The Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, looks like a peanut crossed with a honeycomb. This odd, organic-looking building would’ve never been made if not for the powers of computational design and robotic manufacturing.
For the better part of history we’ve left architecture up to humans, and the results haven’t been so bad. But now, as our computers have gotten smarter and our robots more dexterous, machines are taking a turn at designing our buildings, and they’re creating things we never could have.
Designed by the team at University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design, this 2,700 sq. foot hall has a beech wood shell that’s made up of 243 unique geometric plates that latch together via more than 7,600 finger joints. Each of those plates is 50 millimetres thick — or to put that in perspective, thinner than an egg shell, if you’re looking at ratio of thickness-to-span. The project began with a simple question: How can you create a resilient timber structure with as little material as possible? The answer, it turned out, was going to take an integration of multiple digital processes.
The exhibition hall’s organic shape was the result of computational design, a process that uses software to find the optimal shape of a structure. In this case, instead of drawing each plate manually, the building’s constraints and parameters are incorporated into software designed by the ICD team. The software then uses algorithms to calculate an optimal shape.
“In comparison to man-made constructions, natural biological constructions exhibit a significantly higher degree of geometric complexity,” explains Achim Menges, a professor at the ICD. For the exhibition hall, he points to the Sea Urchin and sand dollar as inspiration. A sea urchin’s modular skeletal system is joined by microscopic interlocking stereom, a calcium-carbonate material. Sand Dollars also have microscopic joints, which closely resembles the function of the man-made interlocking finger joints used in the exhibition hall structure.
The 7,600 joints are invisible from outside, but once inside, you see them hooking into each other like puzzle pieces. These joints are responsible for the bulk of the hall’s structural stability. Menges adds that the complexity of these teeth could only be accomplished through a seven-axis fabrication set up.
Naturally, the question with computational design is where the actual human designer comes into play. It’s easy to assume that a computer-generated building leaves little input for the actual designer, but the fact is, even algorithms need to be designed. Moreover, when humans are defining the constraints that guide a building such as this one, those in turn become an avenue for creative expression. The hope, says Menges, is that this process can bring out the best in both humans and computers.
“We had all the input one can have, as we developed all the required software and codes ourselves,” he says. “It is incredibly liberating to not depend on the ‘black-box logic’ of given software, but rather think of computational processes as ‘designable.’ This allows us to explore design aspects that would otherwise lie outside of what we can engage with as architects.”