The Image is the Building

A photograph I shot was on the cover of this month’s issue of Domus India (March, 2013).

The Cover Photograph
The Cover Photograph

I had shot this at 400 ISO with my Nikon D 7000, and what was published was a fairly tight crop of  the original image (below). Another, less cropped version of the same photograph also appeared in the article on the Museum of Tribal Heritage in Bhopal designed by Kamath Design Studio in the same issue.

The Original Image
The Original Image

It must have taken some very skilled raw editing to get an acceptable cover image out of something shot with what is essentially an amateur camera at what is not a low ISO setting. This is definitely not something I’ve been able to achieve with the Nikon ViewNX2 software that comes bundled with the camera. Since a majority of the photographs featured in the article were shot by me with this camera, I think I might be better off investing in a good raw converter instead of a Nikon D600 which I have been eyeing ever since its release.

My camera geekiness aside, this article on the Museum in Domus has given me a lot to think about, both as an architect closely involved with the design of the building, and as the photographer who shot most of the images seen of the building. But before I go further, I must confess that I have not yet read anything by Susan Sontag, not read On Photography, nor read anything else of significance on the role of photography in architecture and the media. What I write here is a lay person’s opinion based on a single experience –

I had started  working on the Museum of Tribal Heritage when I was still doing my bachelor’s degree in architecture. It was very exciting to be working on this project because it was the first time I was applying my newly acquired knowledge of architecture in a professional setting. Preparing a setting-out plan of the complex, interlinked circular and rectilinear shapes taught me the need for accuracy and discipline in drafting and dimensioning a drawing.

I was also responsible for preparing a 3D model of the building which was used in presentations and discussions with the various stakeholders in the project.

External Views from the 3D Model
External Views from the 3D Model
An Interior View from the 3D Model
An Interior View of the Introduction Gallery from the 3D Model

Despite being involved in the project from its outset, I was not able to travel from Delhi (where I was studying) to the site in Bhopal until after I finished college some two years later. But when I did visit the site, it was quite amazing to see the actual building. What made this experience especially surreal was the fact that the site engineer drove us in his car straight into what was the main visitor’s (pedestrian) circulation spine of the museum. The building was bigger than I had imagined. And yet, when I got out of the car and walked around, it seemed to have a very human scale – a scale of a village street, not the scale one usually associates with a museum building.

The circulation spine where I drove in with a car on my first visit to the site.
The circulation spine where I drove in a car on my first visit to the site.

After walking around the building, I soon got my bearings and started observing deviations from the plan and defects in construction, like any architect would. The building eventually took over five years and many more site visits to build, and the museum is still to formally open as of March, 2013.

When we were contacted by Domus India about their wanting to feature the project in their magazine, we were very excited by the idea. Like most architectural publications around the world today, the team at Domus asked us, as the architects of the building, to provide them with images for the article. What we gave them was a photographic “walk-through” of the building with details of where in the building each photograph was shot from, and what the photograph showed. Other than basic project drawings, this was all the information on the project that the Mumbai-based team writing the article had. Even as someone so closely involved with the design, having prepared its setting out plan and 3D model; actually experiencing the building physically and spatially gave me a completely new perspective on its design. I was therefore fascinated by the article on the Museum that appeared in Domus titled “Debating Tactile Engagements” when no one from the magazine had seen the building other than through the photographic images we had supplied them. The article goes on to talk about the scale of the building, the delicacy of the steel structure supporting large spans, the way the building negotiates the terrain of the site and engages with the local climate. It is understandable that time and financial constraints make it impossible for every architectural critic to visit every building they write about. But as an architect who respects the opinions of serious critics of design, it makes me wonder if I should design for the user or design for the camera in an age where pixels are equal to perception, where bits can travel across the planet but bricks stubbornly stay rooted in walls, where ones geographic location is immaterial but “ecological footprint” is supposed to matter, where global weather data is available at a keystroke but the sound of subtly directed rain water is lost in the din of esoteric discussions on design philosophy.

