Can you improve the resistance of a shell structure by smashing, and subsequently repairing it? To do so you would require a very controlled environment, and thus Form-Finding Lab researchers resorted to Princeton’s School of Architecture robot.
In the context of the course ARC 596 “Embodied Computation”, a project was developed to explore novel forms for gypsum shell by repeatedly breaking and repairing these types of shells using digitally controlled tools.
The School of Architecture’s ABB 7600 robot is used to repetitively break, scan and repair gypsum shells. The broken shells are repaired by selectively gluing weak areas in order to create a bond that is stronger than the initial unreinforced gypsum. The investigated hypothesis is that after every iteration the newly repaired shell has the potential of a greater load bearing capacity than its predecessor. The reinforcement pattern is directly determined by the shell’s crack pattern and does not arise from an analytical approach typical to common reinforcement strategies. Indeed, the process is not dependent on a preconceived design, but much rather evolves from the intrinsic material properties and the initial form and imperfections of the shell. The process can still be steered by the designer in real-time through a set of interactive overlays in a custom control software.
The recently opened exhibition “Pier Luigi Nervi: Architetture per lo sport” (MAXXI in Rome (05/02 – 02/10 2016) focuses on the sport infrastructure designed by Pier Luigi Nervi.
Nervi’s career flourished during a time of great experimentation in new building materials, particularly reinforced concrete. Nervi’s ability to experiment with radically new concrete forms is evident in the design of the Berta and Flaminio stadiums. The lack of knowledge about the exact nature and behavior of reinforced concrete encouraged trial and error processes that allowed designers to attempt daring designs. At the time, all reinforced concrete design would have classified by necessity as daring because little was known about its long-term behavior. Nervi’s personal knowledge of the material behavior of reinforced concrete was gained primarily through what he witnessed over time in his own projects, and this learning process is evident in his writings.
Engineering and form finding research often occur in parallel with architectural research. In our increasingly digital world, architects have been exploring how technologies such as modeling, scripting, and digital fabrication should affect our built environment. Architects such as Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, who have studied the effects of the digital world on the material world, observe that:
“…data and material can no longer be interpreted as a mere complement but rather as an inherent condition and thus an essential expression of architecture in the digital age. A digital materiality is emerging, where the interplay between data and material is seen then, in a new light, as an interdependent structuring of architecture and its material manifestations.” 
Furthermore, in their book Digital Materiality in Architecture (2008), they claim that:
“…digital orders intensify the particularities of material properties. Materials do not appear primarily as a texture or surface, but are exposed and experienced in their whole depth and plasticity.”
Inspired by the works of artists such as Hans Haacke (Blue Sail) and Shinji Ohmaki (Liminal Air Space-Time), Olek Niewiarowski of the Form Finding Lab explored these interactions between the digital and the physical by taking a seminar at the School of Architecture with Ryan Luke Johns.
Together with architecture students François Sabourin and Benjamin Vanmuysen, Olek created a physical set-up to explore an interactive “force finding” method with fabric under varying air pressures. The design agenda behind this was two-fold: the first part pertains to Gramazio and Kohler’s “sensuality of the digital” and sets to explore the possibility of enhancing perceptibility of a medium through digital intelligence. The group chose to work with air pressure, an invisible material, that when informed with digital order can be revealed and made plastic. The second intention is to explore an “analog” process of “inverse-form finding” or “force-finding,” where the objective is to use material actuation, sensing, and control to find the best fitting forces for a given shape not through analytical means, but through constant trial and error.