Prototype is a Verb

Yesterday afternoon I attended Arup Explores Prototyping, an afternoon workshop of short talks and discussions on the present and future of rapid prototyping in architecture, engineering and design.

As one of almost 20 speakers, I spoke briefly about Hand Drawn and the role of prototyping and internal technology projects in the context of a creative studio.  I mentioned how (in contrast to technology-focused R&D) technology exploration in a design context needs to communicate design intentions and human stories. And the outcomes are a mix of narrative and technical. We can use internal projects to tell our own stories, spark new ideas, and develop practical skills for using (and realistically assessing) emerging technologies. More intangibly, we have the opportunity to be changed by these technologies – not only learning how to design for a changing technological landscape, but finding out how new tools and processes might change the ways we design.

That intangible was a key theme that emerged from the afternoon. Several speakers contrasted traditional approaches to prototyping, in which a design is developed and refined before being used to create a high-resolution prototype, with emerging methods in which more, faster, lower-resolution, and conceptually looser prototypes/models are used in an iterative process of designing, making, and testing.  Shajay Booshan of Zaha Hadid Architects spoke about this process not just as a way to improve a single design, but as a way to cultivate intuition. Open-ended discussion raised the idea that these methods are as much about building processes as they are about building objects.

Another repeated theme was that rapid prototyping tools, while enabling new types of objects and design processes, are not replacements for existing methods and insights. Stories abounded in which rapid prototyping solved part of a problem, while other methods or human expertise solved other problems. Even when a rapid-prototyped object was the final result, it still needed to be sanded, painted, hand-finished, etc.. Rupert Soar of Freeform Construction emphasized that the power of additive manufacturing techniques lies in conjunction with other methods, while Olivier Geoffrey of Unto This Last spoke about the importance of context, environment, and service even when software and machines are used to manufacture consumer products.

Taking this a step further, Jeroen van Ameijde spoke about student projects at the AA in which students hacked prototyping machines to play with their limitations, such as using a RepRap to create spiderwebs of plastic filament and using a home-made CNC pointer to instruct people how to build a generated geometrical structure.

Finally, in sheer geeky appreciation, since most of the discussion centred around architecture, a key theme of the afternoon was scale. Sometimes this was a question of what roles small models (which offer only a limited representation) can play in designing and understanding large structures, and sometimes it was about scaling these processes way up: from robots that fold metal to machines that print buildings.