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Ghosla Roof Update: Paper Accepted to CAADRIA, 2013

A paper outlining the theoretical and technical ideas behind the “Ghosla (nest) Roof” titled “Digitally Designed Architectural Form Built Using Craft-Based Fabrication: Weaving a Complex Surface as a Bamboo Reticulated Shell” has been accepted to the CAADRIA, 2013 conference of the The Association for Computer-Aided Architectural Design Research in Asia, to be held at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture from May 15th to 18th this year. The theme of the conference this year is “Open Systems” which suits the collaborative nature of the Nest Roof project where digital design methodologies are combined with craft-based construction and non-industrial materials.

On site, the bamboo work has been completed, giving final form to the shell. Here are some pictures from the site –

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Talk Given at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Students of Architecture

I gave a talk and conducted a workshop at Footprints, the annual convention of the National Association of Students of Architecture (NASA), held at the Gateway College of Architecture & Design from January 25th to 28th.

Here is a slide show and transcript of my talk –

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Alternative Computation

Today I’m going to talk about the use of computation in architecture. A lot has been said about computation and its role in architecture since the early 1980s. Today, virtually any architectural practice uses computers in some form or the other. But it is not just architecture. Today, virtually any profession uses a computer in some form or the other.

So what is it that computation offers?

I am sure that all of you have wished that there was an “UNDO” command that you could use when you have made a mistake while building a model for your design studio. But of course, there is no “UNDO” command outside the computer. Have you ever wondered why?

In order to understand why this is so, I am going to have to briefly switch from architecture to thermodynamics. I am sure that all of you are familiar with the Second Law of Thermodynamics from your physics class in school. One version of this law states that “The disorder in a closed system will always increase.”

What this means is that you are not going to see spilt milk spontaneously gather back into a glass. You cannot “UNDO” the spilling of milk. And some people argue that the Second Law is what defines the direction in which time flows.

But how is it that a computer allows us to “UNDO” things? How is a plant able to grow with soil, water and sunlight? How does a machine make something as complex as a computer in the first place? These are all examples of more order being made from less order.

Well, there is a very convenient loophole to the Second Law. If you add energy to a system then you can increase order. The addition of energy from outside means that the system is no longer closed, but then no system is ever completely closed anyway.

The addition of energy therefore frees us from the second law. Plugging a Xerox machine into a socket allows it to make copies. Light falling on a leaf enables a plant to grow through photosynthesis and ultimately reproduce. Powering up a computer lets it “UNDO.”

So the way a system uses energy determines its relationship to disorder. On this basis, one can think of four different “Realms” or “Paradigms” – the mineral realm, where disorder always increases; the biological realm where order is propagated; the mechanical realm where disorder is controlled and order is created; and the digital realm where there is no disorder.

So what does the digital realm, with no disorder, offer the architecture?

It offers a clean slate as the starting screen of any CAD software will show you. It offers a void with no disorder where you are free to design without any encumbrances. You are free to do what you want.

While a blank sheet of paper is a two dimensional “void,” the computer offers a three dimensional blank slate. In addition to this, the computer offers the ability to process large amounts of information quickly.

If we think of “complexity” as the amount of information required to describe an object or phenomenon, then we can say that the information processing power of a computer allows architects to deal with complexity.

A project done by the studio that made use of what the digital realm offers is the Gateway to the JSPL power plant in Chhattisgarh, built in 2006. The form of this gateway creates a dialogue between local tribal geometries and industrial technology. The design development was undertaken through physical and 3D digital modelling with the geometric information of the digital model being used to create CNC pre-fabricated components that were assembled on site.

There was therefore a seamless flow of information from the digital model to the fabrication of the components by computer controlled machines which used data directly from the model. This allowed for very high precision and the coming together of the pre-fabricated parts smoothly on site in spite of the complexity of the form.

But if we re-visit the construction process of the gateway, we see that the digital realm, from which the design and the computer controlled fabrication comes, must eventually interact with the mineral, biological and mechanical realms. You see this in the critical step of fixing the structure to the footing in the ground. Had there been any mistake in the foundations, and had it not matched the digitally fabricated structure, there would have been no “UNDO.”

