When Hills Hide Arches


Landforms masquerading as architecture and vice versa seem to dominate a few sets of older images hosted at the Library of Congress.

Photos taken between 1865 and 1872, these are—photographically speaking—almost impossibly ancient, approaching a point of chemical age as comparatively old to us today as the structures they depict were to the military expeditions that documented them in the first place.


The first shot—depicting the “ruins of the Mulushki Mirza Rabat near Khodzhend,” as the Library of Congress explains it—establishes something of a theme here: works of architecture built from modules of fired clay, their wind-pocked brickwork extracted from the hills around them and transformed by kilns into something artificial, “manmade,” now more artifact than natural object.

Ironically, though, it is exactly their resemblance to the earth that sets the stage for these structures’ later decay, falling apart into mere dust and minerals, little pebbles and grains of sand, literally forming dunes, blending imperceptibly with the landscape. Once they’re gone, it’s as if they were never there.


Domes and extraordinary arches stand in the middle of nowhere, as if left behind by the receding tide of some alien civilization that once slid through, depositing works of architecture in its wake. Like the slime of a snail, these are just residue, empty proof that something much bigger once passed by.

What’s so amazing about these pictures, I’d suggest, is that, among other things, they come with the surreal implication that, beneath or somehow within all the rolling hills and dunes of the surrounding landscape, these sprawling bridges and spinal forms are actually hidden, just waiting there for hooded, 19th-century backpackers to rediscover.

These tiny figures are probably laughing in awe at the anti-gravitational urge that pushes these structures up above the sand line, into the photographs of these seemingly nameless expeditionary teams intent on cataloging every 必威客户端app ly exotic detail they find.


Here, in the ruins of Murza Rabat, seen below, natural hills are actually catacombs of architecture, 必威手机版 s fooling us for their resemblance to caves, structurally camouflaged as the surface of the earth.

But it’s not the planet—it’s not geology—it’s just architecture: a shaped thing, an artifact, something plastic and formed by human hands. Not hills but abandoned 必威手机版 s.


In the end, photographs of sand dunes might actually depict scenes of collapsed architecture; that landscape there in front of you might really be a city seen one thousand years after the fact, every wall cracked open and broken into pointless little mounds you’d probably stomp through without even thinking, the desert all around you giving no indication that this all used to be structure.

It used to be arches, bridges, vaults, and domes, huge mosques and cathedrals of human form before crumbling into mindless anthills of mud and clay.


It’s almost like these photographs exist to remind you that everything you now think of as a room—as space, as volume, as creation—will soon just be a suffocation of sand grains packed together in dense, amnesia-ridden hills, landscapes almost laughably quick to forget they once were architecture.

All photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Return of the Brick Swarm

A short video has been released documenting the brick swarm project mentioned here last month, in which Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler deploy semi-autonomous flying robots to assemble a structure of foam bricks. However, it’s as if the architects underestimate the interest of their own work, fast-forwarding through the bulk of the assembly process as if no one would want to watch such a thing (or perhaps their robots were less graceful than originally hoped). Either way, check out the results, embedded above.

(Thanks to phenrydelphia for the tip!)

Brick Swarm

[Image: From “Flight Assembled Architecture” by Gramazio & Kohler].

Semi-autonomous flying robots programmed by Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler “will lift, transport and assemble 1500 polystyrene foam bricks” next month—starting 2 December 2011—at the FRAC Center in France. The result, they hope, will be a “3.5 meter wide structure.”

[Image: From “Flight Assembled Architecture” by Gramazio & Kohler].

According to the architects, this will serve as an experimental test-run for the construction of a hypothetical future megastructure—presumably requiring full-scale, autonomous, GPS-stabilized helicopters. However, I’d think that even a small insectile swarm of robot bricklayers piecing together a new low-rise condominium somewhere—its walls slowly materializing out of a cloud of rotors and drones—would be just as compelling.

(Earlier on betway必威 : Flying Robotic Construction Cloud and Robotism, or: The Golden Arm of Architecture).

The Robot and the Architect are Friends

[Image: The architect and his construction robots by Villemard].

In 1910, French artist Villemard produced a series of illustrations depicting what life might be like in the year 2000, including an architect and his robotic construction crew.

In an article published last summer in Icon, called “The Robot and the Architect are Friends,” Will Wiles wrote that Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler “have a vision: architecture using robotics to take command of all aspects of construction. Liberated from the sidelines, the profession would be freed to unleash all its creative potential—all thanks to its obedient servants, the robots. But first, architects must learn the robots’ language.”

[Image: Courtesy of Icon].

It all sounds deceptively easy at first: the architects have merely to program their robotic arm “to pick up a brick and place it, and then to repeat the process with variations. When this program runs, the result is a wall.”

The machine itself moves with the clipped grace we associate with robotics, performing neat, discrete actions that contain within them an assortment of fluid swivels and turns. These quick-slow, deliberate movements are hypnotic. It’s beautiful to watch but, because it moves in a way that looks animal while being unlike anything we know in nature, there’s something in it that’s inescapably unnerving.

