Published: 20.10.09
Digital fabrication

Robot builds brick wall in New York

A robot is currently building a looping brick wall right in the middle of New York. Over a period of three weeks, passers-by can watch the “Pike Loop” installation in the making on a traffic island. The digitally controlled construction of the sculpture was developed at ETH-Zurich's Professorship of Architecture and Digital Fabrication.

Lukas Langhart
Light and shadows bring the digital structures to life. After twelve days of construction, the “Pike Loop” installation is already more than half finished. (Photo:Gramazio & Kohler / ETH Zurich)
Light and shadows bring the digital structures to life. After twelve days of construction, the “Pike Loop” installation is already more than half finished. (Photo:Gramazio & Kohler / ETH Zurich) (large view)

Brick is a dominant feature of New York’s cityscape, and Pike Street is no exception: from October 5 – 27, the citizens of Manhattan can follow in real time how an industrial robot uses innovative technology to transform the traditional material into a complex infinite loop – the “Pike Loop”.

Digital and material realities

The brick loop in New York is no ordinary wall. The two architects, Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, who both teach and research at ETH Zurich, have breathed a breath of fresh air into popular design patterns with their interdisciplinary approach: “Digital characteristics can enrich a material and thus influence its architectural expression and functionality”, say the two assistant professors of architecture and digital fabrication, whose research team designed and implemented “Pike Loop”.

Instead of the conventional straight brick wall, you can use shapes and construction principles that have been programmed into the computer and digitally transferred to the material to make a three-dimensional composition. “We marry the digital reality of the computer with the material reality of a building”, say the two architects. They call this approach “digital materiality”.

Robot in a box

Over 7,000 bricks are in Pike Street waiting to be stacked based on complex calculations – not by bricklayers, but by a digitally controlled robot called R-O-B, which is kept in a freight container ready to be transported directly to a building site. As R-O-B has a range of 4.5 meters and the installation is to be 22 meters long in total, the robot moves along the construction site on a flat-bed trailer to enable it to work continuously on the construction of the wall.

The bricks are bonded together with quick-drying glue – also by the industrial robot. The fact that none of the bricks lies exactly on top of the one below creates a three-dimensional effect. And as the wall rises from the ground here and there and crosses over itself at several points, the infinite loop gets a dynamic expression

More precise than by human hand

The installation in New York exemplifies how, by combining digital design and fabrication tools, the architects can now control the production process in every detail. The resulting buildings therefore exhibit shapes and structures that could never be created by hand – not without an enormous amount of effort, at least. Consequently, the point of Gramazio and Kohler’s research is not to put the bricklayer out of a job. Their latest installation is primarily supposed to be for the purposes of architectural research – a test of the potential and limitations of this production technique with respect to a contemporary design culture, as they put it.

Gramazio and Kohler’s research team already used R-O-B to build a oscillating wall at last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice. The wall, however, was erected in front of the exhibition hall and then transported into the premises. Thus, “Pike Loop” is the first installation of its kind to be constructed on its eventual exhibition site.

The initiator of the installation was the renowned New York gallery Storefront for Art and Architecture which is currently holding an exhibition entitled “Digital Materiality” from October 1 – November 14 that contains selected projects from Gramazio & Kohler’s teaching and research activities at ETH Zurich’s Department of Architecture. The finished wall is to be inaugurated in the evening of October 27 and will remain on the traffic island until the end of the year.

References

Gramazio Fabio / Kohler Matthias: Digital Materiality in Architecture. Lars Müller Publishers 2008. 112 pp., hardcover, 157 illustrations. English. CHF 59.90. ISBN 978-3-03778-122-7.

 
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