Another factor not immediately apparent is the amount of energy needed to manufacture the steel needed for the digital fabrication process. This energy is needed to create a material which is completely homogenous and uniform. The energy is needed to fuel machines which remove the disorder present in the mineral realm.

The removal of disorder from materials is needed when designing in the digital realm because design in the digital realm always begins with a perfectly ordered blank slate. And as long as one stays in the digital realm, there is no way of interacting with the disorder of other realms. While the digital design process can generate complexity, it cannot deal with disorder.

This is not a new thing in architecture. Historically, what has differentiated the architect from the master builder has been that the architect works on paper, in a space free of disorder. But the power of digital technologies available to architects today highlights the issue like never before.

The most obvious way to overcome this is to NOT start the design process in the digital realm – which is what I did in this small experiment with bamboo. Instead of starting with a blank slate, I started by scanning a piece of bamboo on a simple flatbed scanner, thereby digitizing disorder.

I used the scans of two pieces of bamboo to create digital models of them. Because I did not start with a blank slate but instead started by digitizing the disorder of the irregularly shaped bamboo, the computer had no problem in dealing with the complexity of its shape.

I then designed a joint between the two pieces where the angle is exactly 60 degrees. This joint was cut in the bamboo using a computer controlled router and the two pieces of bamboo were then tied with rope by hand. The computer was therefore able to negotiate the complexity of disorder and impose the order of a 60 degree joint on the bamboo.

But humans are much better at dealing with disorder. So can computers and humans collaborate with each other to build complex designs while negotiating disorder?

The first attempt at answering this question was the Parametric Pavilion project. For this project a parametric model was made to create a family of bamboo pavilions that can be built cheaply and quickly for a variety of functions. The parametric model can be manipulated to generate new forms based on programmatic requirements and site conditions. The parametric model outputs dimensioned drawings for construction on site where craftsmen negotiate the disorder inherent in bamboo with the computer generated dimensions.

The hyperbolic paraboloid shape of the pavilion as well as the gateway is part of a larger group of shapes known as ruled surfaces – surfaces that can be made from straight lines.

This geometry is such that the structure can be built using only length dimensions and there is no need to measure angles, curvatures, areas, etc. Linear measurements are the easiest to measure, requiring only a measuring tape to be placed against a piece of bamboo and lengths marked. The use of linear measurements minimizes the chances of errors and also makes the work of the craftsmen on site easier.

But can this technique of linear measurements be extended to more complex geometry?

If you take a flexible member and reduce the distance between its end points then it will curve. If you have a network of such members intersecting each other, then you can obtain virtually any surface you like. And this is nothing but weaving.

The Nest Roof is an on-going project where we are using weaving to construct a complex computer generated surface from bamboo through linear measurements alone.

The shape of the roof was the result of an algorithmic form-finding process resulting in a funicular shell structure. The shape of this shell was dictated by the plan form of the building.

It was decided to weave this shape out of bamboo as a reticulated shell structure. A reticulated shell is a doubly curved structure made from intersecting members of a flexible material. The flexibility of bamboo increases as it becomes thinner, but as it becomes thinner it also becomes weaker. The less a bamboo member has to curve, the thicker and stronger it can be. So an algorithm was created to find paths of minimal curvature along the shell surface along which to weave the bamboo.

The use of this algorithm allowed us to have 4” dia half-round bamboo members arranged in 6 layers to achieve a beam-depth of 2’.

In order to construct this, drawings were made where the lengths of bamboo between each intersection were given for each step of the weaving sequence. Since these lengths were more than the linear distance between the end points of each member, the desired curvature was achieved.

The craftsmen of site could therefore build this structurally optimized reticulated shell structure using only linear measurements. The craftsmen themselves could then focus on negotiating the disorder inherent in the bamboo such as joining two pieces of bamboo to create a continuous structural member, and place spacers of different sizes to absorb variations in the size of bamboo.

