The adoption of generative design processes is heralding a fundamental shift in how Australian buildings are conceived of and built.
The Sydney Opera House was acclaimed an architectural icon when it opened in 1973. The structure was recognised then – and still is – as one of the world’s first truly adventurous buildings. What set its dramatic expression apart was not just its inspired design solution in response to its harbourside setting, but its borrowing of shapes in nature and its use of geometry and technology to create a refined form out of precast panels covered with white glazed tiles.
Opera House architect Jørn Utzon used the term ‘additive architecture’ to describe his approach to projects inspired by growth patterns in nature. These days, we might just as easily use the term ‘organic’ to refer to a building that has taken a leaf from nature’s book.
We haven’t seen many buildings of the Opera House’s like here in Australia since it was unveiled. But the sensuous and flowing lines epitomised by Utzon’s masterpiece look set to become the new norm as architects take advantage of advances offered by Generative Design.
This exciting development in computer-aided design utilises artificial intelligence, machine learning and materials science to create structures embued with an organic philosophy and with efficiency as a central tenet. In essence, architects and engineers can use computational methods to open up new ways of solving complex building problems and maximise the efficiency of materials used in construction.
Which buildings are leading the next wave of exciting design once promised by the Sydney Opera House? And what tools are designers using now that are driving this profound shift in how we think about our built environment?
A revolution in building design
We look around at our built environment now and the bulk of what we see are straight lines and solid surfaces. These shapes have traditionally been easy to draw and design, and simple to construct with our materials and tools.
But these shapes are anomalies in nature and not necessarily built to withstand the forces of time and evolution.
With generative design it has become possible to break the shackles of linear and angular design in favour of amorphous shapes inspired by nature. In its optimal form, generative design makes designs more efficient by reducing the amount of steel and other materials needed in construction without compromising structural strength and rigidity – and in some cases, adding to it.
Engineers or architects can input project goals into generative design software, along with a set of parameters such as the materials to be used, methods of manufacturing and cost constraints. The software then produces every iteration of a design within those parameters, allowing the designer to refine and select those that best fit the intent. In doing so, the software can imitate nature’s evolutionary approach to design to make structures lighter and stronger – and extend the boundaries of what’s possible.
Professor Tim Schork, Associate Professor at UTS Sydney’s School of Architecture, says steel can work hand in hand with generative design principles to increase efficiencies in construction. Central to his research is the integration of computational design and simulation techniques with digital fabrication processes to deliver new methods of construction.
“Steel is commonplace because, as a material, it’s easy to meld and form; you can bend it, fold it, puncture it,” he says.
But he says the construction sector has a long way to go before it maximises the true potential of generative design. “The construction industry is actually the second-least digitised industry in the world, so there is enormous scope for it to embrace computational design further,” he says.
Software manufacturers looking to fill the space include Helsinki-based Tekla, which offers its Tekla Structures software for creating and managing 3D structural models in steel or concrete, and which can take designers through the process from concept to fabrication.
Another is California-based Autodesk, whose Revit building information modelling (BIM) software can assist designers to model complex structural shapes and coordinate structural, mechanical electrical and fire protection elements.
Schork says we’re already starting to see the examples of the form around the world and that companies that have embraced generative design modelling are those that are currently pushing the envelope of futuristic building design.
Generative design in action
Two projects underway in the United Arab Emirates and China show what benefits can come from putting generative design at the heart of the iterative analysis process for designing complex structural elements.
Dubai’s Museum of the Future will house futuristic concepts, products and services when it opens in April 2019 and the building itself will embody its name.
The 30,000sqm distorted torus-shaped building uses steel diagrid geometry based on a parametric script. That script allowed the design team to manipulate and consider several iterations to accommodate the building’s architectural and structural requirements. Complete optimal design of the building in 3D helped reduce the amount of waste material created and also allowed for the naming of members and nodes.
Tobias Bauly, of BuroHappold Engineering, the lead consultant on the project, says the Museum epitomises a “full-scale digital project delivery” and represents the future of making buildings.
“It sets the benchmark for how all projects will be delivered in the future: collaboration, generative design for high-speed design optimisations, and complete construction views,” he says.
In Inner Mongolia, the 33,000sqm Hohhot City Saihan District National Fitness Center Project will encourage sports participation when it opens in 2019.
The Tianjin Architecture Design Institute (TADI) used generative design to inform the entire project, which features a domed 5000-seat gymnasium/stadium and a flowing ‘tail’ housing a swimming pool, tennis courts and more. Much like the Museum of the Future, parametric modelling was used to optimise the building’s non-linear design and structural components oriented in such a way as to reduce material waste.
