Interview: architect Sam Jacob on how technology is shaping modern buildings
Image credit: DT
Throughout the twentieth century, architectural styles evolved rapidly to take advantage of new materials and technologies.
From the early skyscrapers, the utilitarian brutalism in the 1960s through to postmodern and other contemporary structures today, competing factors have drastically changed the form and function of buildings over the last century.
Architect Sam Jacob, whose studio has worked with the V&A and the Design Museum, in addition to other major projects around the UK, explains the impact that computers have had on architectural design.
How have computers influenced modern architectural styles?
“Zaha Hadid is a good example because she developed her approach to architecture through the 70’s and 80’s. It was very manual then and it was really done through paintings. There was a time when people would look at them and they’d go: “well that’s amazing but you’re never going to be able to build it because it’s too crazy”.
“At a certain point her office went digital and this allowed really complex designs to be rationalised and turned into something that you could quantify, engineer and communicate."
“That was one big change, the other thing that changed was that her aesthetic moved from something that was on a very linear plane to something which was incredibly curved. Those curves are incredibly difficult to do manually by hand and to calculate."
“What software allowed her to do was to not only rationalise things that seemed like they were really irrational, but also develop an aesthetic that would have been impossible to do outside of the digital environment. You see it with a certain generation of architects. The same with Frank Gehry who starts off in the 70s in a very DIY-type way, but by the time he’s building the Bilbao Guggenheim it’s full of really complex, doubly curved surfaces."
“The software was so important to Gehry that they developed their own software with Gehry Technologies which shows how important it was in terms of taking an architectural vision or idea and turning into something that was able to be built."
“That is the quantifiable thing. For that generation you can see the change when they went digital and you can date it pretty much and you can see it mainly because of the curves which I think is really interesting."
“The Bilbao Guggenheim opened in 1997, I think it was turning point not only in terms of its architectural style but also the fact that it was such a landmark building that generated so much publicity that is kind of created a new category of building that became a model for so much architecture through the late 90s up until now really.”
Do you anticipate that architects are going to use this technology to create ever more outlandish statements in their building designs?
“If you think back to the Hadid and Gehry approach, that was a particular generation and it was a particular moment in time and it was partly driven by technology. It was also pre-crash and there was a lot more money available. The younger generation are not so interested in the completely crazy approach to designing buildings. There’s much more interest in history, not in a pastiche way, and a move away from the dramatic to something that could be considered more boring."
“I also think the young generation are less amazed by the wild things you can get technology to do and perhaps more interested in a slightly more nuanced way of working. making funny shapes was the first thing you want to do when you get a 3D programme but I think since that’s been done so much now it’s difficult to do a crazier shape than [Hadid]."
“The relationship with digital ways of working is much more relaxed, much less fixed on making the craziest shape you can imagine and much more to do with learning from a broader experience with digital culture. There are lots of different ways to work digitally, it now seems more like we can use them for what they’re good for rather than getting completely caught up in making weird shapes."
“I think that’s really interesting and also about how in general, digital culture has permeated everyday life in a way that doesn’t feel unusual. People already use phones to navigate the city and find stuff out so it becomes part of the way in which you experience life and in a sense that’s how younger architects are working with using technology. It’s a tool that you use, it’s not something which is shocking or different and I think that’s a modern mindset. Also, because the technology is so much better it’s more seamless to move from one environment to another environment and to move between fabrication and digital space and back to physical space."
“If you think of movement in art - in the 1950s you had abstract expressionism, like Jackson Pollock splashing stuff all over the place, after that you get Pop Art which is much more devoid of personality. Then you get minimalism which eschews logos and is almost unrelatable because it’s so perfect and geometric. It’s not less cultural, expression happens in a different way, not so much through the wildest form, but through symbolism or simplicity. It’s also a reaction where the next generation wants to do the opposite of the generation before.!
How does computer aided design (CAD) allow modern architects to create buildings that would have been difficult or impossible in the past?