So, in this project the computer deals with the ordered aspect of design while human craftsmen deal with disorder, and, as architects we found an efficient way to transfer information from the computer to the craftsmen through linear measurements and weaving.

Ghosla Roof Construction Update

After some delays in the project, construction on the woven bamboocrete “Ghosla” (nest) roof has finally begun. The video below shows how the weaving process enables  a team of traditional bamboo craftsmen to easily construct the digitally form-found, double-curved, funicular shell using only linear measurements read out to them by the contractor. The drawing provided by Kamath Design Studio to the contractor is a plan consisting of linear dimensions along each bamboo member where that member intersects other members. The drawing also communicates the weaving scheme, that is, whether a member goes above or below another member when they intersect. Our studio provided the height above ground at each intersection to verify that the bamboo members are curving as desired, and that the shape of the shell conforms to the digitally form-found funicular shape.

While a 1:50 scale construction model of this roof had been built using the same drawing set to test the concept of weaving a complex curved surface using only linear dimensional information, the idea was so far untested at full scale.

I had outlined the concept of using weaving to build complex digitally modeled surfaces using manual methods of construction in this earlier post.

Kamath Design Studio Website

The Kamath Design Studio website is now live at www.kamathdesign.org after many months of rewarding work with Rajesh Advani of ArchiShots. The site uses Google maps to interactively display the work of the studio in its real context, as it has been built, along with slide shows and short write-ups on projects. Currently the site features a few key projects outlining the trajectory of the studio over the last 30 odd years. We will be adding more projects from the past as well as new projects as they are completed, so please do keep checking the site for updates. The site also features a record of publications featuring the work of the studio for reference.

Article Published in Int|AR – Journal of the RISD Department of Interior Architecture

An article I co-authored with members of Kamath Design Studio on the planning, design and construction of an Interpretation Centre for a black buck sanctuary in Churu District, in Rajasthan was published in Int|AR – the RISD Department of Interior Architecture’s journal on adaptive re-use. My personal involvement in the project had been in the site documentation and context analysis stages way back in 2007 so seeing the final design and constructed buildings and working on the paper was a very satisfying experience. Though this project has nothing to do with digital design and fabrication, it showcases the contemporary use of indigenous craft skills and building systems that I seek to integrate with digital design work-flows. Here is a link to the article.

A Photograph of a Nearby Settlement from the Context Documentation

Lecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Here’s the abstract and a slide show of the lecture I gave at the MIT architecture department’s Computation Lecture Series on December 9th 2011. This lecture had material from my SMArchS thesis and subsequent related work that I have been involved in at Kamath Design Studio in New Delhi. I know this is long overdue… Sorry!

CRAFT AND THE COMPUTER : THEORY AND PRACTICE

Historically, craft and industrial production have been incompatible because craft produces variation while industry requires standardization. Contemporary digital design and fabrication opens up the possibility of dealing with variation in an industrial context, thus eliciting parallels with craft. In the context of the large-scale industrialization of Western economies the comparisons between craft and digital design and fabrication are largely rhetorical. In developing economies such as India, however, industrial and non-industrial modes of production occur side-by-side and are often competing for the same resources.

This talk will attempt to illustrate, through examples, different kinds of design and production systems that combine craft with digital design and fabrication, and their contextual implications for architectural design.

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Curve Fitting Script

This is a very simple curve fitting script to find where a short curve fits best along longer curve. I’ve developed this script in the context of my on-going work with bamboo weaving.

The curve fitting script finds where a short curve fits best along longer curve.

The Nest Roof is a result of woven bamboo beams following paths of minimum curvature along a funicular surface.

