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Concrete Design Master Class on ROBUSTNESS, August 23 - 28, 2004

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Driven largely by technological innovation, the last decade of the 20th century saw the emergence of what many now call the 'knowledge society'. Knowledge and the raw material from which it is constructed - information - became the most precious resource of governments, companies and individuals alike as they struggled to remain competitive in a rapidly globalizing world. One of the most relevant changes for design in this period occurred with a new relationship between thinking and doing that emerged with new forms of prototyping. Whether through scenario planning, product rapid prototyping or digital spreadsheet modelling, prototypes were no longer considered final products but means of thinking by doing. As MIT Media Lab Professor Michael Schrage wrote at the time: Converting product ideas into crude mock ups and working models turns traditional perceptions of the innovation cycle inside out: instead of using the innovation process to come up with finished prototypes, the prototypes themselves drive the innovation process. In this way, thinking and doing, research and fabrication, and design and designed object become blurred, interactive and non-linear. Design becomes a living, continuous process of creating and testing and as a result more ROBUST.
[Michael Speaks]

The Concrete Master Class on Robustness has targeted a set of objectives ranging from theory on design practice to research into material and general notions of ROBUSTNESS.

Dissolving the distinctions between theory and practice
There is no direct and linear relation between theory or concepts and design, in the sense that theory precedes practice or vice versa. The design process incorporates theory. Any distinction between thinking and making disappears. Thinking becomes making; making is thinking.

Rapid Prototyping
The unconventional design method of rapid prototyping allows designers to generate and analyze many different possibilities. Instead of focusing research on a few specific results, designers can deploy rapid prototyping to consider seemingly impossible or outrageous variations. A wide area of investigation can thus be covered quickly, opening up the design process to truly unexpected possibilities.

Material research
The master class was driven by material research into different types of concrete. The aim was to uncover the potential of the materials under very different circumstances. Both new and existing materials were introduced in order to investigate the implications of their use for all aspects of architectural design, such as form, program, functionality, and so on.

The assignment for the master class asked for the redevelopment of existing architectural details. These so-called 'primitives' had to be reconsidered and tested using different types of concrete under a variety of conditions. A wide range of possibilities for using concrete therefore had to be explored. The structure of the master class, the research and design techniques involved (rapid prototyping combined with material research), introduced the participants to a robust design approach. The class was open to innovation and to the personal fascinations that included the participants' work on their own competition entries. The master class thus encompassed a whole host of perspectives on ROBUSTNESS generated by the participants themselves.

Working in groups of 5 to 6 people, participants investigated the given 'primitives' through a matrix made up of three axes. One specific area of investigation was represented on each axis.
Axis 1: MATERIAL held four different types of concrete ranging from a standard mortar through fibre-reinforced self-compacting cement to 'imaginary concrete' in which seemingly impossible but essential properties could be projected.
[Generic Standard Concrete / Sophisticated Concrete / Aerated Concrete / Imaginary Concrete]
Axis 2: TACTILITY indicated five different types of surface treatment for concrete. This axis dealt with the formal exterior of architecture. Concerns with formwork, poured and prefabricated concrete were important issues on this axis that ranged from 'straight out of the mould' to treatments that open up the inner structure of mortars.
[Smooth Surfaces / Exposure of Aggregates - intact visual aggregates / Exposure of Aggregates - treated visual aggregates / Structured Surfaces / Special Surfaces - special aggregates]
Finally Axis 3: CONTEXT offered associative inputs for each prototype. Five paintings from Gerhard Richter represented his 'prototyping' practice in which he continuously investigates materials and techniques and, just as importantly, their relations to the actual paintings in terms of representation, formal language and so on. Without any specific directions but the paintings themselves, the participants could either interpret them literally in terms of object or subject or let them act as catalysts for their own associations and fascinations.
[Apple Trees, 1987, oil on canvas, 72 x 102 cm / Reading, 1994, oil on linen, 72,4 x 102,2 cm / Woman Descending the Staircase, 1965, oil on canvas, 200,7 x 129,5 cm / Abstract Painting, 1997, 36 x 51 cm / Abstract Painting, 1997, 55 x 48 cm]

After exploring each primitive through most of the 125 positions on the matrix, each group chose to develop one prototype for production at scale 1:1. During the 'matrix' investigation a number of experts assisted participants on subjects like concrete techniques, CNC software applications, and general design skills. Scale models were produced with the help of Delft University of Technology. Made using CNC-milling and 3D-printing techniques, these models represented scaled versions of prototypes, and details of these prototypes. Perhaps even more importantly, they enhanced understanding of the implications of the techniques on possible end products. Surface conditions and restrictions on possible forms were among the issues studied and tested. The proposals for the final prototypes were presented at the end of the master class in the form of models - some of them in concrete - sketches and 3D renderings. A team of software experts translated the proposals into sets of working files for TwinPlast, a Belgian CNC milling company, which produced the moulds.

The moulds were then sent to different locations for the production of the actual concrete objects. This was the final test in an exhaustive period of research into what Robustness can mean for the practice of architecture.

day 1

day 2

day 3

day 4

day 5

day 6

group 1 prototypes

group 2 prototypes

group 3 prototypes

group 4 prototypes

group 5 prototypes

group 6 prototypes

group 7 prototypes