April 4, 2019
Michael Bekker | Associate
Steffen Riegas | Head of Digital Technologies
I’m in Basel! Home of renowned architectural practice Herzog & de Meuron, and city to their wide-spread implementation of cross-typological architecture. With the help of my legendary JHMTF mentor (and inaugural recipient) Anthony Balsamo, I’ve arranged a meeting with two of HdM’s leading team members to discuss the company’s process to architectural design and delivery.
We covered many interesting topics, such as the company structure – which houses 400+ employees across continents – and how technology is fostering an international approach to good design. Collaborating across offices can prove challenging, and controlling design iterations and changes has really yet to be solved within architectural practice. Herzog de Meuron’s digital technologies team, whilst not software engineers, have picked up and capitalised on platforms from software engineering disciplines during the pursuit of custom-coded tools that aid their process. Platforms like Git. The challenge is that Git is great for text-based change-registers, but more difficult for drawings and 3D modelling edits, so the ability to collaborate seamlessly is still being investigated, tested, and tried.
What the digital technologies team is able to tap in to with these platforms are the interfaces between computational design and fabrication. A 15-minute drive from the main headquarters to the concrete bunker facility KABINETT showcases this in action.
The workshop houses HdM’s own 5-axis milling machine- a robotic arm except without hands it has a circular saw blade. HdM’s interrogation of this machine’s capabilities are proving how exploration into the output-end of design can cater to the designers process and ability to rapidly prototype building components. Whether it be the exploration of custom joinery, furniture, and timber connection detailing, the in-house fabrication facility operates as a collaborative-confidence-building mechanism. It takes the conceptual and tests its constructive feasibility, de-complexifying the difficulties of untried and untested drawings the subcontractor/fabricator would normally be faced with.
With that said, the HdM integration of these advances in digital manufacturing is not to merely move away from local trades and subcontractors. Just as the computational tools aid the designers’ iterative process, so do the digital fabricator tools enhance the abilities and execution of the craftmen’s work.
For the team at Herzog de Meuron it is all about identifying when the application of the digital is required in order to benefit the process of architectural creation. The accuracy and capability of physical models produced via machine production – whether that be 3D printer or CNC mill – doesn’t mean it is the appropriate approach. Likewise the deployment of computational and parametric-modelling varies to which stage it plugs in to a project’s needs.
The hand crafted physical model is still key to the process, as a method of learning, discovering challenges, and solving physical limitations of material properties. I was privileged to see this first hand with a tour of level one of the two stories of Herzog de Meuron’s catalogue – an internal archive of iterative process models each depicting the evolution of the practice’s most profound architectural statements – Tokyo Prada, Tate Modern, Beijing Birds Nest to name a few. It is compared to the line-drawn by hand versus the straight line drawn by a computer. The line by hand raises questions: is it slightly curved, is it straight – which in turn open possibilities for accidental discovery and intentional optimising of design decisions.
This approach aligns quite well with a quote I scrolled past on Instagram today, and I think I’ll close with it as a reminder to where we’ve come from and what is still to be learnt from traditional methods of design:
“When you are stuck, walk away from the computer and draw. It will teach you how to see.”