A 1:50 scale model of the Nest Roof

While the bamboo beams may follow paths of minimum curvature, one is still left with the possibility to further optimize the selection of where along a beam profile to use each individual piece of bamboo. Bamboo being a natural material does not have uniform properties and every piece of bamboo is different. Every piece has a different shape and bends by a different amount. Therefore different pieces of bamboo will be suited to different parts of the roof with different beam curvature. Selecting the right piece of bamboo for a given segment of a beam is fundamentally finding where along the beam a given piece of bamboo fits best so that it will have to be bent a minimum amount, which is what this script does. However, it is far from clear how exactly, and if at all, the script can be used during construction. The principal problem is finding a work flow whereby the curvature of each individual piece of bamboo can be recorded and digitized so as to form an input for this script (or some version of it) during construction, and a way to convey the result of the script in real time to the craftspersons building the roof. These issues were tackled in my SMArchS thesis, but only at a theoretical level and at a table top model scale. I hope to be able to carry this forward to a building scale and a live project through the Nest Roof.

The script uses a very crude brute force algorithm that incrementally slides a short curve (representing an individual piece of bamboo) along a longer curve (the beam profile) while checking the deviation between the two curves at each increment. The length of the increment can be specified and the smaller the increment the more accurate the result will be. An interesting by-product of the brute force algorithm is the plant like shapes that it produces. “Leaves” appear to sprout as the script slides one curve along the other, and then the “leaves” are then shed as the script deletes all but the best-fit result.

"Leaves" formed during the running of the script

Below is a version of the script that works on planar curves, but the same idea can be expanded to apply to 3D curves as well –

Option Explicit
‘Script written by <Ayodh Kamath>
‘Script copyrighted by <Kamath Design Studio/PostScriptDesign>
‘Script version 08 April 2012 14:18:42

Call Main()
Sub Main()

Dim strCrv1, strCrv2, dblDivLength, arrDivPts1, arrDivPts2
Dim intCheckPt, strAlignCrv
Dim intCount, intMin
Dim j, i

strCrv1 = Rhino.GetObject(“Select guide curve to check against”,4)
strCrv2 = Rhino.GetObject(“Select curve to check”,4)

dblDivLength = (Rhino.CurveLength(strCrv2))/10
dblDivLength = Rhino.GetReal(“Enter division length:”, dblDivLength)

arrDivPts1 = Rhino.DivideCurveLength(strCrv1, dblDivLength)
arrDivPts2 = Rhino.DivideCurveLength(strCrv2, dblDivLength)

ReDim arrDot(UBound(arrDivPts1))

For i = 0 To UBound(arrDivPts1)

arrDot(i) = Rhino.AddTextDot(CStr(i), arrDivPts1(i))

Next

intCheckPt = Rhino.GetInteger(“Enter point number to check from”, 0, 0, (UBound(arrDivPts1) – UBound(arrDivPts2)))
Call Rhino.DeleteObjects(arrDot)

ReDim arrDev(((UBound(arrDivPts1) – UBound(arrDivPts2) – intCheckPt + 1)*(UBound(arrDivPts2))) – 1)
ReDim arrAlignCrvs(((UBound(arrDivPts1) – UBound(arrDivPts2) – intCheckPt + 1)*(UBound(arrDivPts2))) – 1)

intCount = 0

For i = intCheckPt To (UBound(arrDivPts1) – UBound(arrDivPts2))

For j = 1 To UBound(arrDivPts2)

arrAlignCrvs(intCount) = Rhino.OrientObject(strCrv2, Array( arrDivPts2(0), arrDivPts2(j)), Array(arrDivPts1(i), arrDivPts1(i + j)),1)

arrDev(intCount) = Deviation(strCrv1, arrAlignCrvs(intCount), i, dblDivLength, arrDivPts1)

intCount = intCount + 1

Next

Next

intCount = intCount – 1

intMin = Minimum(arrDev)

For i = 0 To UBound(arrDev)

If i <> intMin Then

Call Rhino.DeleteObject(arrAlignCrvs(i))

End If

Next

Call Rhino.SelectObject(arrAlignCrvs(intMin))

End Sub

Function Deviation(ByRef strCrv1, strAlignCrv, intFnCheckPt, ByRef dblDivLength, ByRef arrDivPts1)

