Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Building the “Sublime”

Today’s guest blog is from Daniela Bertol, co-founder of design firm Space Ink in New York City.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant defined the mathematical sublime as, "the mere ability to think which shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense."

Architecture has been evocative of the beauty of mathematics for millennia while engineering has always used geometry in the design of structures. The mathematical proportions of Greek temples, the daring structural heights of Gothic cathedrals and the interplay of concave-convex forms of Baroque architecture are built expressions of geometric forms and mathematical concepts. Starting from the past century, traditional arches, vaults and domes have evolved in much more complex geometric configurations: ruled and minimal surfaces, space frames and geodesic structures and double curvature shells have been largely used in several building types from towers to large span structures.

The digital revolution of the last decade has greatly enhanced geometric explorations in architectural design. Computational based architectural design of forms has started in academic and theoretical investigations but recently has become more widespread in the actual design of “real” buildings. Academic explorations are often developed as digital models of complex geometries. Different types of digital modeling and animation applications are utilized, often combined with post-production “finishes.”

But, until recently, in spite of the three-dimensionality of digital architectural models, the only output was two-dimensional images, either renderings or video animations. While the process of generating forms with computer aided methodologies offered almost endless possibilities for the architectural design of complex geometries, the actual construction of each form was limited by the traditional available technologies.

Stereolithography brought a major advancement in the physical fabrication of virtual models but the time and costs involved were too high to be afforded by designers who were interested more in intellectual and aesthetics explorations of forms versus more pragmatic and commercial applications. The recent availability of affordable, time-efficient, cost-effective and highly accurate 3D printers, such as the ZPrinter line, have brought a new tool to designers. Geometric forms are not only virtual, but have become physical objects in the real three-dimensional world. Vivid colors can also be used in the 3d printing process itself, bringing a new level of appreciation to formal aesthetic qualities.
The transition from virtual models to real objects is an extremely interesting process. Designers face several challenges which are not experienced in the design of digital worlds: the scale of details, the connections between parts and their orientation, how models can be self standing ---in the virtual models there is no gravity... Although I have always been a great advocate of digital model based visualization, I have to admit that being able "to see and touch" a design inspired by unusual geometries can have a great impact on the process itself, particularly if the design will turn into buildings. The proportions between components and whole can also be fully tested with physical models, enabling the designer to make "educated" evaluations.

And, besides all these functionality based reasoning... it is truly exciting to see worlds inspired by complex geometries come to life, as we are finally able to build the “mathematical sublime”!