April 02, 2012
Bentley SmartGeometry Conference 2012 Report
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Bentley SmartGeometry Conference 2012 Report

By Susan Smith


The SmartGeometry Conference 2012 (sg2012) held in Troy, New York at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) (hosted by Bentley Systems) this past week pushes the boundaries of what we think of architecture, with its title – “Material Intensities -  simulation, energy, environment.”

Those that are part of SmartGeometry know that its more than its name – it is a group of designers and architects that joined together to do just that – push the limits of architectural design to the next level – to what we may see in architecture in 20-30 years to come. No doubt the architectural industry is changing driven by economic realities, budgets, the need for sustainability and green considerations, the ever pressing concern of dwindling resources for all people.

For the past couple of years sg has been focusing on materials – examining what the traditional structural materials are: wood, steel, concrete, etc. and exploring what can be done with textiles, plastics and other opportune materials. What results are some surprising possibilities, some of which it’s difficult for the public, meaning us journalists, to guess what the end result might be. But others are truly innovative and have come into use in some rarified environments, soon to be in your public building or museum. One in particular, is the building in which this event was held – the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) building, which was designed by Grimshaw, with what would appear to be the hull of a ship in the midst of a beautiful glass building. “A ship in a bottle,” is what it is – but what is fantastical about this building is that it is designed for performance.

The building itself was designed by Grimshaw and is sited on a steep hillside overlooking the Hudson River. The 220,000 square foot building combines five different performance environments - a 1200 seat concert hall, a 400-seat theater, two adaptive performance studios and a dance studio. The multi-tiered lobby and café is flooded with natural light. The acoustics in this building are truly state of the art, and come from a number of innovations. Pieces of sailcloth are arranged artfully on the ceiling for aesthetic and acoustic purposes. Convex walls and other shaped surfaces make it possible for performers to be anywhere in the hall, so that you get the sense that music can come from all over, not just the stage. Uncompressed video and audio recording over fiber cables, a 56-foot wide screen for video, and platforms, screens and staging elements that can be flown all around the building, all add to the cutting edge vision of this structure.


Although Troy, New York is not a vacation destination for many, this segment of RPI breathes excitement and creativity every minute. To even imagine some of these things is to be vaulted into another plane of thinking about architecture. Those who are members of sg are generally practicing architects or designers who work on sg stuff in their spare time, so there is a real sense of bringing academia and research and real world applications together. The groups are chosen each year from a number of independent research groups – and invited to come to the sg conference to present in “cluster groups” what they have been working on.

Probably the most appealing thing about sg is that the focus is on actual manual doing. The EMPAC building lent itself to this format, with three floors of industry taking place – bits of plastic, metal, fabric all being used to construct quite outrageous looking structures, even clothing, things employing sensors and RFID tags, 3D printing and many other technologies. Computers are lined up on desks, with wires snaking across surfaces, surrounded by half-empty coffee cups and coke bottles, discarded food plates--one big studio in a sense.


For four days before we arrive, sg cluster groups are onsite, working on their projects. On Day Five for them, they present their work in a Talkshop segment and then hold a roundtable discussion on what they presented. These discussions are really an extension of what they have been doing already, and although they ask for questions from the audience, we feel that we are superfluous to the discussion in many ways. Our questions tend toward practicality – how would a space garden benefit architecture, exactly? How do we convince architects that they also need to create their own materials, and become in a way material scientists, in addition to their other responsibilities? Of course that one could be optional -  this research promises to provide the option for those architects looking for additional materials, ways of producing buildings that are sustainable, that offer better environmental possibilities than steel and concrete.

So far what we have seen would not replace steel and concrete and would probably still require it as a foundation. In speaking with a structural engineer sitting near me, he stated that he couldn’t envision any other materials to be used for load bearing of such magnitude.

In session 1 of the Talkshop segment, Day Five of the actual event, Branko Kolarevic of University of Calgary spoke on building dynamics and shifting attitudes. “We have new ways of looking at buildings, we expect them to be adaptive, flexible, interactive and responsive. That way of looking at buildings is not new – some events over the past decade have done this.”

He also brought up the bioresponsive environment. One of the manifestations of a bioresponsive environment is a bioresponsive glass façade with layers that react to you. This will become real technology, we’re told.

Session 2 focused on Energy, Environment & Conflicts. Sal Craig of Foster + Partners talked about sea sponges made of glass anchored in the sea. They are apparently able to do this because of structural hierarchy. Glass layers glued together with collagen creates fiber bundles, and filters silica glass from seawater. The result is a beautiful basket like structure.

George Jeronimidis, of the Center for Biomimetics said that  “hierarchy can overcome biological limitations in biology.”

One of the phrases repeated during this session was “Shape is cheap, materials are expensive.” Advice: Expand design space not with new materials but with hybrids.

One of the more interesting speakers, although not technologically, was Zoe Coombes, an architect with a furniture design company called Cmmnwlth. She is designing furniture with an audience in mind – those who want to return to the old ways of doing things, yet she is using computer design and computation and some new materials in addition to traditional materials such as wood, to create beautiful furnishings. Although an architect, Coombes has chosen this avenue of expression because architecture has so many heavy responsibilities and restrictions. Craftsmanship is not dead, it is very much alive along the Hudson River where she lives, she says. Whether designing products or a building though, she did not say it but alluded to the fact that she wants to find personal expression, from which the best designs emerge.

“If we can take digital feel that’s very today and build that into objects,” said Coombes. “More and more we’re working in the Hudson Valley River, from here south to New York there are a enormous number of craftsmen – this is the time for the craftsmen – there is a lot of interest in the slow food movement – how to bring local agriculture back and understand where food is coming from. There’s a cultural desire to make design feel. There doesn’t seem to be a conflict between being digital and keying into old traditions of craft.  We try to remember the power of the work, on a functional level. Working with materials tactilely gives you something that you don’t get just on the computer.”

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