Hybrid Architecture: Combining Digital Design and Vernacular Crafts
In Mendoza, Argentina, the digital fabrication research lab Node 39 FabLab created a frame loom structure made of digitally cut wood to help indigenous people in the central region of the country weave and create their traditional patterns. In the state of Ceará, northeast Brazil, a study entitled “Artífices Digitais” (Digital Artisans) by the Federal University of the State of Ceará used digital fabrication tools, namely 3D printing, to produce digital models, like digital prosthetics, to restore the damaged parts of an altarpiece of the high altar of the Mother Church in the city of Russas.
These are just two examples of many new initiatives that have been combining handcraft techniques and digital technology. This move seems to highlight a strange contradiction in the world (and in architecture) today. Because digital tools make everything more accessible and more alike, there is a persistent desire to express the uniqueness of each place, each community, each architect. In this sense, the connection between these two worlds, digital and vernacular, is an alternative between systematic replication and unique craftsmanship.
Some say that digital fabrication, when applied to architecture, is a kind of “return to materiality,” emphasizing materials and techniques instead of intellectual knowledge, especially when it comes to specific machinery that is becoming more available in universities. However, it is worth noting that this is not just a technological update, simply a new tool, but an important opportunity to rethink how we make architecture and to incorporate principles of environmental and social sustainability.
In this context, a strategy called “digital vernacular” emerges, combining principles of traditional architecture and current digital technology in an effort to make contemporary design more affordable and innovative. According to Stevens and Nelson, authors of the book Digital Vernacular: Architectural Principles, Tools, and Processes, constantly returning to one’s origins is a way to stay connected to fundamental aspects of architecture and to address them with fresh insights and new perspectives.
Despite the importance of theory and research on this topic, the practice of combining techniques is still in its early stages, almost always based on small-scale prototypes, of great value to our discipline, nevertheless. Scheeren and Sperling, from FAU-USP, address the theme “hybrid craftsmanship” with the example of the Parabrick device built by the FabLab CIDI, a university research lab in Asuncion, Paraguay. Brick is one of the most common raw materials in Paraguayan architecture because it is very easy to obtain when it comes to self-building, and because of its popularity in the field of architecture thanks to the great work of Solano Benítez. With this in mind, the FabLab CIDI created a device that can assist in manual labor by providing support to guide the construction of different masonry bonds and patterns. It is made with digitally cut wood pieces that can be easily assembled on the construction site. This process is similar to the CeramicINformation Pavilion exhibited in 2018 at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture (UABB) in Shenzhen, China.
The aforementioned book also includes another interesting example of brickwork that combines digital fabrication and handmade processes, but on the other side of the globe, in India. A collaboration between the FabLab at Lawrence Technological University and New Delhi architect Ayodh Kamath resulted in a system of laser-cut molds used to shape blocks using locally sourced clay. Through parametric software, each block is adjusted and customized in a preset position to create the twists and turns characteristic of the chimneys in 17th century England. Local masons built the dome by placing each block using computer-generated measurements. While the craftsmen were building it, a CNC machine was used to create holes in the bricks to allow light and ventilation.
In 2010, German designer Markus Kayser took one step further and tested his first Solar Sinter in the deserts of Egypt. Kayser took advantage of the abundant supplies of sun and sand found in the deserts to melt the silica and create a solid glass-like material. This process of converting a powdery substance via a heating process into a solid form is known as sintering. This experiment eventually served as the basis for an entirely new method of fabrication and 3D printing so much so that, years later, it was named the D-Shape process. The sand chemically reacts with a binder to form a sandstone material. D-Shape components have relatively high tension resistance and are compared to reinforced concrete. The printer sits in a 6m by 6m frame and the goal is to create full-scale buildings in the future.
These examples show that we can use earth, sand, or any other natural material to create a connection between new technology and local techniques. They prove that we don’t have to sacrifice vernacular crafts to use modern technology, or vice versa, emphasizing that a balance between the two seems to be the way forward towards a more sustainable building industry.
Although these are small-scale initiatives, they will pave the way for future projects with more sophisticated and complex solutions once we have overcome the many technical obstacles that we still face today. Since these techniques are still in an incipient stage, university laboratories play an important role in the development of the models. Most of the examples mentioned above are prototypes developed by an academic team that becomes responsible for bringing together the digital technology available in the scientific environment with the popular culture of the communities. And this seems to be, precisely, the most valuable lesson we can learn from these experiments, the sensibility to observe and learn from the surroundings, using technology to nourish and preserve the community’s identity, combining creativity and culture. This may be the future of architecture.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Local Materials. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.