Over the course of the year we’ll be featuring a series of articles by Christopher Welch on emerging and interesting trends in digital architecture, complementing and expanding on topics explored in talks given around New Zealand. To kick us off, we’ll be expanding on a topic only briefly mentioned in his talk – complex forms developed using a limited component set.

Mass customisation; it’s a phrase that’s been floating around in architectural discourse for a while now. The concept is that by taking advantage of emerging fabrication techniques and parametric software, sculptural elements can be constructed out of dozens, if not hundreds of one-of-a-kind components. The software we have is certainly up to the task – tools like Grasshopper and Dynamo allow this kind of panellisation to be generated in a matter of minutes.

But for architects who have to bring these ideas to fruition, the mass customisation of components has a whole raft of challenges associated with it – prototyping, fabrication, naming, getting to the site and communicating assembly information to contractors.

While this kind of construction certainly can be (and has been) achieved, complexity does not necessarily require hundreds of unique parts – on the other end of the spectrum from mass customisation, you have people producing complexity simply by working with the degrees of variation that exist within the simple components at their disposal.


Tile wall detail of House 7×37 by CR2 Arquitetura

In this mural by CR2 Arquitetura, we can see that by using only two tiles (one patterned, one blank), repeated and rotated across a surface, we can produce complexity at a larger scale. While this example is simply an act of pattern making, it highlights the potential for variation that sits within a simple set of components.


May/September by Urbana

May-September, a recent installation by Urbana, is a fantastic recent example of this mode of thinking. The façade feels like a continuous flowing whole, with changes in depth, permeability and colour that transforms the structure as you walk across it. And all of this variation and complexity exists in a façade made up of 3 types of steel panel bent at 6 different angles! By bringing the computer into the process of determining the component placement and angle, the complexity of the final pattern is far, far higher than could ever be achieved by hand.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/97139438]

The question is, how did the architects come to this limited component set? As it turns out, the architects borrowed techniques for simplifying complex patterns that have existed since the dawn of computers; image compression algorithms.

As an exercise, consider the grayscale image below as a set of 256 unique components, organised into a pattern of a rather pale man borrowed from Wikipedia;

Michelangelo's_David_-_63_grijswaardenIf we want to limit the number of components in this set while still being able to identify the underlying pattern, we can apply dithering operations, designed to simplify images in the early days of computer visualisation . Each of the models below are a dithered distortion of the above image;

Michelangelo's_David_-_drempel Michelangelo's_David_-_Void-and-Cluster Michelangelo's_David_-_Bayer Michelangelo's_David_-_63_grijswaarden LOW RES1

By applying these techniques, we create a simplified version of the original pattern, transforming an unwieldy 256 components down to  2-10, depending on design intent and the specific process used – a number much more suitable for mass production. Simply through clever organisation and computer optimisation, the architects are able to produce a stunning effect without the need for hundreds of panels!


May/September Panel Detail

By taking the language of images, position, brightness, colour, and replacing them with architectural concerns of aperture, depth, and orientation, Urbana are able to use these computational techniques to get the best of both worlds – the formal complexity of mass customisation, along with the economies of scale provided by traditional manufacturing.

When discussing emerging techniques and technologies in architecture, the conversation always seems gravitate either to mass customisation or 3d printing, so I think it’s important to highlight and celebrate projects that push the boundaries of complexity while working within the boundaries of existing manufacturing processes.


Ley, R. (2014). May/September: Eskenazi Hospital Parking Structure Façade. Projects of the 34th Annual Conference of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture, 205-208. 23-25th October 2014, University of Southern California. Los Angeles: ACADIA and Riverside Architectural Press, October 2014. Print.

Image Credits:

“Dithering algorithms” 07 September 2007. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 03 Dec 2014. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Gerbrant/Dithering_algorithms>

“House 7×37 / CR2 Arquitetura” 07 May 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 03 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=503179>

“May – September – Urbana” 15 August 2014. Urbana. Accessed 03 Dec 2014. <http://urbanaarch.com/May-September>

“Parking Structure Art Facade / Urbana” 15 Aug 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 03 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=536756>