Grasshoppers, Rhinos and Fab Labs at ACADIA
Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA
Director, Government and Public Affairs
AIA Los Angeles

Bringing together 550+ design leaders from around the globe, the Acadia 2014 conference provided a forum to explore the future of architectural design, parametric modeling, programmable materials, smart fabrication, rapid prototyping, temporal agencies and big data .  Although at first I was rather perturbed by the speakers seemingly rather divorced approach from solving broader, more civically applicable “urban” problems, I quickly warmed to the idea that there may be something relevant hidden within here after all.  Once I let the heavily academic (let’s call it fancy, erstwhile and liturgical bespoke vernacular!) verbiage settle into my ears like the way salt might settle into a sun-baked beach towel, and once I started to listen to the lectures and connect the topics to my own synthetic urban-scale applications, I began to enjoy what was happening around me.  

This design community of digital fabricators and technical arbiters of the prophetic was a different beast altogether than the architects and urbanists that I usually interact with on behalf of AIA|LA.

The rhetoric was fascinating.

Laminar poche' (thickness), voxels (volumetric pixels), extruded nodules, folds (chocolate and egg: combined, yet distinct), flexinol memory springs, Kuka robots, 4D printing, buckling, tectonics, synclastic curvatures and digital anisotropic materiality.  Lunchbox, Mosquito, Elk and Ghowl, Meerkat, Grasshopper and Rhino, Kangaroo and its form-finding abilities!  Software and digital-analytic tools that translate data into visually compelling images.    These abstractions could help tell a story and that story in turn could help inspire new directions for how to modify buildings, building-systems and the built environment in general to better impact/ nourish urban behavior - more on that later!

Here is a pocket of design leadership that represents the finest ideas emanating from the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture.  Here are some ideas and explorations up for grabs for others more embedded in the civic realm to apply these thoughts to a larger scale. 

Attending ACADIA allowed me a chance to enjoy vibe outside on the courtyard at USC’s Watt Hall where a giant pink plastic sprawling snap-together sculpture catches sharply the afternoon rays of sunshine.  Larry Scarpa, FAIA sharing words of aspiration and enthusiasm from an elevated walkway.  Dr. David Gerber corralling all the speakers - and taking a moment to connect with me about the need for AIA|LA to advocate for more bike lanes and safer streets.  Alvin Huang, AIA snapping photos for the AIA|LA Instagram account.  

Lorcan O’Herlihy, FAIA sharing ideas for how to improve the public realm.  Anders Carlson, SE, Ph.D. advancing the concept of county-wide interactive resilience map that would inform the structural health of our buildings and allow a better understanding of seismic vulnerabilities.  Justin Glover, AIA (Studios Architecture), in town from San Francisco commenting on the widening gap of income equality and land-use decisions that are impacting the affordability of one of California’s most remarkable cities.  USC Landscape Architecture professor Alex Robinson debating whether or not the design presentations are exploring a more relevant scale of problems and environmental challenges.

Ideas were popping!

Although SIM City creator Will Wright and architect Zaha Hadid were both listed as the prominent keynote speakers, the speaker that I found the most inspirational and provocative was Neil Gershenfeld, Ph.D , the recipient of the 2014 ACADIA Award for Teaching Excellence.  Dr. Gershenfeld is the Director of The Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He’s famous for a class he teaches called “How to Make (Almost) Everything” and for inspiring people to make machines that make machines.  

What struck me as most applicable as an idea to replicate/ implement in the Los Angeles region was Dr. Gershenfeld’s exploration for a scalable path to teach more people more skills, crafts and trades and how to facilitate greater self-sufficiency amongst local cultures.  As inspired by the four billion year old practice of the 23S ribosomal RNA bacteria and the idea that a protein that makes protein is a natural phenomena, and with this idea that metrology from the state of a material can be inherently embedded in the material itself so that it becomes replicable and programmable, Dr. Gershenfeld facilitated the emergence of what is called the FAB LAB.

