Architectural League Prize 2013
Skylar J.E. Tibbits is the principal and founder of SJET, a research-based practice in Boston with an emphasis on prototype development that “crosses disciplines from architecture and design, fabrication, computer science to robotics.” Tibbits’ research interests include self-assembly technologies, programmable materials, and the reinvention of fabrication methods. He has exhibited work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Beijing Biennale and has built large-scale installations in Paris, Calgary, Philadelphia, New York City, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Cambridge. On the occasion of his League Prize lecture, Tibbits sat down with the League’s Ian Veidenheimer and Alexandra Hay to talk about his practice and installation at Parsons.
Ian Veidenheimer: The theme of this year’s League Prize competition theme is “Range.” What does this mean to you and your work?
Skylar Tibbits: One way we think about it is in terms of the range of scales and disciplines we work with. Our research into programmable materials and self-assembly crosses every known discipline, every known scale. When we have researchers and students working with us, it doesn’t matter what industry or discipline they are from, they know this phenomenon. That makes for an interesting space for collaboration. So there’s range in applicability and interest, but also in the types of people we can work with, from computer scientists to designers, biologists, geneticists, chemists, and so on. That’s one of our great interests in our practice, that we can produce this fundamental research, but really develop it in many trajectories.
Veidenheimer: Your early work is installation-based, but you’ve developed a greater focus recently on dynamic technologies and products. Is this development deliberate?
For me, it is about how the materials become a collaborator.
Tibbits: I began with an interest in pushing the limits of software, and taught myself how to write code, which opened up new possibilities for design. Basically, code becomes a new medium. Then I wanted to learn how to use software and code to run machines, which became a new tool for making. That’s around the time that Marc Fornes and I started collaborating on installations under THEVERYMANY. My work now focuses on how to bring code into construction and manufacturing or assembly on site. The idea is that we can use more computational thinking—give fundamental rule sets and logic for the ways things actually assemble. I’m very interested in how you program things to make small decisions and enact physical “programs.” And that has implications not just for design, but for the whole process: how we design things, how we build them, how they change after we’ve build them.
Veidenheimer: Where do you locate architecture in this work? It seems like it’s about the production of architecture in the ways that materials come together rather than the spatial and programmatic implications these technologies have for a building.
Tibbits: I do think that is an important distinction. I am able to escape that more traditional role of the architect because we’re really a research lab, so I can ocillate between a lot of different roles: artist, designer, scientist, engineer, architect. But yes, I would say the most important way our work points towards architecture is in the possibilities it has for design of components, the possibilities for how we produce and construct architecture, and the possibilities for how architecture adapts and materials are influenced in that process.
Alexandra Hay: Can you tell us more about your work with programmable materials?
Tibbits: Every material responds to external energy. Metals change and adapt, everything you can imagine responds to some kind of energy, like resident frequencies and heat. So the way you laminate materials, for instance, or the way you manipulate their geometries will impact the way they react to those energies. That’s what makes them programmable. My vision for programmable materials is that everything around us, the same materials we use every day, can be programmed in really simple ways. They don’t need to be any more expensive, they don’t even need to be invented. Rather, there’s an elegant way of combining seemingly dumb materials into smarter systems. The thermostat is one of the most beautiful examples of this. If you take an old thermostat off the wall, it’s basically just two metal strips combined in a coil. There’s no sensor, no electronic system, but very subtle temperature changes will get this coil to expand or contract, and that controls the dial on your thermostat.
Veidenheimer: Walk us through what’s going on in the tank you installed for the League Prize exhibition.
