Pass me the mixing bucket: The Ribbed Catalan studio as a design/research case study

The ‘Ribbed Catalan’, a large scale, ribbed tile vault, was the result of a collaborative design/build/research elective studio involving students enrolled in the M.Arch. program at the University of Technology Sydney, guided by masterclass instructors Prof. Dr Philippe Block of the Block Research Group (ETH Zurich), Melonie Bayl-Smith (UTS/Bijl Architecture) and David Pigram (UTS/Supermanoeuvre).

The studio provided an opportunity for the students to participate in an intensive experimental design/build workshop that also straddled the instructors’ overlapping, long-term research interests: masonry vaulting, digital/analogue relationships and innovative pedagogies. By harnessing the momentum created by these intersecting research interests, the studio brief delivered direct, high level learning outcomes evidenced via the physical process of building and the students’ concluding reflection pieces.

After an introductory session at the commencement of the studio, the students pursued a parallel design and research process, directly engaging with a sophisticated digital software interface utilised for formal explorations and testing. Alongside this design process, the students experimented with a variety of construction techniques.

The brief and studio structure tested two key assertions: that design/build and material/making studios provide opportunities for expanding design and integration skills in students, and that these studios engender learning that transcends the specifics of the studio brief, including deep peer-to-peer learning, developing investigative intelligence and enhancing students’ appreciation for structure, material and form.

This brief case study presents an overview of the ‘Ribbed Catalan’ studio intent and execution, unpacking the decisions and outcomes behind the research inputs and outputs, as well as providing commentary on how design/build studios can successfully provide a platform for diverse learning and research outcomes.

The Ribbed Catalan studio was a collaborative design/build/research masterclass studio conducted as an elective subject in M.Arch. program at the University of Technology, Sydney from 2 – 13 October 2012. Led by Prof. Dr Philippe Block (ETH Zurich / Block Research Group), with co-instructors Melonie Bayl-Smith (UTS / Bijl Architecture) and David Pigram (UTS / Supermanoeuvre), the studio won structural and digital innovation awards at the 2013 Australia Institute of Architects NSW Chapter Graduate Prizegiving, a fitting recognition of the achievement and efforts made by the thirteen UTS M.Arch. students who designed, project managed, built and documented the resulting masonry vault.

The studio idea arose from the instructors’ intersecting research interests around masonry vaulting, digital/analogue relationships and innovative pedagogies.  Ongoing research at the Block Research Group (BRG) and renewed interest in traditional Catalan vaulting and structural form finding techniques in architectural design (Fig 1.) were crucial to the studio brief.

Diagram of the key parameters of structural masonry, particularly unreinforced cut stone shells, Block Research Group, ETHZ, 2012. Image: Dr Philippe Block and Matthias Rippmann

Figure 1 Diagram of the key parameters of structural masonry, particularly unreinforced cut stone shells, Block Research Group, ETHZ, 2012. Image: Dr Philippe Block and Matthias Rippmann

This brief asked the students to experiment with designs for a tiled vault with networks of structural ribs, as might be seen in a vaulted cathedral ceiling or similar. This request for exploratory design was then extended by asking the students to engage with RhinoVAULT, a Rhino software plug-in developed by Matthias Rippmann (BRG). By introducing this new software interface in the live design process, the experimental focus could then turn to freeform ribbed vaulting. This pursuit of a freeform ribbed vault was fundamental to the studio research incentive, as there was no built or tested precedent of a freeform ribbed vault at that time.  Prior to the advent of RhinoVAULT, geometrically complex vault constructions were literally impossible to consider or test.

By giving the students freedom to experiment with this powerful and flexible parametric design and testing software, the design/research opportunities quickly manifested in the outworking of the student activities. In answering the brief for a fully three dimensional ribbed vault of a freeform, irregular design, the students actively pursued a parallel design and research process, engaging in digital and analogue explorations with 3D modelling and physical prototyping in order to comprehend and later realise a geometrically and structurally complex form (Fig. 2).  These design process activities were especially important, as they encouraged the development of a wide-ranging investigative intelligence equally valuable and relevant to future professional practice as an architect.