What is a Fab Lab?  It’s a place to make things.

"A Fab Lab is comprised of off-the-shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools, wrapped in open source software and programs written by researchers at MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms.”  "A Fab Lab is also a platform for learning and innovation: a place to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, to invent.”

With an emphasis on celebrating the “maker movement” the Fab Lab serves as a distributed learning center where local cultures can benefit from the knowledge factory of MIT (and from other designs created globally) to make locally the things they need and want. 

Dr. Gershenfeld is the chairman of the FAB Foundation, which enables disparate and remote communities around the world access to the tools to make things that will inevitably make them more self-sufficient in the resources they need to emerge as vibrant cultures. These Fab Labs cost about $100,000 each and at present there are well over 300 worldwide.

As a model for distributed innovation and fabrication centers, The Fab Lab is gaining quick success.  Most notably, it has even triggered the Mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, and the Chief Architect of the City of Barcelona, Vicente Guallart to adopt the concept region-wide with an infrastructure of Fab Labs as a self-declared ambition to facilitate a Barcelona that is completely self-sufficient in forty years.  For Barcelona to be globally connected to knowledge, but to have a more localized manifestation of human resources and physical materials (the bits move across borders, but the atoms remain locally).  It’s inspiring a new generation to learn the tools to make the stuff they want.

Distributed manufacturing has the opportunity to empower communities world-wide, and at the same time, offers a more sustainable path towards both better managing natural resources and creating opportunities for greater upward social mobility and educational access.

Autodesk, who was a presenting sponsor of ACADIA, is embracing this concept whole-heartedly and seems to be moving their business model towards that which will better serve a culture of distributed manufacturing, production (SHOTGUN) and rapid-prototyping.  Hence, once again designing machines that can make machines.  As McKinsey’s Katy George was quoted “Next-shoring will be driven by proximity to demand and access to innovation ecosystems.”  Companies aren’t making decisions solely based on labor costs, they're strategically planning for their growth by locating facilities near hubs of happening hot-spots!  

Therefore, planting a distributed manufacturing facility in a neighborhood not only empowers a local community, but it further attracts an influx of additional resources via co-location and my self-ascribe ‘bump theory’, that the more people interact, the more often ideas will be exchanged.  That is, making cool stuff in distinct areas where making stuff happens a lot becomes acivically-engaged magnet, which further attracts the proliferation of more ideas and prosperity.  

A Fab Lab in Skid Row!   

Fashion designer Francis Bitonti has already caught-on to this concept and is now selling designs that people who have access to 3D printers can manufacture for themselves.  Rather than the cost and redundancy in shipping finished products, why not just empower people to have access to the tools and materials they need to create their own products? 

For the building and construction industry, this has huge impacts.  Not only will expanding a distributed system of a ‘maker’ culture create more skilled craftsman and increase the talent of the labor pool, new concepts in construction and material programming will emerge.  So once again, an aspect of the architecture profession is creating a new paradigm shift in how designers will define the scope of their service to society.

So by the end of the conference, I was no longer questioning why are these talented designers not addressing real-world problems like watershed management, affordable housing, mobility, social impact, etc.  - Now I began to question how are we going to shift the heavy-handed, top-heavy regulatory world of zoning codes, Q conditions, building codes and construction delivery methods to better integrate the emerging innovations that were quickly transforming lives and places around the world.

How can we inspire more policy makers and civic leaders to learn more about technical innovations that were quickly emerging in the design field?

How can we get more design thinkers to the table when it comes time to craft urban policies?

Let’s work together to better integrate the design leader and the city thinker.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering:  "Elk is a plugin used to generate topographies and street maps using data from and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data from NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory."

Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA
Director, Government and Public Affairs

AIA Los Angeles

*Photo credit: Alvin Huang, AIA

Last updated: 28-Oct-2014 02:52 PM
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