Tibbits: With the installation, we’re exploring many different kinds of intra-molecular geometries, meaning the structures that emerge within a molecular compound. We ended up working with a tetrahedron because it’s so universal, it’s the basis of carbon’s molecular shape, it’s a building block of life. We placed magnets at each corner of these forms, so they become possible connecting or docking sites for any of their counterparts in the tank. What’s interesting is that you can play with the positioning and polarity of those magnets–one positive, three negative; one negative, three positive; all positive; all negative; or you can do two and two. We tried all of those different structures, but ultimately chose the two and two because it leads to the greatest range. The goal for the components was to make them neutrally buoyant so that their density is equal to the density of the surrounding tank water, and therefore the form has no preference in terms of orientation, it just moves as it sits in space. In some of the accompanying images, we show the types of structures that can emerge.
Veidenheimer: How does your installation relate to the theme of the exhibition?
Tibbits: We’re calling the installation “Fluid Crystallization” because it’s about phases and chemistry; how crystals and solids are formed. While it is very much of a human scale—the tank is 6’x3’x3’, roughly the size of a human body, and the spheres are very tangible objects moving around—they refer to something that’s at the atomic level. It’s the first time we’ve taken chemistry as a subject, rather than biology or genetics, so there’s that disciplinary range I was referring to. Biology and chemistry are not subjects that come naturally for me, but by doing these projects they become tangible, intuitive. I can understand why these interactions happen. The installation helped us to explore domains that aren’t necessarily familiar to the design field, or even our personal backgrounds, but gives us new insight into them. It also pushes our work forward. Our previous self-assembly units were more deterministic, whereas this one is more hierarchical.
Veidenheimer: How so?
Tibbits: Because it is not a predetermined single form that we’re building. It’s more similar to how the human body is built on many levels of order. Small units come together to build larger ones, which in turn build larger structures. The individual parts are extremely simple; you build complexity through hierarchy.
Veidenheimer: It is an investigation of structure but, at the same time, it’s also about energy.
Tibbits: That’s right. We think of almost all self-assembly or programmable materials as energy landscapes. Basically you want to have enough entropy in the system—enough possible ways of configuring it—so that it’s easier to go into structured states than chaotic ones. So in this case we have pumps that can generate oscillating flows, or random flows; you can even have flows based on tidal structures. And so by changing the amount and pattern of energy in the water, these things move. The magnets are super weak, it’s not like they are pulling the forms through the water; they simply allow them to connect if they bump into one another. So all of these systems make it really easy for forms to build, but also easy for them to break apart again.
Veidenheimer: Sometimes you talk about it as “non-deterministic.”
Tibbits: Yeah, and that has to do with the inability to predict 100% the formal outcomes. When I present our work, one of the most common questions is: can you build irregular things, or things that you didn’t anticipate? That usually comes from the design community. Almost all designers want to know how one can use this as a design tool and not just build something I had already conceived of.
Hay: One of your projects is called the “Self-Assembly Line,” which you completed for a TED conference in 2012. How did you come to this project? What does self-assembly mean?
Tibbits: That project was essentially the reversal of an assembly line, in that people provided raw energy by spinning this big chamber, but only the materials themselves had the intelligence to build the forms. The people interacting with the project had no idea what was being produced. There is a video that probably explains it more clearly.
Self-Assembly Line: TED Conference, CA, 2012
We were trying to push our installation work a bit further here; the self-assembly line produces the installation—it is going to do all the work. It’s about exploring design possibilities: how do we open up what’s possible to be made? What spaces can be created? How do we interact with the materials? How do we become smarter about the way we produce these things, whether that is physically manufacturing them or assembling them? We see opportunities for architecture at the smallest to largest of scales. In some ways they are all design challenges based on space, materials, construct-ability and reconfigurability.
Veidenheimer: In your portfolio, you diagram the spatial sequences that are produced by encoded patterns and geometries. What does it mean to think spatially in this way—in a way that is code-based, rather than in a physical three-dimensional capacity?
Tibbits: For me, it is about how the materials become a collaborator. If you and I collaborate, the goal would be that we would each bring something different to the table that the other would be unable to produce themselves. If you were already aware of everything that I contribute, then it is not a good collaboration. I see the potential for materials in the same way. I’ll offer something, the material offers me something back. And then the structure that’s built is based partly on the logic of the material and partly the logic I gave to it.