Poster of the design process

Figure 2 Poster documenting the process and design of the ‘Ribbed Catalan’ tiled vault, demonstrating the origin and close development of the iterative design testing in RhinoVAULT alongside prototyping and resolution of the scaffolding and construction methods for the actual build. Image: James Lauman and Jordan Soriot using documentation by the Masterclass students.

While the brief may appear constrictive, in the preliminary phase the students quickly learned basic vaulting construction methods through an initial hands-on prototyping process. Alongside honing their software skills, this skill acquisition then allowed extensive freedom to be given over to the later modelling and testing of the designs. The Catalan vaulting method also created parameters that the students could quickly recognise and challenge in a clear and focused prototyping process. The potential interactions and design outcomes that therefore led to the final built form involved the following approaches and situations:

  • direct engagement with sophisticated design and testing software (RhinoVAULT) for formal explorations and structural form finding (Fig 3.);
  • inductive hands-on prototyping and testing to quickly and intuitively research the necessary construction methods and details (Fig. 4);
  • investigating and trialling a series of construction management processes (Fig. 5).
Prototyping for the ribbing elements. Photos: Natalie Ma and Sandra Mendonca

Figure 3 Prototyping for the ribbing elements. Photos: Natalie Ma and Sandra Mendonca

Scaffolding and guidework axonometric and layout diagrams which arose from the intersection of the scaffolding prototyping process and the vault design development testing in RhinoVAULT. Image: Aaron Yeoh and Philena Au Yeung

Figure 4 Scaffolding and guidework axonometric and layout diagrams which arose from the intersection of the scaffolding prototyping process and the vault design development testing in RhinoVAULT. Image: Aaron Yeoh and Philena Au Yeung

Photos of the construction process

Figure 5 As the mortaring materials and method required a high level of efficiency, the construction management methods were also tested and refined to suit the build process. This included a rigorous tile cutting, numbering and stacking system, with one team mixing mortar whilst another placed and mortared the tiles. Photos: Sandra Mendonca and Natalie Ma

As the physical manifestation of the digital experimentation occurred, it was actively supported by the instructors’ own ongoing research discussions. This active knowledge sharing, based on project collaboration and work techniques typical of professional practice, enabled an excellent feedback flow between the instructors and students, opening up research exchanges within the rapid prototyping, designing and building processes. An example of this fluidity was the development of the bracing and reinforcing of the ribs – after various appraisals and tests, the ribs came to rely on tiles placed perpendicular to the ribs, sitting over a standard cement fill with geotextile mesh reinforcement (Fig. 6). From processes such as this, the students benefited from seeing positive and constructive outcomes from open collaborative processes and pro-active information sharing.

Photo of patching to the ribs

Figure 6 Rib construction and reinforcement / bracing details were developed and refined during the prototyping process that occurred concurrent to the vault building. Image shows commencement of the ‘patching’ or ‘infill’ to the ribs. Image: Masterclass students, Photo: Aaron Yeoh

This testing process was informed by the expertise of Prof. Block, the extensive design and construction knowledge of the co-Instructors, and the empirical prototyping and building experiences gained by the students as the studio progressed (Figs. 7, 8, 9).  Peer to peer learning, an activity that in practice is expected on large project teams or on complex project typologies, was clearly demonstrated between the students as they self-managed the shifting team structures that supported the design, documentation and building of the vault as the studio progressed.  Apart from allowing the students the possibility of aligning a portion of their studies with the research pursuits of the instructors, the success of research via design/build workshops is borne out in the studio’s capacity to harness the deep peer-to-peer learning that emerges, particularly through dividing the larger student group into small teams. Typically, these small teams develop an investigative intelligence specific to their assigned specialty under the overall studio intent. By virtue of their scale, these small team formations generally engage in regular, flowing and intense communication activities, and better maintain accountability between participants.

Photo of the construction of the ribs

Figure 7 The vault in progress – by commencing the construction of each of the eight individual ribs at the start of the build process, an ongoing prototyping process was allowed to take place, with some demolition and rebuilding of the ribs occurring early in the build process after the geometries of several specific ribs revealed a range of construction challenges. Photo: Michael Ford

Aerial view of construction process for the ribs, demonstrating the laying of the tiles over the guidework. Photo: Jordan Soriot

Figure 8 Aerial view of construction process for the ribs, demonstrating the laying of the tiles over the guidework. Photo: Jordan Soriot

Orthographic drawings of the final vault design. Images: Jordan Soriot and James Lauman.

