Last Tuesday night, the Architectural League hosted “Closing the Gap: Information Models in Contemporary Design Practice,” a panel of talks marking the publication of a book in the Architectural Design series of the same name. Edited by Richard Garber, partner of GRO Architects and director of the FABLAB at New Jersey Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture, the book explores a developing paradigm shift in the use of information technologies in design and construction, particularly through the advent of the building information model (BIM). The lineup for the panel included Garber and three contributors to the book: Coren Sharples of SHoP Architects, Neil Meredith of Gehry Technologies, and Scott Marble of Marble Fairbanks.
Garber began his introduction by outlining two historically disparate modes in which architecture has integrated computing and digital technologies. On the one hand, there’s the formal speculation of the last fifteen years or so, primarily rooted in academia and catalyzed by architecture’s initial experimentation with animation software in the early 1990s. On the other, there’s the more quantitative emphasis on using computers primarily for the documentation and management of architectural information. Garber positioned the projects in the book as offering several different strategies to close this so-called gap between design-centric and information-centric approaches to digital technology in architecture, providing a more efficient model for designing and constructing buildings. The argument implicit in Garber’s intro, however, went beyond the obvious technical and economic benefits of utilizing information models. The hope is that these integrated models can prevent the typical design compromises made during construction, thereby completely redefining the traditional role of the architect.
Coren Sharples presented SHoP’s 290 Mulberry project, a condo building in Soho currently under construction, as an example of using 3D modeling software to communicate the custom and complex geometry of the building’s brick facade panels directly to the fabricator. Sharples positioned the project – and the larger enterprise of SHoP – explicitly in terms of risk and reward: if architects desire greater reward (both financial and in terms of design quality), they must take on greater responsibility. Despite the inclusion of one diagram which perhaps should have been revised in light of the present economic situation (it suggested that architects need to mimic hedge funds by taking on more risk), Sharples was unabashed in her call to action for architects to reinvent their increasingly marginalized role in the construction process.
Neil Meredith of Gehry Technologies (GT) comes from a slightly different perspective with regard to the integration of digital technology. The BIM, digital modeling, and software development spin-off of Gehry Partners, GT has become one of the go-to consultants for specialized expertise in translating complex form into buildable projects. Using the Yas Island Hotel in Abu Dhabi, a collaboration with Asymptote Architecture and FRONT facade consultants, as a case study, Meredith described in detail the process of translating Asymptote’s curved “grid-shell” into a facade system of parametric joints and glass panels. With every facade panel unique, the coordinated digital model became an essential interface between design and construction; GT took the process even further by utilizing the model to simulate and coordinate the actual logistics and phasing during construction.
Scott Marble of Marble Fairbanks began his presentation in gentle opposition to Meredith’s strategy of translating complex form into rational components. Instead, Marble’s interest in digital technology lies in “finding the complex in the rational” – in other words, integrating the tremendous information-processing functionality of BIM software early in the design process as a generative tool. Marble’s case study project was the firm’s recently completed Toni Stabile Student Center at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. The project utilized digital techniques of modeling, analysis, and fabrication in the design and production of four surfaces, each of which took a different approach to incorporating quantitative information in the production of qualitative effects. Marble also spoke about the potential for the BIM process to produce new models of collaboration between designers, engineers, and builders, which would eliminate many of the conflicts and divisions of labor that historically have limited innovative design.
Although at times quite specific and technical in terms of content, the event nonetheless managed to bring a whole series of timely issues to the table. In addition to the promise of information modeling and digital technology to produce more efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective buildings, such techniques can also help to redefine the practice of architecture itself. With this common premise of reimagining the architect’s role, there was a palpable and refreshing sense of hope that there just might be an opportunity in these uncertain times after all.
The views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Adam Marcus is an architect and writer in New York City. He currently works at Marble Fairbanks and is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Barnard and Columbia Colleges.