Wednesday, May 29, 2013

PhD in 3 minutes (in Danish)

[Ready to deliver a PhD in 3 minutes - Yours Concretely Anne-Mette Manelius, Photo by Martin Kunzendorf, DR]

Last year the excellent Danish newspaper Information (based on WWII illegal underground newspaper) and DR (the public Danish Broadcasting Corporation) launched a competition for newly finished PhD candidates to communicate their projects in terms of the relevance to society. It is easily criticized to be superficial but communication to others than your peers is a way to democratize knowledge and furthermore the PhD Cup is a great opportunity to practice communicating substantial work in a second... the elevator speech more or less.

This year I was lucky to be selected to be among 32 participants nation wide. I did not make it to the final but part of the PhDCup 2013 included a 3-minute talk which I give to you with no further ado.

Here is the link to PhD in 3 minutes about fabric formwork and my project. This may mostly for Danish/Scandinavian readers since the linked speak is in Danish.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Slow architecture - Future Baroque landscaping

[Photo of the Colonnade Park by Brett Milligan, via]

Slow place making in Seattle
To me, architecture is very much about making places more than spaces and technology (yes, despite this blog’s focus on architectural technology). I'd like to share a great article about a remarkable place, the Collonade Bike Park project in Seattle. A landscape developed over years in a leftover, urban space, the deeply-shaded underbelly of an elevated section of Seattle’s I-5 freeway. It is user-driven slow architecture and the authors compares its becoming with Baroque gardening that happens over centuries.

The project is the slow development of a bike park, built by volunteers and using only scrap materials collected bit by bit (or load by load). - The park has taken four years to build and is on-going.

About this ‘Future Baroque’, the authors Rob Holmes and Brett Milligan, write:
But, as appealing as it is, the lo-fi aesthetic of these pragmatic and hand-made constructions is not the most important lesson of the Park. What Colonnade Park suggests is a re-orientation of the practice of landscape architecture away from faceless capital and towards creative and vested labor; away from design elitism and towards the participation of the users of a landscape in its construction; and away from standardization and mechanization towards difference, variability and the instantiated volition of the individual laborer.”

[Photo of the Colonnade Park by Brett Milligan, via]

As examples of aspects for a successful future baroque (user-involved) project, the authors name three factors that made the Bike Project possible:
  • Someone had to recognize the latent potential of those couple of abandoned acres beneath I-5. In this case, that someone was a local bike shop owner and used the place anyway, sheltered from the Seattle weather.
  • The site had no commercial value - in fact, the shadowed space was considered a safety hazard by the future park’s neighbors. The mere increase in safety for the neighbors was thus considered a benefit and aided the project to come through.
  • The volunteers were specialists: the volunteers are experienced bikers who wanted to ride in the future park themselves. They possessed an innate and specific understanding of the physical geometry of the future uses of the park.

[Photo of the Colonnade Park by Brett Milligan, via]
Baroque fabric-formed architecture
I constantly deal with a paradox when discussing the future of fabric formwork for concrete. On one hand, the craftsmanship involved in the process of construction is what shows as the direct relation between principles, techniques, and material, on the other hand, this slow and low-tech architecture is simply too exclusive in its slowness and thus too expensive for conventional and industrialized construction, at least in the context of Northern Europe’s high cost labor. The issue of scale and time is at stake.

Meanwhile there are important and parallel investigations in construction, making things happening using community labor as well as scrap materials. In our reality in which raw materials are becoming scarce, dealing with waste is becoming gold - the economy of recycled or reused material is immense and, at least in the Bike Park project, its pragmatic aesthetics is wonderful on a number of levels because it is so closely connected to its place-making abilities and the result of something more.

As the article suggests: "the labor of knowledgeable and motivated ecological hobbyists could transform gardening from an individualistic and primarily ornamental practice into a communal effort, cultivating whole and diversified cities. Labor, which like the volunteer labor that built Colonnade Park, is uniquely motivated, local, and capable of imbuing its work with creative intent, falls outside the typical boundaries of landscape architecture as ‘professionally practiced’. And as these vested pools of labor fuse user, designer and builder they are more invested and broadly knowledgeable of its future use and how it will be occupied than the wage laborers of capital projects, opening diverse realms of possibility for the design of urban landscapes." via

[By the way, Yay – this is my blogpost number 100]

Formwork tectonics - to round a square column

[2-meter high fabric-formed concrete column]
Formal consequence
The use of flexible molds entails a direct formal relation between the tectonic principles of the formwork structure, the type of concrete pour, and its concrete consequence, so to speak. It is a potential to develop the details in formwork construction because they are technical as well as aesthetic/form giving. On the other hand, this formal consequence means that all mistakes show themselves as well with equal power, and this is a disadvantage of the building method unless you see mess-ups as a charm. The dilemma of course is that working meticulously in construction shows high-level craftsmanship. This comes at a price in hours and wages, in Denmark 70% of the cost of concrete elements go to wages.
[Images of fabric-formed plaster model 1:4] 
Formwork tectonics
One of the student groups at the 2013 TEK1 workshop at RDAFA also concluded this from their preliminary experiments with fabric formed plaster casts. When attempting to literately tailor the fabric formwork the ruthless character of the poured plaster changed initial intentions to less controlled and little desired folds and bulges (not shown here). It took a long time to work with intricate principles and it still proved difficult to anticipate and achieve the results they desired. As a result, the students devised a formwork principle that, while simple to construct, would still result in sharp, controlled edges as well as soft curving surfaces. The principle was tested in the model shown above


Formgiver and structure
The storyboard shows the steps of constructing the column and the simplicity and tectonics of the structural formwork principle. The title is Compression and Expansion and refers to the role of the formwork sheets and the consequence on the poured fabric mold. I love how the interlocking and formgiving mdf-sheets are also what holds up the fabric tube. The principle means that the column has a square footprint and always two flat surfaces and two curved ones, i.e. quite a complex geometry.

