Return of the Brick Swarm

A short video has been released documenting the brick swarm project mentioned here last month, in which Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler deploy semi-autonomous flying robots to assemble a structure of foam bricks. However, it’s as if the architects underestimate the interest of their own work, fast-forwarding through the bulk of the assembly process as if no one would want to watch such a thing (or perhaps their robots were less graceful than originally hoped). Either way, check out the results, embedded above.

(Thanks to phenrydelphia for the tip!)

Brick Swarm

[Image: From “Flight Assembled Architecture” by Gramazio & Kohler].

Semi-autonomous flying robots programmed by Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler “will lift, transport and assemble 1500 polystyrene foam bricks” next month—starting 2 December 2011—at the FRAC Center in France. The result, they hope, will be a “3.5 meter wide structure.”

[Image: From “Flight Assembled Architecture” by Gramazio & Kohler].

According to the architects, this will serve as an experimental test-run for the construction of a hypothetical future megastructure—presumably requiring full-scale, autonomous, GPS-stabilized helicopters. However, I’d think that even a small insectile swarm of robot bricklayers piecing together a new low-rise condominium somewhere—its walls slowly materializing out of a cloud of rotors and drones—would be just as compelling.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Flying Robotic Construction Cloud and Robotism, or: The Golden Arm of Architecture).

The Robot and the Architect are Friends

[Image: The architect and his construction robots by Villemard].

In 1910, French artist Villemard produced a series of illustrations depicting what life might be like in the year 2000, including an architect and his robotic construction crew.

In an article published last summer in Icon, called “The Robot and the Architect are Friends,” Will Wiles wrote that Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler “have a vision: architecture using robotics to take command of all aspects of construction. Liberated from the sidelines, the profession would be freed to unleash all its creative potential—all thanks to its obedient servants, the robots. But first, architects must learn the robots’ language.”

[Image: Courtesy of Icon].

It all sounds deceptively easy at first: the architects have merely to program their robotic arm “to pick up a brick and place it, and then to repeat the process with variations. When this program runs, the result is a wall.”

The machine itself moves with the clipped grace we associate with robotics, performing neat, discrete actions that contain within them an assortment of fluid swivels and turns. These quick-slow, deliberate movements are hypnotic. It’s beautiful to watch but, because it moves in a way that looks animal while being unlike anything we know in nature, there’s something in it that’s inescapably unnerving.

Given multiple robots, sufficient bricks, complex instructions, and enough time, “extraordinary forms” can result, patterned and pixellated, brick-by-brick.

[Image: “Pike Loop” (2009) by Gramazio & Kohler].

“Considering the revolutionary potential of their work,” Wiles writes, “you might expect a note of utopian zeal from the pair.” He quickly adds, on the other hand, that, “if you want dazzling Wellsian predictions, delivered with glittering eyes, of future armies of architect-controlled mechanoids transforming the world, you’ve come to the wrong place.” Gramazio & Kohler’s vision is, instead, “understated, modest, [and] reasonable.”

Nonetheless, some combination of Villemardian enthusiasm—airborne tennis!—with rigorous architectural robotics, and perhaps even with emerging new brick designs and a new generation of 3D printers, is an enticing vision to pursue for the future of building construction.

(Villemard image originally seen via Selectism, thanks to a tip from Jon Bucholtz. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Flying Robotic Construction Cloud).

The Blobwall and the Bomb

[Image: Operation Sailor Hat, before detonation, via Wikipedia].

It’s a house, it’s a ziggurat, it’s… 500 tons of TNT stacked in a dome on the Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe. A later test-detonation of these architecturally arranged fissile materials left a huge, still-extent crater that “currently contains unique sub-species of shrimp” that have “evolved to survive the hypersaline conditions” in the artificially excavated hole.

Bringing to mind Greg Lynn’s Blobwall—amorphous and multicolored plastic “bricks” whose puzzle-like stacking produced (unfortunately quite garish) enclosures—or even Gramazio & Kohler’s robot-built wall in New York City, Pike Loop, the dome implies a kind of militarized vernacular through which new, functional architectures can be constructed.

20th-century prefab modularity by way of well-placed bricks of TNT.

[Image: Greg Lynn’s Blobwall, on display at SCI-Arc].

But perhaps someday we’ll see autonomous instruments of robotic war crawling behind enemy lines, building fantastically elaborate, Dr. Seussian architectures on the shores of foreign continents. Artificially intelligent 3D printers, producing bomb-domes—explosive ziggurats—vast and terrible buildings awaiting their detonative spark from the sky.

