Bridging the Gap: Computation, Craft, and Construction in India

The processes of design development and construction are locally contextualised in different parts of the world based on the available technology and resources. This feature presents a craft-based approach to computation and its contribution to support artisans in India. Such solutions attempt to establish a methodology which makes complex geometry constructible in the country today, even as access to digital fabrication methods are yet evolving and expensive. This essay by Urvi Sheth From CEPT University, one of the collaborating partners on the project, with Hunnarshala Foundation and Karigarshala, details the process as well as discusses the key questions
Images and pages from the November 2019 (DI_89) issue

In the era of the Second Digital Turn, designers and engineers have easy and equal access to computational tools across the globe. With the highest development of technology at a global level, the processes of design development and construction are locally contextualised based on the available technology and resources. A craft-based approach to computation and its contribution to support artisans’ development in India is demonstrated here through ongoing research on customising bricks and utilisation of a computationally generated asymmetrical Catalan Vault. The challenge of constructing the computationally generated form by architecture students is completed by the craftspeople and students of craft. The research elucidates gaps at various levels from design to construction. Craft-based solutions bridging these gaps establish a methodology which makes complex geometry constructible in presentday India when access to digital fabrication methods are still evolving and expensive.

Today, designers and engineers have easy and equal access to computational tools across the globe. Data-sharing and advancements in digital fabrication with a six-axis robotic arm have revolutionised design thinking and making. Robots are being trained to sense information, provide feedback on the process and take independent decisions, just as the craftspeople of the preindustrial era. The hands of craftspeople have had cumulative wisdom of materials, tools and techniques. A craftsperson’s hands are directly connected to their minds. When craftspeople are introduced to new ideas (in this case, complex geometry), tools and techniques (Catalan Vault), the construction process is as precise as machines. Additionally, a craftsperson posseses the knowledge and sensitivity to material, bringing an inherent quality without any preprogrammed instructions. This feature is a paper that is part of ongoing research on customising brick. It looks at bricks with two simultaneous yet separate approaches.

The first approach: parts to the whole, focused on the development of customising a building block (brick). Individual masonry blocks are customised to enhance the quality of the existing brick. The aim is to make construction without mortar and/or add one of the qualities such as acoustics, thermal insulation, light and shadow on the facade, integration of the plantation, and so on. The customisation of the block can also be based on self-assembling complex geometries.

The second approach: whole to parts, is based on a funicular structure. Here, the form is computationally generated and the parts are considered as standard blocks available in the market. The focus is to design and build an asymmetrical vault at an affordable cost in India. The project conferred here is built based on the second approach.

The project was conceptualised by students during a three- weeklong (Winter School 2016) course, Digital Crafts: Customised Bricks 1.1, conducted at the Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Students were free to choose a specific site and programme on the Sabarmati riverfront. A bounding box was 30 cubic metres (3 x 3 x 3 m) in volume, with the possibility to stretch the box, keeping the volume constant. This changed to 270 cubic metres (10 x 6 x 4.5 m) while developing the design. RhinoVAULT, which is the Plug-In to Rhinoceros®, emerged from research on structural form-finding using the Thrust Network Analysis (TNA) approach to intuitively create and explore compression-only structures introduced as a generative tool. The number and type of supports were site-specific. Five different designs were generated by students working in groups of two. Out of these, the children’s play area was chosen to develop further.

Awareness of the advancements in technology and shared tools among designers/architects in India is relatively on par with the world. Architecture and design schools conduct full-time courses and/or specialisation in the field. Architectural practices also began to accept the digital turn positively. However, there is a clear demand for updating civil and structural engineering education. Analytical methods taught and practised by the engineers are extensive, accurate yet not enough to be able to share mutually between designers and engineers. These methods are limited to symmetrical shapes. To be able to calculate the structural behaviour of asymmetrical free-form without digital tools today will demand alternative methods, similar to the one used by Antoni Gaudi, Frei Otto and Felix Candela. Vocational training imparted by Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) in India and skill-development schools like Hunnarshala must include construction craftsmanship like masonry, fabrication, carpentry and other related subjects. Skilled labour and educated craftspeople can change the face of the construction industry in India.

Acknowledgements: CEPT University: Shehzad Irani, Avishek Das, Arunima Sen, Ekta Samani, Naindeep, Faisal, Parv Modh, Chaitali, Sudarshana Babu Students of Digital Crafts: Customised Bricks 1.1 (Winter School 2016); Hunnarshala Foundation and students of Karigarshala: Kiran Vaghela, Tejas Kotak, Sunil Dheda, Bharat Chauhan, Pangu Sinh Bamania, Jignesh Gor, Itesh Dhadhar Students of Karigarshala (batch of 2017-18).

The cover of this issue was inspired from two features in the issue — one being the story on Bridging Gaps between craft, computation and construction in India, the other being a feature on The Discovery of India exhibition at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai; this cover was designed by a young architecture graduate, Parshav Sheth.
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