speculate on possible trajectories of the discipline. These temporary installations have the potential to be a catalyst for changing the way we design and build in the Midwest, enhancing partnerships between designers and manufacturers, and expanding design literacy through education. The installations are intended to provide a heightened awareness of each university’s unique design pedagogy and curriculum” (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12
figure 12

Alchemy pavilion in Venice

A double-curved steel armature was created to hold thousands of multi-colored tiles, discarded and destined to be purposefully broken by the tile company because of subtle manufacturing defects. Due to the wide variety of color, texture, and size of the tiles, several strategies for arranging them on the armature were explored. Clips to secure the tiles were fashioned from custom-bent copper profiles holding the bottom of the tiles to the armature, and after several iterations utilizing bent stainless-steel fasteners, extruded aluminum clips were ultimately created to hold the tops of the tiles. The plain white back of the ceramic tile surfaces, imprinted with the tile company logo, defined the exterior surface of the volume (Fig. 13), while the interior glazed and colored tiles were arrayed with a gradient from warm to cool colors, creating a stark contrast between outside and inside: monochromatic and polychromatic (Fig. 14).

Fig. 13
figure 13

The white back of the tile on the exterior of the armature, held with custom bent copper clips

Fig. 14
figure 14

Warm to cool gradient at the perimeters of the tile field

Students also developed an undulating stacked and embossed wood wall to frame the pavilion. The wood joists were salvaged from a 100-year-old abandoned church in Cincinnati, and then embossed with tangram shapes created by schoolchildren during a series of workshops in Columbus, Indiana. Our students designed and crafted a custom-made steel press to emboss the wood with the patterns (Fig. 15). The wood surfaces were then sanded, leaving the dark ghost of the imprint intact (Fig. 16). Flexible joints to connect the joists to each other were created from some of the same copper profiles used to emboss the wood. The initial joints used simple wire staples that were readily available, which eventually evolved into a composition of finely crafted and machined parts utilizing one particular shape of the residual copper profiles as the connecting joint (Fig. 17).The entire pavilion was constructed primarily from industrial detritus, and all of the details involved an intentional mis-use and re-appropriation of artifacts. The pavilion was exhibited in Venice, Italy during the 2018 Venice Biennale (Fig. 18).

Fig. 15
figure 15

Students worked with local school children to create and press tangrams from copper cut-offs

Fig. 16
figure 16

Embossed undulating wood wall with flexible joints

Fig. 17
figure 17

Initial (left), and final iterations of flexible joints connecting wood joists using copper profiles leftover from electrical component production

Fig. 18
figure 18

Alchemy interior with rejected colored tiles and custom extruded aluminum top clips

Conclusions

At the core of the pedagogy of Detail Machines is the notion of direct material experimentation as a form of research, placing importance on what is often either taken for granted, or overlooked completely in the design process—the dense corpus of physical work that precedes what is ultimately just a moment, frozen in time. The artist Sol LeWitt suggested that "All intervening steps – scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations – are of interest. Those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product." [13] Designing at full-scale eliminates the hard distinctions between the architect and builder, the abstract and the physical, and embraces context and constraints as opportunities, confirming making as a substantive design tool. Clive Dilnot, in his talk on the ethics of design to students at Archeworks in Chicago, contends that "Essentially design is nothing else but the encounter with given realities (actualities, situations, circumstances, conditions, or experiences) in terms of their transformative possibilities and potentialities. Design opens up these possibilities through initiating a process of negotiation with the given which extends the boundaries of the previously possible." [14] This position stands as an antidote to the current trends toward image, abstraction, and the virtual that predominate architectural education. The students invariably come away with an expanded and more holistic understanding of the stuff that they had only previously represented: “The process of designing and building at full-scale has transformed my understanding of architecture. Now when I design, I can’t draw two materials next to one another without thinking about how they will meet. Thinking about design in this way has unlocked my perspective from zoom extents, forcing me to consider questions of material, assembly, and weathering, alongside questions of site, programming, and form.” [15] Detail Machines offer a modest paradigm for the introduction of thinking and making into any curriculum, and by focusing on the immediacy at the scale of the detail, is a technique that fosters embodied making without the need for large-scale construction infrastructure.

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Boling, T. Detail machines: generating design at full-scale. Archit. Struct. Constr. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s44150-022-00039-8

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Keywords

  • Detail
  • Pedagogy
  • Design/Build
  • Making
  • Tectonic