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).

15 thoughts on “The Robot and the Architect are Friends”

  1. This is quite amusing, because I have several friends in the construction industry who are always critical of architects who know nothing about actually physically building anything. How about replacing architects with robots who then give workable plans to people in the construction industry?

  2. Always fascinating to see the process of construction as a performace. As tjhe structure is being built by the robots, those who pass by the construction process witness a performance as if were occurring on a stage of a ballet

  3. @Adam EXACTLY! I can't believe I was beat to that comment.
    From my perspective as a carpenter, the line "Liberated from the sidelines, the profession would be freed to unleash all its creative potential—" pretty much tells you need to know regarding the general attitude of the profession. This is a huge generalization, true, but I for one would love it if most architects would deign to take a break from sourcing Italian lighting and obscure northern European fasteners to "free themselves from the sidelines" for more than one site visit a week. Perhaps then the view through those limited edition Japanese eyeglass frames would inspire less world weary disappointment that "it looked cleaner in the rendering".
    I'm having a bit of fun here, and as they say, "some of my best friends are architects", but the idea that anything other than architects are keeping architects on the sidelines should not go unchallenged.
    I do applaud this project, though, as I think anything that gets architects more involved in the physical world is good. I can also see this as an excellent tool for training young architects about the relationship and differences between the physical world and the rendered world they spend most of their creative time in. I am old enough to remember the transition from drafting to CAD, and the resulting difference in the "intelligence" of the drawings we got was significant. Removing the need to use the imagination to turn the objects being drawn in 3-D space led to (and still lead to) a lot of problems upon translation of those drawings into the physical world.

  4. This does seem to promote a rather idealized view of architecture vs. construction — that all the "creative" work is done at the former stage, and that the latter is simply the mindless realization of the architect's dreams of pure forms in material embodiment.

    It gives short shrift to the numerous decisions, adjustments, corrections, and discoveries that occur during construction. It pretends that construction is not a craft — really, a whole plethora of crafts — that require quite a bit of intelligence and experience to execute correctly.

  5. The difference is that with robots, there is no for adjustment at all. It simply works or it doesn't. Robots and CNC machines make a nearly exact replica of a digital model. The need for onsite adjustment and correction would be irrelevant. I program robots and CNC machines and for CNC machines for instance, tool-pathing programs show you what will happen in detail before the cutting ever begins, and robotic programs have the same ability. If this construction sequence can be shown before hand and the errors corrected, why then would there be a need for more human interaction?

  6. @Jon B. I imagine that being the reaction of a lot of architects and the engineering-minded. The difference between what you are describing and actual construction is the fact you are talking about the fabrication of one part whereas the the construction of a simple house requires the interaction of, say,(wild guess)10,000 parts. Materials, fasteners, adhesives, hardware, etc. All of those parts are variables, as are site conditions such as humidity and temperature.

  7. But robots are our friends. As a builder and fabricator it is great to see increasing recognition of cam/cnc fabrication in the media.

    I work with Swiss and German-trained wood engineers fabricating wood-framed buildings using Hundegger and other CAM/CNC lines (almost all of them European). Although we are a small team, we have experience on over 1,000 projects in 10 countries and are extremely busy because of the efficiencies of "real prefab."

    For architecturally complex buildings (think Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Shigeru Ban) or high-performance buildings cam/cnc fabrication is the norm in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria yet remains largely unknown in North America.

    We are doing everything we can to change that.

  8. The Robot and the Architect should be friends, but the Robot should not be the Architect’s slave or vice versa. For me, the most interesting thing in the article, “The Robot and the Architect are Friends” was the notion that the architect “is not taking real responsibility any more because he is not in charge of the ultimate building process.” I am a graduate student pursuing my Master of Architecture degree and I am finding the opposite to be true. More and more architects are beginning to get out from behind their desks and make virtual dreams into realities through design build practices. I think for many of us the profession is shifting, forcing architects to take on much more responsibility than they have traditionally accepted. We not only have to formulate the ideas, but also deeply understand the process of building AND be willing to engage in that process ourselves. In the College of Architecture and Planning on my campus, we have seen a rise in the number of professors beginning to offer design-build studios and in the number of students interested in taking those courses as opposed to the traditional studio where they spend most of their time working digitally. Also, we have had a few alumni of our college visit our professional practice course and talk about their professional experiences that have ultimately led them down design-build paths. One of those alums said, “We are the only ones trained to look at the big picture.” Sure, in the big picture new technologies are always up and coming and we as designers should embrace them, but we should not be held captive by them. We need to understand that like humans, robots have limits. They do not recognize unique conditions and thus are not adaptable to the veracities of working with real materials that are oftentimes imperfect. Somewhere there needs to be a compromise. The robot can help the architect and the architect can help the robot. They can speak each other’s languages, but they should still both retain their unique identities and personalities. The article talks about programming becoming “indistinguishable, seamless, and the same process” as architecture, but I think this can be achieved without the architect and the robot becoming one in the same.