Scripts compiled in Autodesk software were used to optimise the dome’s truss support structure, for example, plus assist with standardising the size and type of roof panelling used, thereby reducing fabrication costs.
Lu Wanmei of TADI says the information used played a large role in streamlining the pre-cast fabrication process and aided efficient and economical on-site assembly.
Closer to home
While we’re just starting to see how generative design software can be used to maximise structural solutions, we can see examples already of how it can inform external design language – many of them here in Australia.
In July 2017, Zaha Hadid Architects revealed images of its proposed ‘Stacked Vases’ hotel tower in Melbourne’s Collins Street, which show a tower made up of four curved blocks one on top of the other. The 185-metre structure will feature striped filigree facades with oblong-shaped openings for windows.
The firm followed up that reveal with another in September that showed its plans for a 64-metre apartment block named The Mayfair on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road. The building is notable for its curvilinear balconies separated by diagonal struts that link with floor plates below to create a coherent flow around the facade.
Zaha Hadid Architects says the building takes its cues from the fluidity found in Australia's landscapes and seascapes: “The façade’s composition has evolved from a system of simple wave formations that is further developed to generate variables of the same design language.”
The use of parametric design techniques meant the firm could reduce the number of different facade panels required, thereby lowering construction costs.
Both of those buildings are in the pipeline, but one needn’t wait years to see examples of sensual organic expression. Elsewhere in Melbourne, just north of the CBD, the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC) makes a spectacular statement as visitors enter the Parkville medical precinct.
Sweeping white lines spread across the glazed façade of the building and reference the elm trees found at street level. To produce a design that architecture firm STHDI+MCR says they wanted to be “dynamic, fluid and organic”, a material called ShapeShell single skin was used as both a feature element in the façade and to clad the ground floor colonnade. The material combines natural strength with an ability to create complex curved shapes with minimal section joins through the use of 3D manufacturing techniques.
The organic theme found externally is also represented inside the building, which complements large and well-proportioned spaces with the use of texture splashes of colour. Flowing, ribbon-like shapes surround the void of the grand central atrium and are redolent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.
In Adelaide, we can also find an example in the form of the SA government’s South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) building, a purpose-built, 25,000sqm facility adjacent to the new Royal Adelaide Hospital.
The building acknowledges its location in the green belt of the city’s parklands and features a striking steel-and-aluminium ‘diagrid’ façade that takes inspiration from the shell of a pine cone. This unique building cladding responds to its environment like a living organism by acting as an articulated sunshade that improves access to sunlight, can reduce heat load and glare, and deflects wind.
Not to be outdone by its southern rivals, in Sydney we could be about to see an interesting extension to two heritage-listed buildings in the CBD if approval is given to a recent DA lodged by Built Development Group.
The company proposes to build a seven-storey cloud-like pod (see main image) on top of a warehouse and adjoining substation originally built in 1920. The rooftop pod will be made of glass and steel and will act as a striking point of difference to the angular rooftops all around it. The pod will cantilever on top of the buildings, with the full development housing 14 storeys of commercial office space, as well as an arts and cultural space.
Architects FJMT say the proposed tower “aims to deliver a facade that provides a high-tech solution to the internal challenges of contemporary office space,” with the pod above it “adding a beautiful and novel addition to the heritage streetscape.”
We will see the result as early as late 2019 if construction goes ahead as planned.
A new era beckons
The use of generative design technology to create lighter, stronger and more fluid building designs, and which can enable the efficient use of building materials in almost any context, will soon be commonplace. We’re already starting to see the impact on our city skylines, as the above examples show.
The advent of new tools such as machine learning and artificial intelligence will accelerate the use of generative design by architects and engineers. And it will fundamentally alter how we generate optimal structural solutions.
Just as importantly, the technology has the potential to radically transform the way our physical environment looks. By taking inspiration from shapes in nature to create long-lasting, efficient and inspiring structures, designers can use the new tools available to them to rethink long-held assumptions about building form and function.
Far from being an anomaly in the landscape of Australian architecture, the flowing and sensuous building form epitomised by the Sydney Opera House might just be a sign of things to come.
Clarence Street Substation, Sydney (main image): FJMT and Virtual Ideas
Museum of the Future, Dubai: Kilda Design (render): Killa Design
Museum of the Future, Dubai: Kilda Design (diagram structure): BuroHappold
Hohhot City National Fitness Centre, Mongolia: TADI
Mandarin Oriental 'Stacked Vases' hotel, Melbourne: Zaha Hadid Architects
The Mayfair, Melbourne: Zaha Hadid Architects
Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, Melbourne: Peter Bennetts
SAHMRI, Adelaide: Peter Clarke (photographer) and Woods Bagot (Architect)