Veidenheimer: What would be three possible applications of your work?
Tibbits: One of them is in the products space. A specific possibility there is something like high-performance sportswear: garments, shoes, equipment. Say, for example, you want products that respond to how you are performing or how the environment is changing. Almost every product we have today is very static. It might be mechanically in motion, but it doesn’t respond to us. It doesn’t change its shape, its durability—as I start running, versus walking, my shoes stay the same. If I move from grass to pavement, or if it starts raining, everything we’re using stays the same. Our bodies don’t behave that way; we perform differently in different environments. So one application is how tangible, synthetic products can be more active and adaptable. That idea applies to a lot of high-performance products outside of sportswear, such as those in the automotive, aerospace, and marine industries.
How can sound become a technique to build things? How can moisture, heat, vibration, or gravity become productive energies?
A second example might be in manufacturing, where the application of our work can change the mentality about how we produce things. For example, in the autonomous assembly projects, we’ve been looking into high-yield processes in which you have a large number of parts building simultaneously—and the Fluid Crystallization installation is sort of along those lines; you are essentially de-coupling the energy input from how much you produce. I’ll explain it a different way: If you think about a few robotic arms producing a car, there is a certain amount of energy I have to input for that system to do something useful. And, importantly, there’s a fixed amount of things that I can produce with that energy. But if you look at the Fluid Crystallization project, where self-assembly starts developing, the pumps don’t care at all how many spheres I put in the tank. So, it de-couples the energy I input into the system from the (almost limitless) number of things that can be produced with that energy. That’s an incredibly important phenomenon if you want to reduce the amount of energy in your manufacturing process or, for that matter, change the types of energies we use. How can sound become a technique to build things? How can moisture, heat, vibration, or gravity become productive energies, rather than destructive?
And finally, there’s a construction application, whether that’s architectural construction or just ways things are assembled. There’s increasingly a need to have new techniques for assembling things outside of the domains where our toolsets work. For example, where it’s too expensive, or where it’s too dangerous, or too difficult to get humans working. Space is a good example, oceans, or a disaster area for that matter—any time you might need quickly deployable systems for a highly dynamic construction environment.
Veidenheimer: In addition to your firm SJET you’re also a TED senior fellow and a lot of your work is conducted at MIT. What roles do these public and research institutions play in your work and your office?
Tibbits: It is not a very direct impact, since neither MIT nor TED is funding our work directly. But, if you look at a lot of the intangible things, it’s huge. We wouldn’t be able to do the things we’re doing without some of the support of these bigger institutions and affiliations. The name and legacy of a research institute like MIT opens up huge opportunities and potential collaborations. TED is sort of a similar mechanism in that it gives us the network, the confidence, the support to be able to do things. It also buys us the time and freedom to be able to explore the things we want to explore. We have faith that there will be huge implications and applications for the work, but those applications are not what drives the work. Instead, there is more of a fundamental pursuit of knowledge and discovery, of basic science, basic design research. We can separate profitability from research agendas, and that’s obviously very different outside of academia. I think the Silicon Valley model of research and development today, where profitability and innovation are coupled, is a huge issue. We need to separate those two. Some of the biggest developments and inventions that have happened in our recent history—the transistor, for example—would never have been invented if they had needed to be profitable. And it’s not that innovation cannot be profitable, it’s just that you don’t want to conflate those two issues. Right now, SJET is very much focused on the invention, the knowledge discovery; we rely on that separation, that freedom to discover.
Tibbits received two M.S. degrees, in Design and Computation and in Computer Science, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a B.Arch from Philadelphia University. He is currently a TED Senior Fellow.
Each year the Architectural League and the Young Architects + Designers Committee organize a portfolio competition. Six winners are then invited to present their work in a variety of public fora, including lectures, an exhibition, a catalogue published by Princeton Architectural Press, and here on the League’s website. For information about more of the 2013 League Prize winners, click here.