Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
Matt Clark works as a Structural Engineer for Arup, who barely need any introduction. Suffice to say they seem to be building most of the major buildings in the world. We wanted to bring in Matt/Arup, just as we wanted to bring in SOM (later), to ensure that the multinational commercial practice of architecture and engineering was represented at Postopolis!. We also knew that he could talk about, as he put it, the "trials and troubles of working as a structural engineer and working with architects", which would give us another important perspective, another angle from which to look at building and buildings.
Clark starts by showing the Utzon sketch for Sydney Opera House, the sketch he won the competition with. Clark notes that this is often what engineers are presented with – a sketch – and also the skill of the particular engineers, in turning that sketch into reality. (He doesn’t mention it, but that particular job arguably made Arup, too. Peter Jones’s recent biography of Ove Arup is good on that particularly difficult job.) So some sort of form is given to the engineers, which Clark characterises as "The Blob". Increasingly the blob is drawn in Maya; though could be anything from a scribble to a vastly complex series of plans. The engineer then "schemes, slices, meshes", chops it up and slices and dices, testing how the scheme stands up against gravity, often working all in 3D.
In a sense, they give the blob some ‘legs’ and ‘bones’. Lend it some colour etc. All this as part of a dialogue, a conversational approach with architect. But it feels a bit fraught, almost a ‘lossy’ approach to information flow. So there’s actually a big drive to change this process from both sides – from both architects and engineers.
Clark reckons englneers almost instinctively want to "nail the blob down into some kind of rational design". And actually so do architects, he says. But there is also a perception that this process might be characterised as ‘let’s organise this thing, and take all the fun out of it.’
So both are often striving to achieve the ‘non-blob’. But this doesn’t mean it has to be block (Clark shows a London brick.) By plugging straight into digital rational system, and yet scripting with parameters – what’s known as parametric modeling – they can increasingly explore this dialogue in real time.
Clark notes that some buildings still have to built on site, with architect next to the contractor, and he clearly has real respect for this process too. Particularly gnarly problems, like the newly-important question of ‘how do we finish the top of a building?’, can be developed in this way, as well as increasingly informing the structure as decoration. He shows a stress plot of a Libeskind build, of which the purpose is to "unfold the building and figure out where the stresses are going." This is early design stage work, again in dialogue with the architect.
Clark indicates an algorithm running a plane stress model. He makes the great remark that "a computer, depending upon your algorithm, tries to grow trees." This has a perverse poetry to it that I like, eliciting natural forms from digital rational process. He talks about working the algorithm, calibrating, tuning.
Switching tack, Clark discusses the relationship between mathematically and environmentally informed structures. He suggests that no building is ever truly green. Constructing a building is a massive haemorrage to that location, at that particular site, no matter what. All we can do is compare one building to the next building, and attempt to improve over time. He notes that it would be great if we could go beyond this, to in effect truly back up our claims about sustainability. Installing energy monitors into buildings, to see who’s using what, for instance. (I’ll return to this later, but it’s worth noting the work of Matt’s colleagues at Arup’s Foresight Innovation and Incubation team in London, conducting research into real-time monitoring systems in buildings, to exactly this end.)
Rethinking sustainability beyond LEED certification should involve calculating the total energy cost of the building. Every piece of steel used in construction comes out of a blast furnace, which uses a vast amount of energy. In stating that the greenest structure is made from less material, Clark shows us Le Corbusier’s drawing from 1913/14 – his simplest skeleton structure. If you design in so much flexibility for something else, which can be re-used. This is really greener than twisting tower, due to its structural form (and subsequent materialisation.)
Noting another Arup project, the CCTV building – which he states is a great project, for the record – Clark notes the potential contradiction within contemporary architecture. The desire to be iconic on the one hand, and on the other to be sustainable. He says, "The struggle that architects have is how to keep their architectural intent and great vision … and at the same time have that Corbusier square box which is the most efficient thing they could do."
From an engineering perspective, the straight column is supremely efficient when in same direction of gravity. Move away from that, and you have to put the forces somewhere. Engineers will tend to keep quiet about that, but any iconic leaning building uses more material to compensate for this shift away from structural efficiency. So all these curving forms, or cantilevers, create, or require, forces which have to be dealt with, dissipated or generated. At a cost.
So this idea of "plug-in sustainability", as it sometimes feels in architecture education, is just entirely wrong. It’s not something you can just plug into your project. So sustainability has to be considered holistically from the beginning of the project, and then over time, involving construction and assembly as well as the final building. Essentially, you have to deal with the reality that the simple structure, such as the Corb box, is inherently efficient.
Geoff asks whether there are new ways of documenting computational design? Matt replies that the greatest risk might be in showing too much information. You don’t want to do full 3D documentation – the simplest level of documentation to give to the contractor will reduce risk. Ironically perhaps, architects can get further downstream, right towards construction, taking and making drawings on site. The consulting engineer is there to advise the architect, and pass on knowledge that way.
Bryan asks about ambiguity in the relationship between architect and engineer. Matt replies that the ambiguity is generally a good thing. He says, "architects will pick up engineering software and use it how it shouldn’t be used, and come up with really great stuff." (There’s an echo of Eno’s ideas of deliberately misusing software and never looking at instruction manuals.) Equally young engineers will work in Maya and come up with good stuff. It’s definitely blurring.
Matt notes that architecture is always getting more and more difficult. You can have 20 consultants around the table. The architect can be overwhelmed with input of information. How to prioritise whose systems are more important than other people’s systems? The building should belong to the architect, Matt thinks, but more of their job is being sliced off and given to experts e.g. in the field of acoustics alone, you can end up with three acoustics engineers sat at the table. They’re the experts, but architect still needs to have ownership of the project, increasingly becoming a more skilled systems and people manager. "They are no longer the master builder."
Jill asks about working with engineers earlier on in projects, to get at this sustainability point. Matt runs through some different ways of looking at the project in the first place, including over time. The structure becomes cheaper and cheaper the longer the building lasts. So, it it’s made of steel, but it lasts 100 years, then it’s a good deal, a good choice of materials. If it lasts 10 years, however, you’re not really in credit. So you have to look at lifetime cost of building. We see the importance of building for long term from a new angle. Waving his hand, Matt notes we’re surrounded by highly reusable spaces in downtown Manhattan, as the typical NYC apartment building is good for live load. The delicious irony of doing this talk in the Storefront building appears again.
It’s worth reflecting on how Arup is evolving, through the work of Matt Clark and others, including the aforementioned Foresight Innovation and Incubation team under Chris Luebkeman, their SoundLab work under Neill Woodger (who I hoped to get to speak this week, but couldn’t, due to business commitments), or their Advanced Geometry Unit under Cecil Balmond, say. They deserve real credit for expanding the range of an engineering firm, moving in all kinds of interesting areas, and deliberately and constructively blurring boundaries between disciplines and practices. (Interestingly, later we hear from Paul Seletsky about architectural firms moving in this direction, from ‘the other side’ of a large multinational architectural firm. Interesting times in this business.)
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