If you stood in front of the two-story relief wall recently installed at Middletown Community Library outside Philadelphia, and admired its swirling, corrugated shapes, you might not know exactly what you were looking at. But you’d probably get the sense you were in the presence of something new.
“It doesn’t necessarily extend into familiar territory,” says Andrew Saunders, associate professor of architecture and director of the Master of Architecture program, who led and managed the project over the course of two years as part of his research on autonomous design.
In the simplest terms, the wall is a foam construction designed using artificial intelligence and fabricated by a robot in the Robotics Lab at Meyerson Hall, part of the Advanced Research and Innovation Lab (ARI) in the Department of Architecture. It was created by Saunders and students in the Master of Science in Design: Robotics and Autonomous Systems (MSD-RAS) program, which is now in its third year. For those who created the relief, it expresses a novel approach to architectural design and fabrication, and an exciting avenue for future development. For Middletown Free Library, it’s both an eye-catching object of curiosity and a representation of what’s possible with technology and design for community members who use the library’s makerspace. The wall will be officially dedicated in January of 2023.
It came into being partly through happenstance. When Middletown was looking to move its library into an abandoned school building that it had bought, it engaged architect Scott Erdy, a lecturer in architecture at Weitzman and principal at the firm Erdy McHenry. Erdy, a Middletown resident, enthusiastically took on the renovation project. [Read more in the related story "A New Library for Middletown."] He planned a relief wall for the stairway area, which leads from the main floor of the library to the second floor near the makerspace. But Erdy’s design, an abstracted, floor-to-ceiling book wall, had to be cut from the project because of budget. Hoping to give the library’s central atrium a showpiece, he asked Saunders if he could use a few of the foam remnants left over from hot-wire cutting by the robots in the lab at Meyerson.
As it turned out, those scraps were the early byproducts of research that Saunders was conducting on AI and robotic fabrication. Rather than donate the foam pieces, he told Erdy, he would make a new installation.
To create the pattern that exists now, Saunders and recent graduates from the MSD-RAS program integrated an AI tool called style transfer, which receives and recognizes features from one image set and redestributes them in the “style” to another unrelated image. It’s popularly used to make casual photos look like a painting by Monet, for example, but its capabilities are much more expansive. They started by inputting images of robotically wire-cut forms derived from the sculptures of Naum Gabo, an artist important in the Russian Constructivism movement, and prompting the software to read and rewrite new forms in the style of Gabo—specifically his piece Linear Construction No. 2. “And it would redistribute and hybridize ruled surface geometric features of Gabo in unimagined and unanticipated ways,” Saunders says.
Saunders knew that whatever the computer designed would need to be built using the robot, which has certain limitations. Most importantly, because it uses a single wire to cut foam, it can only create ruled surfaces.
“[The robotic arm] is a long line that heats up so it can go through foam. It cuts it like a hot knife through butter, but everything you can produce is constructed geometrically through a single line,” Saunders says.
Saunders and students refined the design and experimented with fabrication over the course of two years, working around the course-intensive demands on the lab during the fall and spring semester and the summer sessions.
“There wasn’t actually a period of research and development at the beginning and then production at the end. The entire project included R&D,” says Riley Studebaker (MSD-RAS’21), who was in the first class of MSD-RAS graduates and worked on the relief wall as a PennPraxis Design Fellow. “Something like this had never really been done before.”
Studebaker and Claire Moriarty (MSD-RAS’21), another member of the first MSD-RAS cohort, are working on a research paper with Saunders about the development of the project. They’ll present it at a conference in Innsbruck, Austria. Moriarty, who also worked on the project as a PennPraxis Design Fellow, suggests one way the wall represents a breakthrough in architectural design.
“It’s created a whole different part-to-whole relationship,” Moriarty says. “A much more complex one, or a much less standardized one. We’re able to take this overall field and then dissect it after, instead of having to create a field from scratch.”
Moriarty and Studebaker are among the first Weitzman graduates trained in this method. Its applications are potentially far-reaching, and so novel that they’re both trying to figure out the best ways to employ them professionally.
“It is still very new and not completely understood by anyone,” Moriarty says.
The project team included students pursuing a Master of Archtecture, Master of Science in Design with a concentration in Advanced Architectural Design, or Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in architecture. In addition to Studebaker and Moriarty, Matthew White (MSD-RAS’21), Caleb Ehly (MArch’20, and Benjamin Hergert (MArch’22) contributed to the project as PennPraxis Design Fellows. Yujie Li (MArch’20), Macarena De La Piedra (MSD-AAD’22), Jesse Allen (MArch’23), and Cecily Nishimura were research assistants.
For Derek Lloyd, the director of Middletown Free Library, the relief wall is a state-of-the-art feature that showcases the library’s partnership with Penn and, he hopes, will inspire young people to explore their interests in technology and design. It’s intended to be an elegant billboard for the library’s second-floor makerspace, which includes tools 3D printers and carving machines, rudimentary versions of the advanced machines at Penn, used for educational programming. The relief wall faces the library’s circulation desk, which was carved by hand from wood. To Lloyd, that’s a poetic representation of past and future design methods in one place, emblematic of the type of community the library is meant to serve.
“The sculpture represents a whole different segment of the population that might not otherwise come into the library, like the makerspace,” Lloyd says. “The more different groups that we can bring into the library, the better for our community.”
Saunders says the project made room for a surprising advance in autonomous design, particularly in the way it organizes the part to the whole. The contractor, LJ Paolella Construction, set aside four days for installation. But when they arrived at the library with all the parts and a small scale model, it snapped right into place in a single day.
“A lot of people are working and speculating on AI in architecture, and a lot of people are working with the potential of industrial robotic fabrication in architecture. There’s nobody that’s really put the two together,” Saunders says. “So it’s truly novel in that sense.”
The applications for the method are potentially endless, Saunders says, from a building facade to an urban plan. It’s helped to propel the MSD-RAS program, which is directed by Assistant Professor of Architecture Robert Stuart-Smith, as well: The first cohort in 2020 included eight students, and this year’s has 22.
“It was just a great opportunity for us to take this on,” Saunders says. “It’s so good for the program, and for our lab. And for the students, they can see this approach is not just conceptual.”