  9. As computers become exceedingly prominent in all parts of our lives, it becomes more and more important to assess how this technology is affecting our work as architects. It is interesting to see a group who is trying to connect back to the physical art of making through the use of computer technology. Usually when I hear people talking about reconnecting with the actual way in which things are made, it involves going out and building something with their hands. Through my architecture master’s thesis I attempting to gain a better understanding of how things go from design to built product by making building my design by hand. This idea that one can learn how things are actually built by creating them in the computer and writing instructions for a robot seems counter intuitive. One of the first lines of the article states, “But first, architects must learn the robot’s language.” If the robot is building our design, why are we learning a new language and not the robot learning to understand the language in which we design? Maybe I am misunderstanding the meaning of “the robot’s language, but it seems that by translating our design into another new language, there is more room for error.
    Another interesting statement in the article stated, “If you look at an historic building they’re amazing, the richness of the detailing …that [with today’s industry] is just not possible, we couldn’t pay for it, plus we don’t have the skilled labour any more. Through industrialisation and automation … this will change.” It may be true that we don’t have as many skilled laborers to do this work by hand, but I question whether automation of the system will really make it so affordable that details can be as prominent as it once was. For instance a classmate of mine is working on a texture wall installation made on a CNC Router. The original design called for an allowance of 4” of depth to create maximum shadow and light play on the surface. Eventually the allowance was reduced by 2” due to the cost of material, but mostly to minimize the time and cost spent on running the router. It seems that at some point the work must be put in, whether by the running of the machine or by the design process and to create the computer model which can be read by the robot.
    Having said that, I believe that with all new technology comes new design thinking which can push us as designers to continue to see the world in new and interesting ways. I love the idea that the construction process becomes a ‘show’ of its own. What a great way to get the public excited about a new project, as they can watch this performance of construction. Through this process of designing and building with the robot the focus should be on exploring the unique qualities of this new process rather than trying to recreate the detailed work of the past.

  10. Has creativity also become digitized?
    I would argue that architects are caught amidst a design battle of great proportion. On the robotic hand, are objects created solely through the computer, and as a current MArch student, discussions with local architects and professionals in a “Professional Practice” course, have often referenced which computer programs each firm uses and to what effect. Frequently, instead of discussing the firms design processes or techniques, architectural graduate students are more interested in, “What program does your firm use? Revit? Rhinoceros? Maya? 3D Max?” Similarly, the professionals present in our roundtable dialogues often have asked the same questions of us, as they mention which specific computer training they request from their potential employees (when and if they are hiring). It is unquestionable that the objects and images generated by our mechanized extensions are beautifully precise, and undeniably accurate. Yet, on the other (human) hand, I would bet that every rendered image, digitized model, or CNC routed object once began as a hand sketch in the design process, imperfectly simplistic and charming. Every so often, an architecture firm has that one or two designers who create subtly beautiful hand-sketched designs. Their desk is completely covered with trace paper and utterly disheveled, yet their design process is evident. The art of the design sketch, which is ultimately the impetus for our computerized images and objects, is becoming untaught and obsolete. Graduate programs are continually leaning more towards an emphasis on BIM technologies and digital fabrication. Granted, it is conceded that parametric modeling, digital fabrication, and BIM are revolutionary tools available to us. The practice of integrated project delivery is proof of those magnificent advancements, as it optimizes collaboration between owner, architect, and builder, and “increases value to the owner, reduces waste, and maximizes efficiency through all phases of design, fabrication, and construction” (The Architecture Student’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 14th Edition). Yet, however revolutionary our technological advancements in the field of design and construction become, the design process completed by the human hand and through human communication and collaboration is exponentially greater. The robot may indeed be our friend, but surely it is not the source of our creativity, and we must not lose sight of that.

  11. I find it interesting that interpretation of the image is that of an architect and his robots, when in reality, the original artist more likely envisioned it as an architect controlling the machines that are doing the building. I agree that the idea of the robot being capable of producing intricate patterns in the example of a masonry facade is very exciting, but to begin to consider going beyond that in its abilities would immediately complicate the process in the traditional sense.
    The reality is that the platform for robots to actually construct an entire building would ultimately lie in prefabrication of building parts. Car makers don't take their robots out onto the dealers' lots and build each car on its own parking space. The complexity of each car requires so many processes to complete that the only way to make it happen is in a production line, and even then, the results are identical, one model over and over, just in different colors.
    The whole idea of being replaced in our roles in the design and construction of buildings is scary to anyone involved. I recently heard an architect say that they felt like with construction companies gaining the ability to use Revit, the role of the architect was being whittled down to that of a “design consultant,” with minimal impact of the final building product. Likewise, for a contractor or skilled tradesmen, the idea that a robot could do the job that you specialize in and make your living off of doing creates a real sense of urgency to identify what makes the job you do unique and impossible for a machine to perform.
    For now it appears that our roles are safe. “Robots” may be able to create intricate masonry patterns or beautifully milled woodwork, but they lack the ability to improvise that makes the job of a contractor or tradesmen so valuable to the construction process, something that I can’t see a machine being able to do anywhere in the near future.

