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A tidy square box is relatively easy to execute, architecturally speaking; it’s the seemingly random that tests one’s mettle. While software is making the design side easier, fabrication of different components with unusual angles continues to pose difficulties. Architecture Challenge, an annual workshop conducted by the University of Applied Arts Vienna, in conjunction with RexLab at University of Innsbruck, brought together students and experts to explore new frontiers in digital fabrication, culminating in a full-scale structure. The medium of choice: expanding polyurethane foam, combined with gypsum, water and a hardener to produce a material similar to pizza dough, which then stiffens into a rigid substance akin to Styrofoam.

Using three ABB industrial robots, the team stretched the gooey concoction into unusual Y forms and waited for them to set. Because the system allows for any shape to be made, it can produce unique joints without wasting materials. This is accomplished by simply positioning the robots in various formations and letting the material find its Gaudíesque shape organically.

While each joint is distinct, they are hardly random. Before fabrication began, the team workshopped a digital design using Grasshopper plug-ins such as HAL (for robotic programming) and Karamba (3‑D printing) and the genetic algorithm Galapagos to determine each connector’s load-bearing capacity. To demonstrate the joinery, the students linked the finished forms with PVC tubes to create a branching lattice that they installed in the university’s atrium.

Practical applications remain far off, but a lightweight, infinitely adaptable system has many advantages, since it can produce joinery to spec on site. Made-to-order structural components would be ideal for use in deep caves, or even in space – anywhere that materials and specialized equipment are difficult or costly to transport in.

About the school: The Institute of Architecture at the University of Applied Arts Vienna is a leader in material exploration and parametric design. Each year, assistant professor Andrei Gheorghe leads the 10-day Architecture Challenge in which students propose solutions to an architectural problem and work as a team to realize one of them. Project team: Instructors Andrei Gheorghe, Georg Grasser, Thibault Schwartz, and Kadri Tamre with students Matea Ban, Lu Jiaxing, Rhina Portillo, Matthias Urschler, Maria Valente, and Yi Lin Vincent; and experts Clemens Preisinger, Moritz Heimrath, Robert Vierlinger, Arne Hoffmann from Bollinger+Grohmann Engineers.

What the jury said: “We were absolutely seduced by the idea of using contemporary technology to deal with a primary question in architecture now: what are we going to produce next that can hold up buildings?” – Brendan MacFarlane

Winner: Ideas and Prototypes
2015 AZ Awards Winner: Best Concept

The University of Applied Arts Vienna used robots and a novel foam-based material to fashion a system of joints with an array of potential applications in the architecture of the future.

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