End Function

Function Minimum(arrCheck)
End Function

The Hypar Solar Cooker

The Hypar Solar Cooker is a solar cooker with a hypar reflector developed by Kamath Design Studio about five years ago. The hypar surface is easily constructed using an old basket, bamboo and mud with embedded pieces of broken mirror (or any other reflective material). The curvature of the hypar surface helps to concentrate more sunlight on to the cooking food compared to a conventional flat reflector on a box solar cooker. The old basket gives shape to the base which holds a cooking pot with a glass lid. The mud acts as a cheap and readily available insulating material as well as an easily mouldable material to create the curved surface of the hypar on the bamboo framework. However, the exact shape of the hypar was, up to this point being found by trial and error.

I am now working on a digital tool that can customize the shape of the hypar based on the geographical location of the solar cooker, its orientation, and the time of the day it will be most used. The digital tool will give the lengths of the bamboo edge members and central members required to build the customized, optimal hypar shape. I hope to test the efficacy of this through physical prototypes as soon as the fog lifts off North India and we have more sun in Delhi. The main issue I want to test through the prototypes is how much the manual construction methods using bamboo, mud and mirrors deviate from the digitally derived hypar surface and the effect the deviation has on the performance of the reflector.

Ghosla: A Curvature Optimized Woven Bamboocrete Roof

“Ghosla” (meaning “nest” in Hindi) is a bamboocrete roof designed by Kamath Design Studio for a 150 square meter guest house unit at the Gnostic Centre in New Delhi, India.

Curvature optimized weaving: Surface paths with minimum cumulative curvature compared to a UV transformed hexagonal grid

The shape of the roof comes from a structural form-finding process dictated by the floor plan of the building and the resulting positions of the supporting columns. A RhinoScript was used to find optimized paths for woven members on this surface. The paths found using the script are those with minimum cumulative curvature passing through a given set of points on the surface. This enables the bamboo members used in the weaving to have as large a cross-sectional diameter as possible (and thus as high a load bearing capacity as possible) since they do not need to bend much and need not be extremely flexible. The advantage of using these optimized paths can be seen when comparing them (extreme right, above) to the simple UV transformed hexagonal grid (second from the right, above). The simple UV transformed grid has member paths with significantly higher curvature which will require more flexible (and thus thinner and weaker) bamboo members for its construction.

Stepping back in the design process, the design-computational reason for constructing this roof by weaving bamboo came from the need to devise a work-flow and construction methodology that would enable the construction of a digitally designed complex curved surface (the form-found roof shape) by simple manual construction techniques in a non-industrial setting. Weaving is an ancient process that is in the technological repertoire of most cultures. What makes weaving especially suited to the construction of curved surfaces is the fact that it can use linear, one-dimensional elements to produce a surface curving in three-dimensions and requires only linear measurements during construction. I have discussed the details of this in my earlier post on Weaving and Linear Measurement in Digitally Guided Construction.

The success of this digital-to-physical work-flow can be seen in the 1:25 scale model of the roof that was constructed by carpenter Ram Lakhan with the guidance of Inderjeet Singh Seera of Kamath Design Studio using linear dimensional information obtained from a 3D computer model of the woven roof. Here are some photographs of the model just before completion –

1:25 Scale Model of the Woven Bamboo Roof Under Construction
1:25 Scale Model of the Woven Bamboo Roof Under Construction

 

1:25 Scale Model of the Woven Bamboo Roof Under Construction

While there is no doubt that there will be numerous challenges that will have to be overcome during full-scale construction, the progress on this project so far shows the ability of weaving to be used for the construction of complex curved surfaces by manual means using linear dimensional information.

The bamboocrete roof that this woven structure will support will be similar to earlier bamboocrete roofs designed by Kamath Design Studio. The woven bamboo structure of the “Ghosla” roof will replace the steel and eucalyptus log trusses used to support these earlier roofs.

Exterior View of the Bamboocrete Roof at the Kamath Residence
Interior View of the Bamboocrete Roof at the Kamath Residence