Autonomous Architectures

Technology is increasingly moving toward more autonomous modes of operation. Every day we hear of more tasks or entire professions that have become automated by either virtual or actual robots. From self-driving cars to delivery drones, the way that humans work, play, and move is rapidly changing.

Many sectors of the economy have already undergone rapid shifts towards automation. Automotive manufacturing, agriculture, and banking are three of countless sectors that have radically transformed due to the rise of robots and artificial intelligence. There have been modest innovations in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries, but much of the way we work remains unchanged from previous decades. With recent increases in computing power, new design softwares that not only automate repetitive tasks but actually find solutions to complex design problems, and robotic fabrication equipment, the AEC industry is at a tipping point and is set to experience profound changes.   

This studio will investigate the future of autonomous design and fabrication through the production of large-scale physical prototypes using a combination of CNC prefabrication and robotic assembly. Through the design of these prototypes, we will rigorously examine the agency and efficacy of computational processes to autonomously generate potential design solutions. Specifically, we will investigate and propose new roles for architects, engineers, and construction workers as many of their current tasks are superseded by autonomous machines.

The role of craft is essential to this exploration. Thus far, the automation of design, engineering, and construction has generally led to an erosion of quality for the sake of speed and quantity. From the homogenization of architectural detailing and drawings resulting from the increased use of BIM to the banal aesthetics of many prefabricated constructions, automation and craft are often mutually exclusive. The studio will explore the development of a digital craft that finds new and innovative methods to embed material logic, integrative performance, and experimental representation into the algorithms, processes, and machines used to design and fabricate the future.

To be clear, this is not a utopian endeavor and the studio will critically engage the role of technology in design, construction and urban life. Historically, the San Francisco Bay Area has been the site of both technological optimism (the often frivolous cyberculture of Silicon Valley) as well as technological pessimism (the retrograde counterculture of Berkeley). However, the studio will explore a third path that uses technological innovations to produce cities and buildings that meaningfully address the role of technology in the profession as well in the larger social, cultural, and economic context of the Bay Area.

This investigation will be informed by the disciplinary arguments of autonomy within architecture. That is, although we will often use the word “autonomous” to describe processes of design and fabrication that are performed with little or no human control, the word “autonomy” also recalls long-standing tensions within the discipline between the formal independence of the object and its status as a product of cultural and material production. As the studio explores the nature of forms that are autonomously designed and fabricated, the issue of Autonomy is central. Who or what is informing these forms if it is not architects as we now understand them? What is Architecture without architects? Does it become completely responsive and optimized to local programmatic, climatic, and material contingencies or does the nature of the code behind these operations offer opportunities for Architecture to offer critical resistance to techno-determinism.

The locus of this investigation will be the design and fabrication of a prototypical district of a new city on the abandoned Alameda Point Naval Air Station. Despite the site being the largest patch of undeveloped land within the epicenter the Bay Area, it has remained vacant for nearly 20 years. Working in teams, the studio will develop a framework for several high-rise buildings within this new city that will be autonomously designed and fabricated. These teams will shift and overlap throughout the term to allow students to both try new roles as well as build emerging personal and technical strengths.

The studio will make heavy use of the Kuka robot to build prototypes and will develop parametric workflows that fluidly move between digital and analog space. The primary output of the studio will be physical prototypes robotically assembled from prefabricated modules. Students will work together to design frameworks for how the modules are digitally generated, physically made, and robotically assembled. These frameworks will be simulated, tested, and refined throughout the term and result in large final prototypes that perform as both scaled architectural speculations of high-rise buildings as well as detailed analogs exploring robotic construction.

Spring 2016