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Issue #20

The deployment of a robot is unavoidable where a human being would find it very difficult to work out the assembly logic of the individual bricks.

Tobias Bonwetsch – Managing Director of ROB Technologies.

Tobias Bonwetsch Portrait picture architect
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brick laying robot Gramazio Kohler Research ETH Zürich Switzerland
© Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zürich

RE-THINKING MASONRY VIA DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES

Roof & Façade

“Construction, understood as the art of transforming material to architecture, finds its most radical fulfilment in today’s age of digital fabrication in which the robot enables a direct connection between design and production. Here architecture unfolds its contemporary and most apt constructive expression through the amalgamation of digital logic and novel machinic processes. Through the robot the digital reveals its hidden ‘constructive nature’, and therefore propels the vital continuation of the constructive tradition of architecture in the information age.”1

Robots are currently advancing into a diverse range of activities. The building industry is no exception. Hence even brick, one the oldest and most tradition-rich building materials, is now subject to processing by digital manufacturing technologies. The use of digital technologies in architecture – from the conception of an architectural idea to its constructional execution – makes possible a seamless penetration of information throughout the entire manufacturing process. Robots, especially, allow a transfer of digital design information into a physical manufacturing act. In combination with intelligent control systems, robotic systems offer the skills and flexibility called for in the building process.

brick laying robot Gramazio Kohler Research ETH Zürich Switzerland
© Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zürich

That said, the usefulness of a robot cannot be reduced to a mere boost in productivity and a general simplification of the construction process. Rather, a robot affects the very principles governing the design and manufacturing process. As shown by the Gantenbein winery façade project by Gramazio Kohler Architects (2006) and the recently completed 3,500-square-metre building envelope for the Le Stelle project by Buzzi studio di architettura, the introduction of digitally controllable, bespoke construction processes can generate new kinds of architectural potentials, both from an aesthetic and from a functional viewpoint. It is no coincidence that these first architectural applications of an industrial robot are masonry constructions. The laying of bricks is a task for which robots are ideally suited. Far more significant, however, are the architectural qualities offered by brick as one of the fundamental building elements of architecture.

Chief among these is the adaptability of masonry to the most diverse architectural styles and requirements. This is due to brick’s simple, generic geometry, and its relatively small size in comparison to the finished product. Bricks can be put together in countless combinations, which permits the realisation of vastly different building types.

brick laying robot Gramazio Kohler Research ETH Zürich Switzerland
© Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zürich

Traditional masonry – because of its inherent constructional logic and because of the number of bricks needed to create a larger, meaningful whole, a number that can quickly exceed a critical mass – often follows the logic of a static, regular pattern. Herein lies the most obvious but also most radical con- sequence of a robot-based brick- working process: namely the ability to digitally control a huge number of elements and – this is of critical importance – to position them freely in space. Thus, combined with digital design tools, robots allow brickwork constructions that easily consist of many thousands of bricks, beyond traditional bonds and replicable typologies, and thus allow a fundamental confrontation with architectural complexity.

The examples cited above are characterised precisely by their detailed and structured organisation of an unusually large number of elements, making for highly differentiated and unique brickwork structures. Various aesthetic and functional requirements to be fulfilled by the masonry, such as an expressive and orna- mental appearance and the need for variously strong opacity, are synthesised to a homogeneous whole. The resulting masonry constructions appear materially familiar, yet techno- logically foreign. In this sense, combining an established building material with new digital design processes and manufacturing technologies widens the architectural capacities of masonry, enabling a partial rethinking of the concept.

This essay was originally published in the Wienerberger Brick Award book “Brick 16” for the category Special Solution.

1 F. Gramazio, M. Kohler and J. Willmann, The Robotic Touch, p. 181