  12. From this article there are two things worthy of noting on which I will comment. First of all, the technology Gramazio & Kohler are using may be cutting edge today, but it is only a matter of time before similar machines and techniques are applied in a more widespread fashion. Secondly, although the technology is advanced, their investigation into its use to redefine an existing building system is nothing short of admirable within the profession of architecture.
    As technologies improve and the line between science and science fiction is blurred the building industry benefits from the new knowledge that is created. Gramazio & Kohler are prefect examples of pioneers bringing cutting edge robotic technology to a field so often characterized by hard work performed by careful human hands. Similarly, it is interesting to see the progression of digital technologies and their integration into the profession of architecture, a profession often considered both artistic and scientific simultaneously. As a result of this integration, that is generating appreciation at a surprising rate, the art and science we as architects were once expected to understand with immense depth and breadth is growing in content, expanding the knowledge base of the profession, which we are now expected to grasp with a high degree of understanding. Although Gramazio & Kohler cannot be defined as average architects completing generic architectural projects, many firms are not far behind using robotics and computer driven simulation to inform design as opposed to time tested ratios and design methods.
    In this instance with Gramazio & Kohler utilizing a highly technologically advanced machine to lay bricks in a systematic manner may seem strange. Yet, their approach to redefining the use of masonry and the forms that can be created through standard masonry modules is highly commendable. The idea is not complex, make something out of masonry that doesn’t fit into an existing bond category or aesthetic, but the execution is performed with such precision and ingenuity that it is hard to keep from acknowledging this project as anything but beautiful.
    In a rapidly changing digital age where new and revolutionary ideas are produced every year instead of every decade we must keep an open mind to the possibilities and applications of the technology that is available to us. Architecture is evolving on a daily basis whether we are actively pushing it along or simply being swept up by the tidal wave of design innovation. I cannot predict the future, and whether we as architects are guaranteed to survive as a profession, but the direction in which we are currently heading holds extreme beauty and potential. Reading articles like this one provide hope and excitement for a profession which many consider to have an expiration date not too far in the future.

  13. I would agree that the Robot and the Architect are friends, best friends even, a kind of relationship that relies on each other. It’s quite obvious in the profession as well as in universities that technology, mainly computers, has become solely relied on in the Architecture profession. It is very rare to see anything drawn by hand other than preliminary sketches anymore; even the Smartphone in your pocket can showcase photographs, drawings and digital models to clients, professors and friends. I spent an entire internship with two principals that not once sketched a single thing. I don’t believe the Architect will ever become obsolete, there will always need to be someone who is well educated in all of the various computer programs it takes to design for each specific “robot” such as the CNC router, or even the laser cutter at school. Their roles as Architects may take on a different meaning, and the process of design to build will forever be changing. However, we do rely on these robots to produce beautiful, crisp, clean, work and they seemingly are the solution to difficult design situations. In the article, the author mentions, “the architects must learn the robot’s language,” as an Architecture student, I can tell you that we are already learning the language, not only of one machine, but the language of several different programs. None of which is being taught in the curriculum, but taught to ourselves in our spare time (which, let’s face it, doesn’t exist as an architecture student) to prepare us for future roles in design firms or wherever the road may lead. As the daughter of a man that works on the assembly line at an American car manufacturing plant, I can tell you that robots are not always perfect, and sometimes require complete shutdowns of the entire line to repair, causing hundreds of people to work extra hours because of one robot’s failure. Therefore it is import to compromise between the architect and the robot to ensure that the same languages are being spoken and heard. I believe that this new process of designing and building is very exciting but it shouldn’t force out the profession that brings the creativity to the table. Let’s face it; robots don’t have the imaginations that we do.

  14. Who is the Robot and how will this change Architecture?
    In my opinion, in the traditional sense of architecture, the robot will not be able to take anything significant away from the skilled craftsman. The need for the skilled craftsman is extremely important to the everyday building process that takes place on a work site. Architects will always need the skilled laborers because they are more than masons, carpenters, electrician, and so on, they become skilled craftsman that have an ability to check to the architects drawings and correct the minor problems before they turn into massive problems for everyone. This coordination between architects and craftsman is vital to the positive completion of any project.
    Outside of the traditional architecture the robots are helping to shape the landscape for a new type of architecture. Firms like the Swiss group Gramazio & Kohler and Philip Beesley Architect Inc. from the University of Waterloo are changing the sense of who the skilled craftsman are. Philip Beesley uses CNC routers, laser cutters,3d printers and servos to change the skilled craftsman from a hands oriented maker into a machine operator and assembler. Beesley and many others have created a niche that allows them to make sculptures, installations and interior spaces that combine the architect and the craftsman into one profession.
    How architects and craftsman use the robot is an evolving process. As technology improves both professions will be able to better use the software and robots to enhanced their craft. The need in traditional architecture will remain the same while niche firms like Beesley's and Gramazio& Kohler are able to carve a new understanding of how the robot can help create a more improved social environment.

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