Robotic Futures in Architecture

Sophia, a social/political robot was first introduced to the world at South by Southwest festival in 2016. A year later, she became the first robot to be granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia.

Artist Joris Laarman and MX3D couple robotics with a gamut of advanced manufacturing technologies to build “butterflies” out of molten metal and innovative self-building bridges.

Multinational mobility companies and technology startups such as Ford, Tesla, Toyota, Uber and Airbus are investing billions of dollars into autonomous robots, also known as self-driving vehicles and passenger drones that could transport us around cities and around the globe.

There are autonomous bulldozers, excavators and construction vehicles that run themselves … without a human operator.

Researchers at the University of Porto, Portugal, are developing cable-driven spider robots for large-scale construction sites.

North Carolina State University has replaced conventional library stacks with robotic storage and retrieval systems, turning the library into a large, inhabited robot.

All of these technological developments make it clear that we are at the dawn of a new era, one where new life forms of our creation will walk and work among us. They will help to open up unprecedented possibilities, challenge our worldviews, redefine the human condition and, as part of these pervasive transformations, impact architecture. Innovation in robotics is taking place at such a breakneck speed that every day brings new inventions too numerous to track.

Just as computers and computation have become integrated into virtually every discipline, robotics is also being integrated into all fields of knowledge including industrial, space, agricultural, construction, disaster relief, mining, surveillance, security, transportation, medical, domestic and other applications.

Robots are essentially physical, kinetic beings. They have a body, form, size and other physical characteristics. They are embodied in this lifeworld in a very particular way. The three shared characteristics of all robots are sensing their environment, some level of computational intelligence and physical responsiveness. Robots have some type of ability to intelligently operate in the physical world. The thingness of robots distinguishes them from virtual agents and unembedded artificial intelligence. Hence, robots are often described under the rubric of embodied intelligence.

Robots, as things, can be found in a variety of places. They can be found in the home, on factory floors, in the sky, in the water, on the road, at the malls, in the hospitals, in outer space, on Mars, in toddlers’ play pens, in sports stadiums, in television media and even inside the human body. Robots can be more than consumer products or objects in space. They can be environments such as vehicles, planes, ships and even buildings.

Robotics in an architectural context can be understood through their interactions.

The Role of Robotics in Architecture

Unlike automobiles, ships, airplanes and other environments that are made to constantly move, architecture is usually made to resist change. Architecture has been often described as a timeless anchor amid a relentless passage of time. Hence, to speak of robotics in architecture might initially sound like an oxymoron. It is not easy to reconcile agile and dynamic robotic technologies with the static built environment.

Robotics in architecture extends well beyond the design and construction process to engage exploration of many different areas of study:

1. Construction

2. Design process

3. Ethics

4. Interiors and furniture

5. Landscape architecture

6. Manufacturing and production

7. Materials and methods

8. Morphology

9. Mobility, navigation and wayfinding

10. Experience

11. Social and environmental behavior

12. Structural and mechanical systems

13. Translation of architectural knowledge to other fields

14. Urban design

The intersections of robotics and architecture are many and promising. At every stage of architectural design and construction processes, there is a robotic application: pre-design, analysis, data gathering, visualization, documenting existing conditions, conceptual design, schematic design, prototyping, design studies, detail mockups, prefabrication, construction and operation.

Interactions between robots, designers, fabricators, construction crews, users, building operators, first responders, post-occupancy researchers as well as interactions with buildings are foreseeable. There are many research topics and design opportunities that emerge from these multifaceted intersections.

Robotic Technologies: Digital Fabrication

Digital fabrication—the use of advanced manufacturing technologies such as CNC mills, 3D printers, laser cutters, waterjet cutters and other digitally-driven making technologies—has been typically framed in servile, instrumentalist, formalist and functionalist terms. Surely, these technologies, together with other advancements in design computation such as BIM and CAM, have transformed how we conceptualize, design, fabricate, assemble and construct large scale architectural artifacts. The technologies themselves have been often described in less romantic terminology than the poetic architectural works that were created by those technologies. In such a context, there is a marked difference between the technologies of making and the artifacts that are made with those technologies. Such a distinction between instrumentality and integration is hard to make with robotic technologies.

In architecture, robotics is often interpreted as digital fabrication 2.0, which turns out to be a limited and limiting perspective that portrays robotics in an instrumental role, something that Heidegger challenged decades ago. There is more to robotics than just digital fabrication and advanced manufacturing as mere means. Robotics appropriates digital fabrication technologies in ways that unveils extraordinary possibilities and experiences. It is important to understand the gamut of phenomena revealed by robotic technologies in order to understand their potential impact on architecture.

Robotic Buildings

Another vastly under-explored and highly promising area of research is robotic buildings, furniture and interiors. Robotic buildings intentionally integrate robotics for their core functionality, flexibility, aesthetic impact and longevity.

It is true that most buildings, with some exceptions, are designed to provide static spatial configurations within which movements of people and objects could take place. However, architects have dreamed of robotic buildings as famously expressed by Archigram’s Walking City, Greg Lynn’s Super Aero Robo Spatial Studio, Pfau Jones’ Tract House and other similar explorations have been described as kinetic, responsive, dynamic, interactive buildings. We could describe them as pre-robotic, with the potential to become robotic or to be well served by integrating robotic technologies and concepts.

The conventional framing of “robotics in architecture” implies a couple of things. First, it implies the knowledge domain of robotics within the field of architecture. Second, it may also imply robots operating inside buildings, separate from the built environment and yet playing a role in changing the functionality of buildings.

There is a disruption of the conventional paradigm underway, one that blurs the distinction between robots and buildings. Work exists that turns buildings into robots for living in—to play off of Le Corbusier’s dictum of “Building is a machine for living in,” or as I wrote in 2006, “Building is a network for living in.” Already, robotic libraries have been gradually replacing large traditional libraries.

Newspaper archives, research libraries and even public libraries have begun employing robotic storage, retrieval and access to a variety of materials. Robotic parking garages have also been around, albeit still trying to perfect the mechanisms. Robotic furniture and interiors are also an emerging area for research that spans homes, farms, hospitals, and offices.

How buildings and their underlying order might become more dynamic, parametric, intelligent, autonomous and sentient is a stimulating and anxiety-provoking prospect.

When the human body, AI and the robotic technologies have already begun to fuse, it is not a big leap of faith to imagine a similar fusion between robotics and buildings. The robotic architecture framework helps frame such a fusion and integration. Extending this speculative line of thinking further, perhaps at some point in the future it might be possible to connect humans, robotics and buildings together, giving a new definition for humanistic architecture, cyborgs and robotic architecture.

 



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