Philippe Block: Bricks Don’t Lie

A theme that was explored by various architects at the 2012 Architecture Biennale in Venice was the exploration of finding inspiration from past precedents in architecture. Philippe Block recently came to Sydney to talk about this and his application of modern technology including parametric modelling. Throughout university I avoided all discourse surrounding parametrics because I felt that the agenda of many students was to develop an impressive image or aesthetic as opposed applying the process in a more meaningful context.

There is however a very valid future for parametric modelling if considerating its application is to produce smaller, stronger and more sustainable buildings and components with less material, money and time.

The work of Philippe Block, the leader of BLOCK Research Group and a partner of Ochsendorf, DeJong & Block, appropriates the past and incorporates parametrics in manner far beyond aesthetics. He utilizes modern technology, software and digital fabrication tools, to re-explore historic construction techniques. In referencing past building methods and while generating new types of forms, Block advocates for economy of material. He is currently investigating the affordable housing issues in third world countries.

MasterClass studio at UTS Sydney – Ribbed Catalan Vault

Trained in both engineering and architecture, Block first began looking to the past while serving as a research assistant for John Ochsendorf, an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He explores lost technologies like the famous Gothic fan vaults at Kings College at the University of Cambridge and Guastavino tile vaults, such as those used in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal which feature multiple layers of terracotta tiles laid in compression without formwork (based on Catalan vaulting methods from Spain). Under Ochsendorf’s guidance, Block developed force diagrams to map out the thrust network of the historical vaults. “Vaults are simply—or not—balanced in compression, a concept that applies at any scale, so it’s possible to test in small models and anticipate what happens at the scale of a building,” he explains.

Free-form Catalan Thin-tile vault

Block continues to experiment alongside his own students in his position as an assistant professor at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. His students model anticlasitic curves (double curves) using the RhinoVAULT plug-in developed by the BLOCK Research Group for Rhino 3D modeling software. They build 3D-printed models without using glue. Upon these models, they apply load testing to validate their designs—sometimes they stand, but failure is occasionally inevitable, and in some cases, intentional. During his lecture last October at the University of Technology (UTS) School of Architecture in Sydney titled “Novel Masonry Shells – Learning from the Gothic Master Builders,” Block showed videos of students building the mock-ups and then relishing in knocking them down. “Pushing structural models to collapse is always fun, but more importantly, it’s very educational,” he believes, adding that “masonry does not lie.”

Brickworks: Masonry vaulting

Beyond encouraging his students to stage collapses by swinging sledgehammers, Block sees far-reaching implications for masonry vaulting, particularly as a valid approach to affordable housing, for which he believes it could lower construction cost and schedules. In many countries, timber and reinforced steel are not locally available, but dirt is plentiful and can be molded into masonry units. Though using dirt to build is not a new concept, Block believes vaulting provides an opportunity to achieve greater spans than many other types of construction while using less material; in some cases, vaults can create 2 cm thick floors that don’t need reinforcement. To date, he has explored this possibility in countries such as South Africa, through building the Mapungubwe Interpretive Centre, and in Ethiopia, where he tested out vaulting in a two-story format for the Sustainable Urban Dwelling Unit (SUDU) and then expanded it to the scale of an entire ‘pilot town’ for NESTown (New Energy Self-Sustained Town).

SUDU: Sustainable Urban Dwelling Unit

Modern vaulting however, raises some issues when it comes to safety. In many of the areas in need of low cost housing, is high potential for earthquakes—a condition in which masonry doesn’t perform so well. Block’s team utilizes discreet element modeling to simulate all possibilities, but they can’t account for the errors made by workers during the construction process. While vaulting techniques might have been standard building methods hundreds or thousands of years ago, it can be challenging to train workers to quickly and efficiently build these types of structures today. Block notes communication issues and cultural differences when it comes to definitions of accuracy and acceptable tolerances, for example. In addition, using “new” methods of construction requires obtaining special permission from local authorities as well as testing and analysis of soil and other building materials, since such standards are not often in place.

Aside from residential applications, Block sees another possibility: building large-span roofs for outdoor pavilions. For the past four years, he and his team have been researching and collaborating with construction and stone fabrication partners, Escobedo Construction, to develop a large stone structure in Austin, Texas, USA. The structure will not only be unreinforced (no steel rebars), but also constructed without using mortar; the stones will be laid dry on top of one another. The Park Vault Chestnut Plaza, which was exhibited at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2012, features stereotomic vaults that exist in compression only and are made from CNC-cut stone. It will serve as an amphitheater for performances, provide covered space for markets and include a seminar room. The design even features an oculus to allow light to shine down on a stage for gospel choir performances.

MLK Jr. Park Stone Vault, Austin, TX, USA

Some of Phillippe’s biggest critics are other engineers who are wary of the power provided to architects by new computer software, such as BLOCK Research Group’s RhinoVault plug-in and eQUILIBRIUM, a graphic statics-based learning platform created for structural design students. They worry that such software could potentially put engineers out of work. Block assures that the engineering profession is in no danger of becoming obsolete, and points out the major benefit in empowering architects: “the structural discussion happens directly at a higher level.”

Block believes that “one can learn a lot from the past—not only from the failures, but from the successes of masterpieces by master builders.” Despite using weighty materials, vaulted structures are extremely efficient, according to Block: “what we show in our research and projects is that formal freedom does not need to be equal to material waste.” While much of Block’s research has been about understanding historic masonry vaults and recovering knowledge that had been lost, he hopes this research will lead to many new advances in structural engineering. Block summarises, “in general, I believe that nothing is more noble and elegant than using materials in an honest manner,” referencing the famous quote by architect Louis Kahn:

And if you think of Brick, for instance, and you say to Brick,
“What do you want Brick?”
And Brick says to you “I like an Arch.”

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