Robotism, or: The Golden Arm of Architecture

For the past four weeks, an orange robotic arm has been constructing a brick wall in south Manhattan.

[Image: Pike Loop by Gramazio & Kohler].

Neither a new Berlin Wall nor part of a delayed realization of Superstudio’s Continuous Monument, the machine was, in fact, built and programmed by Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler. It is now the focus of an exhibition, called Pike Loop, at Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Tonight—Tuesday, October 27—at 7pm, Storefront will be hosting a public event in celebration of the project, down at the wall itself, free and open to the public. Here’s how to get there from Storefront. Be sure to stop by.


[Image: The Mobile Fabrication Unit by Gramazio & Kohler, soon to be building at Storefront for Art and Architecture].

Some things to read on a Monday afternoon:

—Architect Bjarke Ingels of BIG dominates the stage at TED. I was able to walk around BIG’s recently completed Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen the other week, as part of an amazing drive around what felt like all of Denmark with Johan Hybschmann and Nicola Twilley. The building’s now-famous parking garage, we suggested only half-jokingly, would make an amazing venue for an architecture conference: its terraced parking decks overlook and focus upon a kind of inadvertent auditorium. Drive-in films, drive-in lectures, drive-in pirate radio concerts – it’s too fantastic a space not to try.

—Lebbeus Woods offers a glimpse of a film he outlined, designed, and later co-wrote with Olive Brown, called Underground Berlin. It involves a disillusioned architect, a missing twin brother, neo-Nazi activities in the divided city, metallic underground tunnels connecting east to west, and “a top-secret underground research station rumored to be somewhere beneath the very center of Berlin.” There are even rogue planetary scientists investigating “the tremendous, limitless geological forces active in the earth.” Woods’s graphic presentation of the idea is incredible, and absolutely worth a very long look.

—Meanwhile, farmers in the UK have been asked “to implement measures which would reverse the UK-wide decline in skylark numbers.” This means shaving small rectangular plots into the midst of productive cropland, because “rectangular uncropped patches in cereal fields allow skylarks to forage when crops become too dense for them.” We will prepare our landscapes for other species.

—Is your iPod maxing out the U.S. electrical grid? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: New Scientist looks at how to short-circuit the grid altogether – and would-be saboteurs the world over are still taking furious notes. Alternatively, just follow the fantastic On The Grid series by Adam Ryder and Brian Rosa to see where the electrical network really goes.

New Scientist also scanned beneath the south polar glaciers to find “Antarctica’s hidden plumbing” – and, as it happens, “the continent’s secret water network is far more dynamic than we thought.”

—Ruairi Glynn’s new book, Digital Architecture: Passages Through Hinterlands is now out; it documents Glynn’s related exhibition.

—Moving online, New York’s Architectural League has redesigned its website – joining the Canadian Centre for Architecture, who also redesigned their own site earlier this summer.

—Back in England, the BBC reports that pigs are being used “to help restore” parts of Worcestershire’s historic Wyre Forest. This comes at the same time that Cairo has realized that its absurd slaughter of every pig in the city last spring in order to guard against swine flu has led to an extraordinary garbage crisis. “The pigs used to eat tons of organic waste,” the New York Times reports. “Now the pigs are gone and the rotting food piles up on the streets of middle-class neighborhoods like Heliopolis and in the poor streets of communities like Imbaba.” Meanwhile, Edible Geography points our attention to the fascinating labyrinth of subsidiary products made from the bodies of dead pigs; welcome to “Pig Futures.”

—On io9 Matt Jones suggests that “the city is a battlesuit for surviving the future,” and he cites Archigram, Kevin Slavin, Dan Hill, Warren Ellis, the architecture of sci-fi, William Gibson, and much more to make his point. Speaking of Warren Ellis, Icon magazine recently published a long conversation between Warren, Francois Roche, and myself; you can check it out on Flickr.

—Were artificial hills, henges, and monumental earthworks a kind of “prehistoric sat nav” installed across the British landscape? And does this same question seem to be asked at least once every few years?

—The 2009 Solar Decathlon approaches.

—Gramazio & Kohler’s Mobile Fabrication Unit will arrive soon at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. Between October 5 and October 27, it will be busy assembling “the first temporary public installation to be built on site by an industrial robot in New York.” Then, however, on Halloween, it will become possessed by incomprehensible forces from the Precambrian depths of the city, and, in a horrifying night of thunderous brickwork, it will wall off the island of Manhattan forever…