The Bastille Dances (1989) | image credits: Bob Van Danzig |image source: station house opera
In 2008, the Swiss pavilion in the 11th Venice Biennale of Architecture was formed by a 100meter double curved brick wall, juxtaposed with Bruno Giacometti's 1950's building. The wall was created by R.O.B., a robot that travelled from Zurich just for this purpose. It was the first time the world architectural community had the opportunity to see from up close the research that F. Gramazio and M. Kohler had been carrying out at the ETH Zurich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich) and -of course- R.O.B., the iconic construction worker of the future.
Structural Oscillations, Venice, 2007-2008 by Gramazio & Kohler | photo credits: Alessandra Bello
Structural Oscillations, Venice, 2007-2008 | image credits: G.Voudouri
The research at the ETH Zurich Department of Architecture started in 2006 with the Gantenbein Winery. In this project, bricks -the commonest masonry material- were hacked, in order to optimize sun penetration at the same time as keeping light level to the ideal for the wine-making process. 20.000 bricks were placed robotically, following a subtly three-dimensional pattern. The process was carefully programmed beforehand, ensuring the success of the outcome in terms of load bearing, design and functionality and without any implementation drawings whatsoever.
Gantenbein Vineyard Facade by Gramazio & Kohler | photo credits: Ralph Feiner
After almost a decade, this pioneering research carried out at the ETH Zurich has progressed dramatically, leading to a whole digital building culture, taken up also by other architecture faculties and research centers worldwide. Materials have evolved and robots have become smaller in size and more efficient. Design limitations have gradually been overthrown, leading to more complex, lighter structures, with forms exclusively created by programmable robotic agents. R.O.B. and its descendants can physically "visit" the construction site and construct, alone or in groups, through additive and subtractive processes, forms that could never be built through human labor, except from the fact that they have to be programmed by a group of humans, assisted by computational power.
Eventually the robotic agents have adopted more initiative, by assuming scanning functions, and can provoke [some] indeterminacy in the construction process. In 2012 the robots were even flying; robotic arms were replaced by quad copters, essentially acting as "living architectural machines", that, having assumed [programmed] cognitive characteristics, were able to construct dynamic formations, adopting the design to changing conditions, such as a manual change in the position of a brick. Watching them perform their program, one would not exaggerate saying that they seem altogether human.
The more skills the robots take on, the more the level of indeterminacy increases, and the furthest the software applied for their programming needs to advance. We have moved thus, from an one-way [man to robot] information transference, to a feedback loop between men [formerly acknowledged as powerful controllers] and robots [formerly known as machines]. Does this essentially render robots as "actors" equal to the human ones in these processes?
Moving a bit across disciplines, and a couple of decades back, we meet Station House Opera, a London based, internationally renowned performance company led by Julian Maynard Smith. It was founded in 1980 with the aim to create art work "that brings together theatre and the visual arts in a single unified vision". The company has nothing in common with the research group of the ETH Zurich, except from the fact that they have presented from 1984 to 1997 a series of spectacular large scale architectural performances, using breeze blocks as the main unit of all their performative action.
The Salisbury Proverbs (1997) | image credits: Bob Van Danzig |image source: station house opera
The blocks were adopted for being at the same time strong and large enough to form structures, but yet light enough to hold in one hand1. At first breeze blocks were used as clothing for performers2 (Jumpin' Jericho) but eventually they became the main component of each performance's "langue" since the whole dramaturgical and choreographic expression of sentiments along the works was based on the characteristics and the parameters set by this material. Through the co-existence of performers, singers and musicians on one stage, and the use of up to even 10.000 breeze blocks (The Salisbury Proverbs), Station House Opera has been developed into a kind of sculptural theater, where human performance evolves at the same time as its spatial expression.
Salisbury Proverbs (1997) | image credits: Bob Van Danzig
source:station house opera
In these performances, the scene was filled at each time with structures that the performers would come to alter, destroy or use according to the scenario followed. Temporary monuments with symbolical and historical implications, depictions of historical tableaux, prisons inspired by the work of Piranesi, explorations on politics, power and buildings (The Bastille Dances), or forms as small scaled as beds and chairs, having equal part in the plot3.
The main component behind them was that they were based on a system of specific block-human acts and transformations, meticulously prepared and rehearsed. The performers were initially creating a whole language of corporeal interaction with the material, used during the performance -lasting from hours to weeks- in an open-ended improvisation that might as well end up with the scene set on fire.
Rehearsal photographs, from The Bastille Dances, portraying "a range of moments which became the recipe book of ideas for the sculptural choreography of the performance. The content of the photographs is simple and undramatic; it is the raw material from which the sequences and threads of the piece were made". (Kaye,N., p.170)
image source: Kaye, N. (2000). Site-Specific art: performance, place and documentation, p.190-193
The Bastille Dances (1989) | image credits: Julian Maynard Smith, Michael O'Brien Thomm |image source:station house opera
The language used in each of the two cases described is apparently different, since in the first we are talking about construction, material properties and design parameters, and in the second it is all about dramaturgy, choreography and symbolism. If we were to forget, though, for a moment the disciplinary realms in which these actor-based performances are positioned as well as their symbolisms and intentions, would it be easy to say that they have nothing in common?
It is clear that their main difference lays in the intention behind them. The research at the ETH is meant to develop a whole new digital building culture, and as such it "uses" robotic agents in order to facilitate processes that would not be possible otherwise. The Station Opera House aims at creating art works that act as "temporary monuments" with symbolical implications. We already saw, however, that in both cases there is a systemic form imposed on the actors and materials, which changes the order of facts. It may be "programming" in one case and "a series of movements acting as a langue" in the other, but essentially it defines the way the agents of each performance act upon/towards the material components of the performance.
In this frame of mind, could the architectural installations of the ETH group be considered as works of art or are they considered as a series of live performances on how materiality can be created without humans, since the human actors are only present through their complete absence? Is R.O.B., or any of those robots, essentially the creator of the structures?
How would it be to see the Salisbury Proverbs performed by robots? Would the performance then be considered an artwork? Would it be possible for a performance director to orchestrate an operatic work by means of the highly automated processes used at the ETH, in such a way that he would ensure maximum randomness in the performance?