[Left: the formwork structure ready for the pour. Right, detail of the formwork structure before stripping ; bits of cement has filtered through the fabric along with excess mix water during the pour.]

[Sketches from student report showing the principles and the steps of constructing the formwork]
Creases and shifts
Despite their work at simplifying the process for ultimate control, for the resulting fabric-formed concrete column, students were unhappy about little creases from the fabric as well as the asymmetry of the bulges. Especially the bottom has uneven bulges, which could have been avoided by adjusting the fabric tube before and during the pour, as well as working the concrete from outside the formwork – simply moving the fresh concrete by pushing against the membrane mold. Note, however, how identical creases can be found on the surface of the plaster model cast using the same principle.

This first meeting with concrete and principles formwork tectonics for first-year students is promising. If you are in Copenhagen, swing by the quay behind the RDAFA and check out the columns.

Work and drawings by: Oskar Mannov, Sidsel Petersen, Nora Ødegård, Cuong Tran, and Toke Ridderson.
TEK1 2013 concrete workshop organized and taught by Finn Bach, Tenna Beck, and Anne-Mette Manelius (yours Concretely) for the Institute of Architectural Technology at the RDAFASA

I have written much more about formwork tectonics and stereogeneity (concrete as material and as process) in my PhD dissertation

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ensamble Studio's concrete sticks and bones

The Spanish architectural office Ensamble Studio uses concrete as a tectonic ensemble of elements or as a poured mass of liquid stone. Sticks and stones, in other words. -- enjoy a few videos of constructing the projects further down in this post.

Constructing solid space
For a while I was only familiar with their quirky project the Truffle. I like the conceptual approach to constructing space and structure. Bales of hay is used to construct the solid space, so to speak, and then concrete is poured all over it. - the main quirky part is the use of a neighbor's calf to feed off the hay and thus excavating the interior space over the summer. The cow grows as does the space.

[Image above by Ensamble Studio, 2010]

[Film about the cow Paulina and the project, YouTube link]

[This way of constructing space can be compared with the Bruder Klaus Kapel by Peter Zumthor. Here the space is constructed by wooded laths, cast in what appears to be a pisé technique - and finally the space is revealed by a fire burning away the wood.]
According to a lecture with an Ensamble Studio architect, the Truffle House was a prototype for another and much larger project to be cast in place and in which the different functions were conceived as spatial blocks connected by concrete pour. The studio did not win this competition but it would be great to see a scaled up version of this conceptual approach to casting, which is so bound to the process of construction and of very small projects.

Radical Sticks
Other projects use prefabricated and huge concrete elements, tectonic use of concrete sticks. - the Hemeroscopium House (2005) is pretty radical in its use of elements laying off eachother. And that's it - no cold bridges dealt with - and looots of concrete. I have seen images of livable spaces of the house. Images of the web site are more structural.
[Hemeroscopium House (2005) with the 'G point' rock on top. Via]
The office describes how: "It took us a year to engineer but only seven days to build the structure, thanks to a total prefabrication of the different elements and a perfectly coordinated rhythm of assembly. All of our effort oriented to develop the technique that would allow creating a very specific space. And thus, a new astonishing language is invented, where form disappears giving way to the naked space. Hemeroscopium house materializes the peak of its equilibrium with what in Ensamble Studio we ironically call the “G point”, a twenty ton granite stone, expression of the force of gravity and a physical counterweight to the whole structure."via

[Hemeroscopium House (2005) with the prestressed 'swimming pool profile' element. Via]

[4 minute movie of the construction, YouTube link]
Transformation of space and program
Reader's House is my favorite project and is the transformation of an old market hall to a cultural purpose. Here, long pre-streesed U-shaped elements, introduces a different orientation of the space, as well as the opportunity of a variety of programs on these bridge-like slabs. The slabs span the entire space in a simple and remarkable way.

[Images of the Reader's House, via]

"The Reader’s House project is the result of a competition that took place in 2006, in which Ensamble Studio won the first prize. The purpose of the competition was to restore the warehouses 13, 14, 17b and 17c of the Old Slaughterhouse to incorporate a new educational program.

The proposal made by Ensamble Studio maintains and enhances the original character of the industrial complex, by imposing a new order to the one of the pre-existent buildings. The confluence and relationship of the new system and the existing one forms a new space.

Two physical, perceptual and activity levels are defined forming a mutable scenario. The upper level, constructed with precast concrete beams of 40 Tons each, is a space for research and study. These beams are bridges, aerial streets, vectors of activity. In opposition to the basilica-like structure of the warehouses, longitudinal, light and metallic; the new structures are inserted through the windows and sew the space transversally, giving unity to the complex formed by the warehouses 13 and 14, which were previously independent buildings. The lower level participates, without losing its essence, of the rhythm marked by the upper level. Dynamic and mutable, this level will host the educational and cultural diffusion activities, enabling their future redefinition."From the Ensamble Studio website 
[Building the Reader's House, Youtube link]
Watch this video of the construction process - It's hard to explain and hard to believe the simplicity of the construction process, really - the accompanying music plays on this in Buster Keaton type way, I guess... I mean, Keaton and Ensamble do have some high precision planning in common if you think of this famous movie clip.