Ar. Sushant Verma, an architect and computational designer is the Founder and Principal of rat[LAB] – Research in Architecture & Technology and rat[LAB] EDUCATION. He explains how computational methods and research has influenced and impacted architectural innovation
‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’
We are always in search of novelty in design, looking ahead of time. Architectural progression is an evolutionary process that can take ages with new ideologies slowly replacing the old ones in smarter ways. Architectural research, like that of others, begins and dwells in laboratories. It is in these laboratories that Eureka!-moments happen, consolidated by research and experiments that may look lacklustre on paper, but hold a strong value in the practical world.
Research and Breakthrough in early days: Antoni Gaudi’s Hanging Chain Model (left) for the Church of ColòniaGüell (right)
It has been a contested topic – that whether or not Architecture, primarily accepted as an ‘applied-science’ field, has a parallel ‘research-orientation’. While architecture, as a profession, enjoys all perks of being at forefront and getting the job done, its advancement is intricately linked to acquirement of knowledge. This harvest of knowledge doesn’t occur in confined rooms under formal white-coats. This is where architecture humbly differs. A deeper look into past, and one learns that the first ‘Labs’ might have been the reserved corners of Antoni Gaudi’s home, where he experimented on the Hanging Chain Model and brought front the innovation of catenary vaults. On similar lines, research and experimentation of Le Corbusier materialized in the form of Le Modulor.
Today, as the profession branches out innumerable subsets of specializations, one may need to look into the core of investigation too, which lies in some of the research laboratories that emerge in the profession as specialist entities. The Research and Development Committee of Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has taken up this responsibility and puts ‘research’ at the core of all activities in the profession.
Putting ‘research’ back into limelight: At Royal Institute of British Architects’ Library
RIBA has taken some pioneering steps towards shunning some myths that have evolved around architectural research. One of them goes by the saying that “Architecture is just architecture”. Such an approach of autonomy, according to RIBA, has led to marginalisation of architecture. A knowledge base is developed only fitfully, and so it is a recurring mistake to say that general definitions of ‘research’ do not fit in the field of architecture. Further, the argument that “Building a building is research” is its own right, is debatable too. Architecture exceeds the building as object, just as art exceeds the painting as object (RIBA). This ‘expanded’ field is addressed by architectural research.
In order to keep research alive and to push the rigid boundaries of profession, many government and private centres for innovation, learning, leadership and organization, have adopted the title of ‘lab’ in their name to emphasize the experimental and research-oriented nature of their work. These are some platforms of architecture with maximum freedom – studying, knowing and also tweaking the independent and interactive ways by which architecture emerges as a physical manifest. Research in architecture develops on these interactions closely.
Nested Catenaries, an ongoing research project by OCEAN – Brick Construction Experiments (left) and Digitally Simulating the physics related to the experiment (right)
OCEAN is one such association, which was first founded in 1994 as a network of collaborating architects interested in pursuing research by design and related projects.OCEAN integrates expertise in architecture and urban design, civil and structural engineering, advanced computational design, industrial design, musical composition, and system-thinking.
RIBA has taken the leap to loosely categorise “Architectural Laboratories” or LABs into three, based on:
(1) Architectural Processes: For LABs performing research in processes of design and building construction.
(2) ArchitecturalProducts: For LABs experimenting on buildings as objects or systems.
(3)Architectural Performance: For LABs researching into building interactions after it is completed.
This tripartite style is informative and can provide more clarity of the variety of research that is carried out in the profession. Looking deeper into this categorisation one may realise how these collectively form one entire whole within architecture and how ‘research’ is deeply integrated with the profession. Many examples of the emerging ‘laboratory’ culture in the profession can be found today operating on difference scales and ranging across geographic boundaries.
MIT MEDIA LABis an interdisciplinary research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devoted to projects at the convergence of technology, multimedia, sciences, art and design. Staff and students have backgrounds ranging from electrical engineering and computer science to sociology and music, among others.
Inside Media Lab Complex of MIT: The New Look of Laboratories (left) and Graphic Panels in the interior (right)
FAB LAB Barcelona has embarked on new treads of architecture by providing tools for rapid prototyping that help create facades (and other systems) with better architectural performances.
Digital Fabrication: Molding-Casting the wall at FAB LAB
In the Indian context as well, many design laboratories operating at various scales of design practice are emerging at a fast pace. This manifestation is primarily happening due to globalization of design practice in general, as well as zeal amongst the design community in India to innovate at the right pace. A young emerging practice, rat[LAB], has embarked upon the design journey from its inception as a research group in London to a multi-disciplinary design studio in New Delhi. rat[LAB] is synonymous for ‘Research in Architecture & Technology’ which defines the underlying principle of the research-based design practice realized to bridge the gap between design and technology through a rational use of computational design & parallel technology-oriented methodologies. The use and manipulation of data in design is critical to the studio to operate at multi-scalar projects ranging from a small scale of a product to a large scale of a city. rat[LAB] has progressively expanded to multiple verticals to carry out specific research and technology-driven projects for architecture, interiors, products, urban, research and education.
The urban division looks closely into developing solutions for complex urban issues through use of computational principles and customised tools developed in-house for urban scale projects. The involvement of studio on projects such as IIT-Gandhinagar and Infosys Bangalore proposal has aided in development of novel methodologies for urban planning and design.
Computational Spatial Analysis for IIT-Gandhinagar Hostel Block Complex
The architecture division focuses on developing building-scale systems to design performative buildings optimized against dynamic environmental factors and façade systems with innovative structural principles.
Parametric Façade for Molded Dimensions Factory, Gurgaon, designed by rat[LAB] in collaboration with Design Plus, New Delhi. A computational workflow is followed in design process to extract fabrication data and environmental analysis of façade parametrically.
Proposed Shopping Centre with Adaptive Tensile Roof System at Tokyo, Japan; collaboration with Nonscale Co. Tokyo
While architecture division focuses on building scale projects of multiple typologies, interior division explores formal intersections of parametric design techniques and interior spaces. There is a strong intent of creating transformative spaces that can positively affect the usability by creating an exchange between the interior and exterior environment. An on-going project for interiors of a stone design company in Noida explores digital fabrication techniques such as CNC milling for a triangulated panelling system derived using mathematical algorithms.
On-going project by rat[LAB]INTERIORS that uses mathematical algorithms to derive a panelling system for walls & ceilings
Moving further down the scale, the research-oriented approach using computation is applied at a product scale to develop parametric systems optimised for fabrication process and mass-design using algorithms.
Parametric Light System developed by rat[LAB]PRODUCTS for a lighting design organization in India
While the research lab has taken a top-down approach to encourage the use of design computation in the profession, a bottom-up approach has also been taken to permeate through design education system in India in many ways. rat[LAB]EDUCATION was formed by the group to initiate the discourse of computational design within the academic framework by curating independent design modules, workshops and master classes all across India. The approach is a continuation of global workshop series run by the organisation in various countries prior to setting up the base in India.
To sail within the profession, one requires an in-depth knowledge of the complex process of creation, which calls for research and innovation at all scales. A dive into this vastness happens within these design laboratories set up in various parts of the world in academic as well as professional settings. It won’t be long before ‘Labs’ become an integrated part of the profession, and not just as innovation-led support systems relying on larger practices for their survival. Our pace of development will shoot up when homework through ‘research’ is taken seriously and that will be the time when we can see more Eureka!-moments etching in the timeline of architecture.