While robotic fabrication in architecture has commonly been approached under a paradigm of efficiency and optimization, the exhibition Robots that Build: The Extensions of Man explores how it is also being used to translate, adapt, and advance traditional craft manufacturing techniques.
Robotic Fabrication in Construction
As many other sectors in society, in the past few decades, construction and building technology have experienced a continuous trend towards digitalization and automation. The extended use of robots has been embraced by the construction sector, recognizing in it a way to guarantee economic efficiency, maximize profits, and reduce margins of error. Conversely, particularly within academic circles, robotic use in architecture and construction has been approached not solely from a utilitarian perspective but also as an opportunity to reexamine, evaluate, and reconsider the issues of manufacturing, fabrication, control and particularly craft. The use of robots in construction has been proclaimed as a new opportunity to redefine craftsmanship and the notion of the master builder within architecture. Terms such as digital master builder, digital craftsman or digital craftsmanship circulated extensively, invoking similarities and overlaps between the underlying processes and strategies of the mind, the hand, the machine, and, most importantly, the material.
Digital and Robotic Craft
Within the context of robotic fabrication, skilled work is by no means something that becomes obsolete, particularly since robotic fabrication requires hybridized workflows of human-machine processes. Thus, skilled work by craftsmen is crucial to ensure an intelligent—and thus a meaningful—translation of craft from human to machine, specifically the robot acting as the craftsman’s extension. Craft, effectively, implies sticky and tacit knowledge, that is, a consequential, emerging knowledge that can only be developed and transmitted through direct process involvement. A knowledge that is not only difficult to articulate but also to transfer in a quantitative manner, since it is based on direct experience and prolonged practice. By extensively working with a material and the correlated tools, one develops a ‘feel’ for the material and the process of making. Such ‘feel’ is also critical in robotic fabrication. Nearly 25 years after McCullough’s seminal publication Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand,” the exhibition Robots that Build: The Extensions of Man examines the current state and correlation between robotic fabrication and what is conventionally understood as craft.
Digital Craft Fabrication
The artefacts presented in this exhibition were produced through various digital fabrication techniques that directly correspond to and are informed by craft-based practices. Craftsman can only operate through an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the materials material behavior as well as the employed tools. From additive manufacturing with clay to robotic winding with fibers, to the robotic fabrication of fabric formwork for concrete casting, all of these robotic processes demand as a prerequisite an understanding of the materials and manual experimentation with them. As it brings together the work of several of the most advanced and innovative research groups exploring the boundaries of robotic-craft fabrication (including TU Eindhoven, TU Delft, ETH Zurich, Hong Kong University, Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Newcastle University, Niccolo Casas Architecture, Royal Danish Academy, Southern Denmark University, Vertico, Studio Rap, Stack3D), this exhibition ultimately questions issues of cultural specificity, cultural significance and socio-cultural relevance of robotic fabrication in architecture, design and construction.