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Atmospheric Tessellation

July 30, 2013

At the recent Wellington Lux festival in New Zealand, Chris Knapp, Jonathan Nelson and Michael Parsons produced an architectural lighting installation made from tessellated components. Sam Kebbell of Kebbell Daish Architects reflects on the digital and human fabrication behind the project.

The Wellington Lux festival took place from 21-24 June 2013, and coincided with one of the windier days the city has had in the last fifty years. It is often said that the wind invites strange behaviour, so perhaps particularly strong wind gives rise to particularly strange behaviour – or at least strange situations. It was strange, I thought, to find a backlit polypropylene tessellation propped up along the edge of an often deserted lane in inner-city Wellington. I wondered, at first, if it would be contagious; it did have a slightly bio-something aesthetic. Its undulating surface of triangles and hexagons appeared infinitely mutable – an observation that would not surprise me in the slightest were I peering through a microscope. It was not, however, immediately recognisable as architecture.

Of course, these kinds of geometries have proliferated as our excitement for the technology that allows us to produce them has grown. We have become familiar with the aesthetic at an architectural scale, yet we are some way from calling it normal. Most architecture is still made in embarrassingly archaic ways, with humans banging things together and lifting un-assembled materials into place. Fortunately other disciplines have made more widespread technical progress than our own. This thing in the alleyway, though, looks like it took far more computing power to make than all the buildings that surround it. More than a lighting installation, it is largely an experiment in making things with computers – and for good reason. There is an enormous amount to learn about digital fabrication in the building industry, and each small experiment like this brings new insights to the surface. Chris Knapp, lecturer at Bond University’s Soheil Abedian School of Architecture and director at Built Practice, collaborated with Jonathan Nelson and Michael Parsons to design and install this computer-generated form at Wellington Lux. He also spoke at the School of Architecture at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) about some of these insights and how they apply to large and small structures alike.

And while computers do not directly make buildings, robots of various kinds can. I was not involved in the making of this installation, but I do know two of the robots that were – they are both in a class I teach at VUW, and they volunteered to help assemble the Atmospheric Tessellation. Much of the work was done with Computer Numerical Control (CNC) routers and these ‘student robots’ were merely a form of technical augmentation. The fact that we still resort to this particular breed of robot to complete the fabrication, and all the necessary human rights implications that this brings with it, may be evidence of how far we have yet to go with this technology. On the other hand, it may be evidence of how close the human hand remains to the future of construction. Either way, the utterly intriguing nature of the result is evidence of the delightfully strange architecture that this technology can yield.

lux.org.nz

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