Architects See Cross-Pollinating Potential in Parametric Modeling

Young designers play a game of “exquisite corpse” in order to develop ideas.

“Good ideas can come from anywhere,” Mike Hickok, one of our principals at Hickok Cole is fond of saying. His vision and the idea of new collaborations were tested when we were tasked to design the office building of the future. It took weeks of long meetings and passionate discussions before we finalized our plan concepts. Through it all, we realized that we wanted to work differently than we were used to working, to design the building envelope. We had just seen the Metropolis film, Brilliant Simplicity, which inspired us to look for opportunities of cross pollination or cross disciplinary thinking that we could build upon, tinker with, and synthesize into a simple concept.

A substantial portion of our legwork was done in the form of traditional research. From the books and writings of Branko Kolarevic and Ali Rahim (UPENN); Lisa Iwamoto, Bill Mitchell (MIT); Chris Luebkeman (Arup): and Jim Glymph (Gehry), we learned about digital fabrication techniques like sectioning, tessellating, folding, contouring, and forming.  We learned about rapid prototyping and rapid tooling, parametric design and “file to factory,” innovative materials, and new modes of fabrication. And we were inspired by Kolarevic’s phrase, “form follows performance,” and by Iwamoto’s ideas about the correlation between architecture and its modes of representation and construction.

After all our efforts, the question remained:  How could we unleash the creative energy of our young designers?  We decided to work under the radar through a charrette, just like the Top Chef “quick fire” sessions, crossing a sense of selfless play with discovery of the game of “cadavre exquis,” or exquisite corpse. (A game invented by the Surrealists in the early 1920’s as a technique of collective creation.  Some of the initial players included Marcel  Duchamp, André Breton, Benjamin Peret, Man Ray, and Joan Miró.)

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There was no foreseeable end, no predictable outcome. In hindsight, this probably made the principals very nervous. With a few ground rules, we took a leap of faith. Our envelope was to have two components:  an inner, weather-tight layer and an outer, shading layer. So we plastered the walls of our “war room” with quotes and images from our initial research. The shading layer had to perform; it had to adapt to shade only when needed and still allow for views to the exterior.

Each of our four young designers (the group of four: choose and develop a single idea? The “exquisite corpse”Jessica Sticklor-Lipson, John DeNapoli, Mercedes Afshar, and Christopher Testa) had a day to come up with a shading unit and to study how a group of these units could form the width of a structural bay and span the height of a floor.  They were encouraged to do their own research and bring up precedents from other disciplines where scientists and artists experiment with objects that move. The working “media” was open.  It included hand sketches, physical models, computer models, and animation. At the end of the day, progress was to be discussed with the lead designer. The initial concepts were breathtaking. They were diverse, well researched, and unique. We looked at paper models, sketches, a piece of warped mesh, and stills from Rhino. Each person successfully came up with a component that could deploy and collapse. But we were not ready to involve the principals, yet. Ideas needed to be distilled and strategies pared down. The four were again tasked to develop their strongest concept and show how groups of these shading units formed one façade of the building. They had another day to fine-tune their work at the end of which they would each have the chance to pitch their idea directly to the principals. They were psyched.

Hickok Cole Sketch Up Ribbon video from Metropolis magazine on Vimeo.

Through tinkering and play, open source research, and a few ground rules, our young designers inspired us with ideas beyond our preconceived notions of what our shading envelope could be.  They showed YouTube videos of homeostatic objects that expand and contract as they react to temperature variation, impressing the principals and senior staff. We looked at layered, moving, tessellated screens that align or misalign to control privacy and light. We discussed walls made of flickering metal pixels that move in response to light, movement, and sound in the environment. And we were fascinated by videos of artificial muscles made of electroactive polymers that contract and expand, changing in shape and size, as they are charged with an electrical current.

Hickok Cole Paper Models video from Metropolis magazine on Vimeo.

Having worked independently on each concept, how could we now work together to choose and develop a single idea? The “exquisite corpse” game began. Chris took my and Jessie’s paper models, photographed them, and assembled a short video describing their potential for movement. Mercedes took Jessie’s precedents on electroactive polymers to develop collapsible shading ribbons through parametric modeling in Rhino. John took the mountain of plan sketches from the whole team and distilled it into a sequence of diagrams that simply and cleverly described the team’s approach to plan making. Jessie took Mercedes’ ribbons and carefully choreographed their movement through a series of elegant plan diagrams. We would each add, edit, simplify, and pass the concept to the next “player” for further contribution. Through this process of collective composition we arrived at the Smart Solar Strands that would become the expression of the façade.

Hickok Cole Plan Diagram video from Metropolis magazine on Vimeo.

What media would we need to employ to develop this moving, adaptable façade?  How quickly could we learn more about robotics and smart polymers so that we could extrapolate, infer, and propose a concept that would otherwise take years to develop?  How would we represent our ideas if the competition requirements called for printed images assembled in a book?  We were on uncharted territory. In our next post we will reveal our tinkering with an adaptable component and the convergence of technology, media, and representation.

Elba Morales, Associate AIA, LEED AP, is a senior associate at Hickok Cole Architects in Washington, DC and the lead designer on the Office Building of the Future competition, a national ideas competition sponsored by NAIOP. 

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