Figure 9 Orthographic drawings of the final vault design. Images: Jordan Soriot and James Lauman.

The tight timeline of the 12 day program fostered, rather than hindered, the level of experimentation involved in the conception and design of the Ribbed Catalan vault. Further, beyond the realities of the students’ design decisions, the impending deadline strengthened the deep and effective learning culture in the overall group. By refining the tacit and explicit knowledge gained through their experimentation, each individual student remained motivated and capable of providing efficacy on the successes and failures of the project. Once identified and properly harnessed by the students, this design/research feedback loop allowed the accumulated information to flow into tangible outcomes. This was achieved either by informing and influencing the prototyping activities of the other teams, or by actually binding the teams together to execute and complete the construction of the final design (Fig 10.) and then to test it (Figs. 11, 12).

The completed ‘Ribbed Catalan’ tiled vault. Photo by Michael Ford

Figure 10 The completed ‘Ribbed Catalan’ tiled vault. Photo by Michael Ford

The Ribbed Catalan vault was subsequently tested, with no evidence of movement or failure at a point load of more than 1.5 tons

Figure 11 The Ribbed Catalan vault was subsequently tested, with no evidence of movement or failure at a point load of more than 1.5 tons

One of the ribs was then demolished in order to destabilise the structural integrity of the vault, after which the point load caused the failure of the vault. Photos: James Lauman

Figure 12 One of the ribs was then demolished in order to destabilise the structural integrity of the vault, after which the point load caused the failure of the vault. Photos: James Lauman

The innate suitability of the design-build studio platform for informing and undertaking design/research projects is perhaps best summarised in this student reflection:

‘There is a lot of potential in the structure and content of a design / build studio—particularly if it presents advancement of any innovative archi­tectural technologies. Even if the resulting work of these kinds of studios often fails, in certain respects, as design that can be directly translated into high­ly-finished and practical pieces of architectural componentry, the work is still able to hold its place as a materialised idea that can inspire further progress and refinement as a prototype.’

From this reflection, it is evident that clearly identified learning outcomes significantly influence the success of research activities in the design studio, because of the momentum provided by a focused, curious and somewhat restless group of investigators, and their drive to seek tangible results irrespective of apparent failure or obvious success. At this nexus, the act of designing is at its most potent — and surely this is the least that should be proffered to the students of today and the architects of tomorrow.

Melonie Bayl Smith

Melonie Bayl Smith is Director of Bijl Architecture and Adjunct Professor at the UTS School of Architecture where she teaches design studio and professional practice. An outspoken advocate of architectural education, Melonie’s project, studio and research collaborators span Australian and international institutions and practices, evidenced in her research project Buildability (2010) and its subsequent academic and practice outputs. Beyond her practice, Melonie is actively involved in the broader profession as an examiner, writer, critic and speaker. Director, Bijl Architecture, 7/100 Penshurst Street, Willoughby NSW 2068, Australia, mbs@bijlarchitecture.com.au

Philippe Block

Professor Dr Philippe Block is Associate Professor at the Institute of Technology in Architecture, ETH Zurich, where he co-directs the Block Research Group, focusing on equilibrium analysis, computational form finding, optimisation and fabrication of curved surface structures. He studied architecture and structural engineering at VUB (Belgium) and at MIT. With Ochsendorf, DeJong & Block, LLC, he applies his research in the structural assessment of historic monuments and the design and engineering of unique compression structures.

Dave Pigram

Dave Pigram is a Director of Supermanoeuvre, and Senior Lecturer, UTS School of Architecture. Using computational design and robotic fabrication to realise unique, high performance projects, his work has been exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Centre Pompidou, and the FRAC Orléans. Dave has been a project director for Studio Daniel Libeskind, a visiting researcher at ETH Zurich and the MIT Media Lab; and a Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of Michigan.

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