How to Build a House: Architectural Research in the Digital Age at The Cooper Union



DFAB House at The Cooper Union

A new exhibition showcasing the conception and making of the DFAB HOUSE, the world’s first fully inhabited building to have been digitally planned and largely built with the help of robots and 3D printers will open at The Cooper Union on September 12th.

How to Build a House is a visual journey through research on the digital transformation of architecture and construction. It reveals the genesis of a three-story experimental building in Switzerland. This house results from pioneering works in computational design and digital fabrication by architects and experts in fields ranging from robotics to materials science at ETH Zurich, a leading Swiss institute of technology.

DFAB House at The Cooper Union

“The DFAB House is an exciting milestone for architecture and science as it is the very first time new technologies have come together to create an inhabitable building—from its design to construction,” says Matthias Kohler, professor, ETH Zurich, and lead architect for DFAB HOUSE. “The research and fabrication of DFAB HOUSE all courtesy of robotics and advances in 3D printing are changing the future of building.”

Through the NCCR Digital Fabrication, a Swiss National Science Foundation program, seven research groups created the DFAB HOUSE using robots from the labs of ETH Zurich. Their approach makes planning and construction more efficient, but also more sustainable. For example, the digitally planned floor slab is optimized so that considerable amounts of material can be saved compared to a conventional concrete slab. This is significant, as cement production currently represents an estimated 8% of the global amount of CO2 emissions.

“Switzerland has long been a cradle for architectural innovation, with leading figures such as Le Corbusier or Peter Zumthor,” says Christian Simm, CEO of swissnex Boston. “Our research institutions keep this heritage alive and foster new approaches for buildings to meet the highest integration, well-being, and environmental standards. We are thrilled to bring such an iconic example of Swiss disruption to an American audience.”

DFAB House at The Cooper Union

The exhibit is an entry point into understanding the digital as a novel domain for architects to draw from at each step of the design, fabrication, and assembly of a building. Photographs and videos of the fabrication process along with several 1:1 scale prototypes such as a façade mullion made through a digitally controlled casting process will be on view. Additionally, exhibition attendees will have an opportunity to experience the fabrication process through a virtual reality component in the gallery.

“If the history of architectural pedagogy has been advanced primarily around possibilities of representation and ‘projection,’ Gramazio Kohler Research and Digital Building Technologies at ETH Zurich have used the DFAB HOUSE as one of many examples of how to deftly explore ways in which the means and methods of construction can come to challenge our ways of seeing, learning and understanding,” says Nader Tehrani, Dean of Cooper’s The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. “The design of the NEST building by Gramazio Kohler Architects was a radical act of architecture, seemingly an end unto itself, with the cantilevered concrete slabs seemingly voided of any content except for the heroic structural forces at work. Now that we can witness the fabricated experiments that sit within this scaffolding, we can appreciate that the ulterior motive of this infrastructure was to prompt an exquisite corpse that they themselves could hardly completely control. Within the hybrid, monstrous and surreal presence of these tangent explorations, we begin to see the confluence of their projective imagination, working between materialities, technologies and digital protocols to imagine a space of collective authorship that defies the very unity of the framework they provided. It is this new and unprecedented pedagogical space that I hope this exhibition will open up at Cooper Union.”

DFAB House at The Cooper Union

Although driven by technology, the impact of research in How to Build a House goes far beyond automation and optimization. As a new paradigm, the computational in architecture provides answers to changing societal needs and ecological challenges, while reforming aesthetic principles and establishing a new sense of beauty in architecture.

How to build a House: Architectural Research in the Digital Age was curated by Hannes Mayer and Sarah Schneider of Gramazio Kohler Research and was originally exhibited at swissnex San Francisco. It was coordinated at The Cooper Union by Steven Hilyer, Director, The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive. The exhibition is supported by NCRR Digital Fabrication, ETH Zurich, swissnex, and the Consultate General of Switzerland in New York, and is presented in association with Archtober, Architecture and Design Month New York, October, 2019.

DFAB House at The Cooper Union

How to Build a House: Architectural Research in the Digital Age is presented by The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and swissnex, the Swiss global network connecting the dots in education, research, and innovation. It is on view from September 12 through October 13, 2019 in the school’s 41 Cooper Gallery.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a panel discussion will take place on Thursday, September 12th at 6:30pm in Cooper Union’s Frederickk P. Rose Auditorium, and will include Benjamin Dillenburger, Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler, Jenny Sabin, Skylar Tibbits, and Dean Nader Tehrani. A Reception will follow.