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Hybrid architecture: combining digital design and vernacular craftsmanship

In Mendoza, Argentina, the Node 39 FabLab digital fabrication research lab created a digitally cut wooden frame loom structure to help indigenous people in the central region of the country weave and create their traditional patterns. . In the state of Ceará, in northeastern Brazil, a study called “Artífices Digitais” (Digital Craftsmen) conducted by the Federal University of the State of Ceará used digital manufacturing tools, namely printing 3D, to produce digital models, such as digital prostheses, to restore the damaged parts of an altarpiece of the high altar of the mother church in the town of Russas.

Aquahoja.  Image courtesy of MIT Media LabIn China, an experimental ceramic brick pavilion merges craftsmanship and digital manufacturing.  © Christian J. LangeIn China, an experimental ceramic brick pavilion merges craftsmanship and digital manufacturing.  © Christian J. LangeRobotic collaboration.  Image courtesy of ETH Zurich+ 11

These are just two examples of many new initiatives that combine craft techniques and digital technology. This approach seems to highlight a strange contradiction in the world (and in architecture) today. Because digital tools make everything more accessible and more similar, there is a persistent desire to express the uniqueness of each place, each community, each architect. In this sense, the connection between these two worlds, digital and vernacular, is an alternative between systematic replication and unique craftsmanship.

Some say that digital fabrication, when applied to architecture, is a sort of ‘return to materiality’, emphasizing materials and techniques rather than intellectual knowledge, especially when these are specific machines that are becoming more and more available in universities. However, it should be noted that this is not just a technology update, just a new tool, but an important opportunity to rethink the way we make architecture and integrate the principles of environmental and social sustainability.

In this context, a strategy called ‘digital vernacular’ emerges, combining the principles of traditional architecture and current digital technology in an effort to make contemporary design more affordable and innovative. According to Stevens and Nelson, the authors of the book Digital vernacular: architectural principles, tools and processes, constantly returning to one’s origins is a way to stay connected to fundamental aspects of architecture and to approach them with new ideas and perspectives.

Despite the importance of theory and research on this subject, the practice of combining techniques is still in its infancy, almost always based on small-scale prototypes, nevertheless of great value to our disciplined. Scheeren and Sperling, from FAU-USP, tackle the theme of “hybrid craftsmanship” with the example of the Parabrick device built by FabLab CIDI, a university research laboratory in Asuncion, Paraguay. Brick is one of the most common raw materials in Paraguayan architecture because it is very easy to obtain when it comes to self-construction and because of its popularity in the field of architecture thanks to the great work of Solano Benítez. With this in mind, the FabLab CIDI has created a device that can aid manual work by providing support to guide the construction of different masonry links and patterns. It is made with digitally cut pieces of wood that can be easily assembled on the job site. This process is similar to the CeramicINformation pavilion exhibited in 2018 at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture (UABB) in Shenzhen, China.

In China, an experimental ceramic brick pavilion merges craftsmanship and digital manufacturing.  © Christian J. Lange
In China, an experimental ceramic brick pavilion merges craftsmanship and digital manufacturing. © Christian J. Lange
In China, an experimental ceramic brick pavilion merges craftsmanship and digital manufacturing.  © Christian J. Lange
In China, an experimental ceramic brick pavilion merges craftsmanship and digital manufacturing. © Christian J. Lange

The aforementioned book also includes another interesting example of masonry that combines digital fabrication and handmade processes, but on the other side of the globe, in India. A collaboration between the FabLab at Lawrence Technological University and New Delhi architect Ayodh Kamath resulted in a system of laser-cut molds used to shape blocks using locally sourced clay. Using parametric software, each block is adjusted and customized in a preset position to create the characteristic meanders of 17th century England fireplaces. Local masons built the dome by placing each block using computer-generated measurements. While the artisans were building it, a CNC machine was used to create holes in the bricks to allow light and ventilation.

In 2010, German designer Markus Kayser went further and tested his first Solar Sinter in the deserts of Egypt. Kayser took advantage of the abundant reserves of sun and sand found in deserts to melt silica and create a strong glass-like material. This process of converting a powdery substance via a heating process into a solid form is known as sintering. This experience ultimately served as the basis for a whole new method of 3D manufacturing and printing, so much so that years later it was named the D-Shape process. The sand reacts chemically with a binder to form a sandstone material. D-shaped components have relatively high tensile strength and are compared to reinforced concrete. The printer sits in a 6m by 6m frame and the goal is to create large-scale buildings in the future.

These examples show that we can use earth, sand or any other natural material to create a link between new technologies and local techniques. They prove that we don’t have to sacrifice vernacular craftsmanship to use modern technology, or vice versa, pointing out that a balance between the two seems to be the way forward towards a more sustainable building industry.

Students build a bamboo pavilion suspended from ropes and 3D printed joints.  © Barak Pelman
Students build a bamboo pavilion suspended from ropes and 3D printed joints. © Barak Pelman

Although these are small-scale initiatives, they will pave the way for future projects with more sophisticated and complex solutions once we overcome the many technical hurdles we still face today. As these techniques are still in their infancy, university laboratories play an important role in the development of models. Most of the examples cited above are prototypes developed by an academic team responsible for converging the digital technology available in the scientific environment with the popular culture of the communities. And that seems to be, precisely, the most valuable lesson we can draw from these experiences, the sensitivity to observe and learn from the environment, using technology to nurture and preserve the identity of the community, in combining creativity and culture. It may be the future of architecture.

This article is part of the ArchDaily topic: Local materials. Each month, we explore a topic in depth through articles, interviews, news and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily, we welcome contributions from our readers; if you would like to submit an article or a project to us, please contact us.


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