“It’s being able to do the calculations of, say, curved surfaces which you can do manually, but with computers and significant processing power you can make structures that are much more complex and it can happen faster than before. You can do that in a way that is so precise and can very quickly move from a digital sketch to files used in a fabricator directly. It changes the relationship between the ways in which information is communicated. For that generation the complexity of form was something that working in a digital environment allowed them to suddenly be able to do that in a rational way and communicate it to the more rational parts of the design team such as the engineers and the quantity surveyor."
“From a design point of view, I think the move from architect’s offices being full of drawing boards to full of computers happened about 15-20 years ago. It's not that there's a radical transformation that's going to happen, it's much more a long term, deeper understanding of how we communicate through the hardware and the software that we all have lying around on our desks."
“It's an interesting question as to what that's going to produce. It doesn't mean that everything is going to become one type of thing. I think the opportunities and the possibilities are still there to be explored. That's what's exciting, especially when you get generations who are now completely being brought up within that digital environment rather than having moved from one to the other. I did my degree my on drawing boards and then I did my post graduate on computers.”
What other technologies are used in designing modern buildings?
“The big shift that’s happened in the way a lot of buildings are designed is the use of BIMs (building information management systems) which essentially entail building a one-to-one digital model of everything in the building including all the plumbing, the electrics. It’s not just a thing you’re using to make a render, it is the documents which are then used for construction. What that means, in theory at least, is that it will be a record of the entire building in all of its detail down to the last screw, and in theory that model is supposed to be kept updated as the building goes through it’s life, such as when additions are made."
“What that should do is avoid situations that happen so often with old buildings where you don’t really know the internal structure of a building until you start doing the construction work and it turns out there’s a big bit of steel in an awkward place. In theory it should make it easier and faster and therefore cheaper to be able to work with buildings which are being designed and built today. Obviously the proof is in the pudding 30 years down the line.”
Are new technologies being used to enable modern buildings that last longer and require less maintenance over time?
“The economics of building and development are quite weird and are often based on a couple of issues. One is the return on investment: how much money do you need to borrow and then how much do you recoup over a period of time until you’ve made a profit. Most financial products are usually based around 20 year time frames which influences the amount of time that the materials are warrantied for."
“Material warranties are often about 20 years and after that point, if things go wrong, it gets much more difficult and much more expensive to repair them. In some ways there is built-in obsolescence to modern architecture that isn’t present in more historic buildings. But it depends on the type of building or the purpose; you can design to different lifetimes. It is something that is part of the design process, thinking about long term maintenance, also how long the building is likely to be around."
“It’s about how much do people want them to stay around. So a good example is two projects in east London in Poplar. Both were built in the 60’s and 70’s as social housing and both are by famous architects. One is the Balfron Tower which is basically a miniature Trellick Tower by Erno Goldfinger and then there’s Robin Hood Gardens which was designed by Alison Peter Smithson, who was a very well regarded British architect. They’re both housing projects, both social housing originally. The Balfron Tower was listed which means you can’t demolish it, it becomes a bit of national heritage, but Robin Hood Gardens was refused a listing. There are arguments that they are both important buildings of that period. They both had maintenance issues, like any building does after 50 years, but because the Balfron was listed it couldn’t be knocked down. It was owned by Tower Hamlets which sold it to a private developer who are now refurbishing it and turning it into luxury apartments."
“Robin Hood Gardens on the hand wasn’t listed and they felt that they couldn’t afford to make the upgrades to it and it wasn’t the most efficient use of land. It is in the process of being demolished. Sometimes maintenance of a building can be incredibly expensive but the other option is knocking it down and although that might feel like an immediate solution it does raise a lot of other issues, especially sustainability issues. Is it really a good thing to expend all of that energy involved in the materials and the demolition and then reconstruction when you could build in other ways? It’s much more to do with attitudes than the physical properties of a building I would say."
“When you start getting heritage issues involved it becomes a really different argument about if it’s an important part of the cultural heritage of the country.”
E&T spoke to Sam Jacobs at Dell's Future of Architecture event in London.