January 1, 2009
The Freer Masons
Michael Silver’s new audio software liberates bricklayers from their paper plans.
In the brave new world of cellular-aggregation scripts and parametric modeling, masonry isn’t usually thought of as a technologically sophisticated trade. Little has changed since workers hauled two-ton blocks of limestone through Giza’s scorching sand some 5,000 years ago—except, of course, OSHA rules. But if Michael Silver has his way, bricks and mortar are about to enter the digital age.
Silver, an assistant professor at Cornell University, has developed AutoMason-MP3, software that converts masonry patterns into voice-synthesized text files. The files act as a building-instruction booklet—“Five solid blocks, three hollow blocks, one corner block,” it might prescribe—that workers can listen to on their iPods, eliminating the need to consult printed plans, a time-consuming, flub-prone (and outdated) task. “Job sites can be noisy, confusing places, and document control is a very real issue for all of us,” says David Sovinski, national director of engineering and research for the International Masonry Institute (IMI), which funded the program. “What I see as the value of AutoMason-MP3 is that it delivers real-time information.”
The software was a runner-up in the 2004 Metropolis Next Generation competition and came together after about five years of research. In its existing form, which is available for free on Metropolismag.com ( the links are available at the end of this article) it has built-in flexibility: masons can listen to directions all at once or stop and start as needed. Test runs at the IMI’s training facility in Queens, New York, ensured that the commands were structured for maximum efficiency. “Because the tool was built specifically for masonry design, it has a very specific function, so it was easy to adapt it to each challenge of making a building,” Silver says.
In 2007 Silver landed his first project, an architect’s office on a commercial boulevard in Dhaka, Bangladesh, about a mile from Louis Kahn’s famed concrete-and-marble capital complex. The Alamgir building, as it’s called, was to rise six stories over the low-slung cityscape, a complex facade of solid and hollow blocks designed and executed with AutoMason-MP3. But the project screeched to a halt when a military-backed government, vowing to blot out corruption, seized control of the country and tossed thousands of wealthy businessmen and politicians into prison, including many of the building’s financiers. “Our clients are behind bars,” laments Raihan Alamgir, the architect’s son and Silver’s former student. “Since they’re in trouble, we’ve fallen under financial crisis.” Only a new regime can restore stability—and kick-start construction. (As of press time, the country was expected to hold elections in late December.)
As Silver waits out the political unrest, he expects other architects to experiment with the software. The goal, he says, is for them to improve upon it. “I’d hate to see it widely adopted in its current form,” he says. “Rather, I’m hoping to see AutoMason-MP3 changed by designers into something I have yet to imagine.”
The AutoMason download is available here.
Also, there’s a YouTube video that explains how to how to export a pattern to your iTunes.