Given multiple robots, sufficient bricks, complex instructions, and enough time, “extraordinary forms” can result, patterned and pixellated, brick-by-brick.

[Image: “Pike Loop” (2009) by Gramazio & Kohler].

“Considering the revolutionary potential of their work,” Wiles writes, “you might expect a note of utopian zeal from the pair.” He quickly adds, on the other hand, that, “if you want dazzling Wellsian predictions, delivered with glittering eyes, of future armies of architect-controlled mechanoids transforming the world, you’ve come to the wrong place.” Gramazio & Kohler’s vision is, instead, “understated, modest, [and] reasonable.”

Nonetheless, some combination of Villemardian enthusiasm—airborne tennis!—with rigorous architectural robotics, and perhaps even with emerging new brick designs and a new generation of 3D printers, is an enticing vision to pursue for the future of 必威手机版 construction.

(Villemard image originally seen via Selectism, thanks to a tip from Jon Bucholtz. Earlier on betway必威 : Flying Robotic Construction Cloud).

Modular Advances

[Image: Constructing with BeadBricks by Rizal Muslimin, courtesy of Brickstainable].

The winners of this year’s Brickstainable design competition were announced last week, and two of the technical award-winners are actually quite interesting.

[Images: BeadBricks by Rizal Muslimin, courtesy of Brickstainable].

I’m particularly taken by a submission called BeadBricks by Rizal Muslimin, described as able to facilitate the design of microclimates “in and around 必威手机版 s” by allowing variable levels of porosity in the facade. BeadBricks could thus allow architects “to modulate the environmental factors including sunshine, wind, thermal mass, and evaporative cooling.”

The system, Muslimin explains, consists of “two bricks (A and B) with four basic rules that can generate shape in one, two and three dimensional space.” Further, “the bricks are decorated with a pattern that can generate various ornaments by rotating them along its vertical or horizontal axis.”

[Image: Constructing with BeadBricks by Rizal Muslimin, courtesy of Brickstainable].

The overall technical winner is also worth checking out: the EcoCeramic Masonry System, a “Recombinant and Multidimensional” molded terracotta brick devised by Kelly Winn and Jason Vollen.

[Image: The EcoCeramic Masonry System by Kelly Winn and Jason Vollen, courtesy of Brickstainable].

As Brickstainable describes it, their brick system “showcases the ability to look at new ceramic-based wall assemblies. Strategies include thermal dynamics, self-shading, moisture reduction, hydroscopic, evaporative, and termite behavior studies.”

[Images: The EcoCeramic Masonry System by Kelly Winn and Jason Vollen, courtesy of Brickstainable].

Meanwhile, a related project comes to us from designer Dror Benshetrit, who recently invented his own modular system, called QuaDror. On the other hand, it’s not really a “brick”; Fast Company describes it as “a structural joint that looks a little like a sawhorse, but can fold flat, making it both stunningly sturdy, remarkably flexible, and aesthetically pleasing.” Check out the video:

The suggested uses for QuaDror “include support trestles for bridges, sound buffer walls for highways, a speedy skeleton for disaster or low-income housing, and quirky public art.”

All in all, I would love to see more exploration with all three of these ideas, and I look forward to seeing all of them utilized in projects outside the design studio.

(Thanks to Thomas Rainwater for the tip about QuaDror and to Peter Doo for keeping me updated on Brickstainable).

The Blobwall and the Bomb

[Image: Operation Sailor Hat, before detonation, via Wikipedia].

It’s a house, it’s a ziggurat, it’s… 500 tons of TNT stacked in a dome on the Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe. A later test-detonation of these architecturally arranged fissile materials left a huge, still-extent crater that “currently contains unique sub-species of shrimp” that have “evolved to survive the hypersaline conditions” in the artificially excavated hole.

Bringing to mind Greg Lynn’s Blobwall—amorphous and multicolored plastic “bricks” whose puzzle-like stacking produced (unfortunately quite garish) enclosures—or even Gramazio & Kohler’s robot-built wall in New York City, Pike Loop, the dome implies a kind of militarized vernacular through which new, functional architectures can be constructed.

20th-century prefab modularity by way of well-placed bricks of TNT.

[Image: Greg Lynn’s Blobwall, on display at SCI-Arc].

But perhaps someday we’ll see autonomous instruments of robotic war crawling behind enemy lines, 必威手机版 fantastically elaborate, Dr. Seussian architectures on the shores of foreign continents. Artificially intelligent 3D printers, producing bomb-domes—explosive ziggurats—vast and terrible 必威手机版 s awaiting their detonative spark from the sky.

Robotism, or: The Golden Arm of Architecture

For the past four weeks, an orange robotic arm has been constructing a brick wall in south Manhattan.

[Image: Pike Loop by Gramazio & Kohler].

Neither a new Berlin Wall nor part of a delayed realization of Superstudio’s Continuous Monument, the machine was, in fact, built and programmed by Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler. It is now the focus of an exhibition, called Pike Loop, at Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Tonight—Tuesday, October 27—at 7pm, Storefront will be hosting a public event in celebration of the project, down at the wall itself, free and open to the public. Here’s how to get there from Storefront. Be sure to stop by.