Mette Ramsgaard Thomsen is the Paul Philippe Cret Visiting Professor in the Department of Architecture at the Weitzman School. For the Spring 2023 semester, she led a studio at Weitzman that explores how building with alternative materials, like biopolymers with much different strengths and durabilities than typical building materials, could transform the role of designers in the building process. It’s part of her decades-long interest in the intersections between architecture and computational design. Ramsgaard Thomsen is the founder and head of the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy, and for the last several years, she’s led the science track for the International Union of Architects (UIA) world congress. Convening this summer in Copenhagen, it will explore how architects can contribute to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. She recently spoke about her work at Penn, the evolution of the field of computational design, and the challenges of sustainability in the built environment. The interview has been edited.
What are you teaching at Penn this semester?
I’m running a studio on biomaterials and what it means to work with novel resources, or novel resource streams, and how that changes the way we think about how architecture performs.
What kinds of resources are you thinking about?
Sustainability challenges us to rethink the material practices of architecture. The impact of the built environment on the world’s resources is at a very high scale. So we need to think about how we can work with other kinds of material resources or resource streams: Waste materials, cascading materials, and some novel renewables. What we’re looking at are biopolymers. Biopolymers are not new. They have existed as long as fossil-fuel based polymers, but they have been ignored because they are unstable. Fossil-fuel equivalents have been much more stable and easier to formalize, and they’re also very versatile, whereas bio-based polymers have simply not had the same characteristics that their fossil-fuel counterparts have. So rather than saying “We can’t work with these materials,” we ask, “What can architecture be so that we can work with them?”
In the studio, we’re looking at ideas of what bio-based materials can be, what resources can be, how they can be localized to where we’re building, and then also we’re looking at these different ideas of longevity and how that plays into what architecture can be. We do that through an ideation of continual construction. Rather than saying, “We built the building, it’s finished, we hand it over and it’s done,” we think, maybe building is a continual act that goes on every day. That changes a lot what the presence of the architect is, the presence of the builder, what it means to maintain and so on.
"With computation, we achieve a new mathematical, computational depth to our design field. We achieve a new way of thinking about the logics of architecture."
You’ve talked about how computational design has come into its own as a field and a discipline over the last 15 years or so. Can you describe what you think computational design is, how it’s distinguished from the broader design fields, and what its primary aims and questions are?
Computational design follows the invention of computers. Computers were invented in the postwar period and a lot of that ideation about what computers were was also taking place across architectural departments. It’s not like computers were somehow ported into architecture later; they were born through a group of different people, and some of them were architects.
With computation, we achieve a new mathematical, computational depth to our design field. We achieve a new way of thinking about the logics of architecture. Rather than thinking through projected geometries, we now think in things that can be calculated. The main change from that is the relationship between what it means to design and what it means to fabricate. Architecture is a tradition that is fully about embodiment; even in its most abstracted moments architecture is about communicating embodiment of some sort. With computation and the interfacing between design and fabrication, this method of communication changes radically.
And it’s tied into the idea of optimization and making things in more efficient and sustainable ways, using less to make more?
Yes, I think “smarter with less” has been the overriding paradigm for the last 15 years. What sustainability does is to challenge that. Sustainability has been the overriding argument for optimization over the last 15 years. What’s happening now with the climate crisis is that we understand better that the question of optimization cannot be the be-all end-all of what computation has to offer. There are many new paradigms coming along where computation has a very important role.
In Europe, we talk about industrial ecology and the idea of the city as being the source of materials through its production of waste. How do we actually harvest all those different resources and propagate them back into the material streams of the city? Here I think computation and the ability to characterize very complex material systems can play a very important role in instrumentalizing that. The last 15 years of work within the field of computational design have created the underlying infrastructure for such a transition.
Can you tell me about the work you do with CITA and what the main projects are there?
We use a research-by-design method. We examine design as part of the experimental method of understanding what the problem space of a particular research problem can be. In architecture, design allows us to think about problems in multifarious ways. There are many different problems that need to be solved at the same time. And there is no particular singular optimum. That gives us a very different way of understanding and negotiating problems than, for instance, an engineering question.
What’s the work you’re doing with the International Union of Architects on sustainable development goals?
The UIA is recognized by UNESCO as being the architectural association for the United Nations that discusses architecture. My colleague Martin Tamke and I are General Reporters and head of the science track within the congress. For the last three years, we’ve been working to shape the scientific part of a world congress on the SDGs, looking at how architecture can be part of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The SDGs are a very interesting problem for architecture. When you read the SDGs, you notice that the architecture and the built environment is hardly mentioned. The SDGs seek to steer behavior both through impacting legislation as well as wider societal value sets. They establish priorities and galvanize efforts across communities by identifying targets and providing shared yard sticks in the form of indicators. In doing so they inscribe a world view of its defining actors: the governmental bodies, industries and communities that can be leveraged to instigate change. And in this world view architecture is strangely absent. At present, none of the UN SDGs declare targets that directly articulate architecture as a driver for change, nor are there any indicators that evaluate its role. The built environment is only mentioned as a driver for resilient communities but without real value-setting of the role of planning and design. This despite the extensive and complex impact architecture holds on human and non-human wellbeing; the way we live our lives, shape equity and use our resources.
For us, this realization has led to the overarching aim of using the congress to build awareness, to argue for and demonstrate how architecture has the ability to afford change in the way we understand and construct the world around us.
This is where I step out of my role of working within the field of computational design to look at many different aspects of architecture, from climate adaptation, resilient communities, rethinking resource. It’s incredibly inspiring to do this because it has connected me to a global community of people working in very different ways with very different knowledge cultures and very different backgrounds and different ways of looking at the SDGs.