Studio MAKE in Conversation
CONVERSATION #2: Dr Chengzhi Peng with Marilena Sorrou, January 2017
About the Project
At the start of Studio MAKE 2015/16, we had an ice-breaking session in which students were invited to show ‘a space not so good’. Using a sequence of diagrams Marilena Sorrou showed us how a ‘not so good’ bus stop could become better if it could change in response to a person’s needs. Since then, Marilena has embarked on a journey of ‘Changing Topology’.
CP: Given that this Sheffield MSc in Digital Design programme is relatively new, I wonder how you became aware of this course and why you decided to study with us at Sheffield?
MS: Since the first year of my undergraduate studies I have been fascinated by the speed and the flexibility that digital design tools offer, while being able to aesthetically improve my design. By constantly discovering new features, I realised that digital design is much more than tools for representation. I decided to deepen my knowledge of parametric and computational design and I started looking online for relevant postgraduate programmes. The detailed and inspiring description of the modules combined with the great reputation of the University of Sheffield were the main aspects that made me apply.
CP: In The Ten Books on Architecture, the Roman architect Vitruvius asserted that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas (firmness), utilitas (useful), venustas (beautiful). Since then, the quality of being solid and firm, among others, has been almost universally associated with ‘good architecture’. So why pursue an ‘architecture of change’?
MS: The concept of ‘architecture of change’ has multiple nuances that do not negate firmness. In the context of our studio, change is equal to adaptation, environmental aspects as well as human senses, desires and expectations. To me, architecture is all about human perception, feelings and reactions. I think that ‘architecture of change’ is just another facet of the Vitruvian quality expressed as 'firmitas'.
CP: From early on, you introduced the idea of ‘Changing Topology’. What is topology in your thinking – is it mathematical, philosophical, scientific, architectural or a contemplation of daily-life experiences?
MS: The overall aim of Studio MAKE during the first semester was to create an interactive installation. Thus, the most important aspect of the project was the human presence. My initial idea was focused on the relationship emerging between the human body and the space itself (Figure 1). The most effective way to understand how the two different elements relate to each other is to change the parameters of the relationship. So the starting point of my exploration was the mathematical aspect, considering the space as a geometrical object and analysing its properties. On the other hand, transforming the attributes of the geometrical space according to human activities in order to create experiences based on changing topology, reveals an intriguing philosophical aspect.
CP: Following from that point, geometry seems to be one of the prime drivers in your design development. In your own words, you wanted to focus on the “transformation of a rectangular surface to a curved surface” in order to investigate “the limits of a physical space and the effect of geometry in human-space relationship”.
MS: Generally in architecture, geometry is an effective way to create intense relationships. The same space designed using a different geometry communicates a completely different feeling. For example, coziness is usually represented by curved surfaces while sharp edges are often deemed harsh or even hostile. Indeed, the overall research question for me was how people’s behaviours and feelings relate to the surrounding space. In order to study such a relationship through an interactive installation I should reduce and simplify the parameters involved.
At first, I wanted to create familiar and universal forms that could attract people because of their simplicity, like a telephone booth does. Thus, considering the perspective of Le Corbusier that “primary forms are beautiful forms because they can be clearly appreciated” I decided to create three primitive spaces that could accommodate a human person. Secondly, trying to avoid changing the position of the human body and thus changing any potential feeling, I emphasised the transformation of the actual space instead. As a result, the installation created was an adaptive space which would be able to transform itself according to human’s acts in order to create various spatial experiences (Figure 2).
CP: How do you transform a rectangular surface into a curved surface in Changing Topology? What does such a transformation achieve?
MS: The main objective of this concept is to create three primitive shapes using a single model. This transformation aims to correspond the spatial state to the human body state in order to explore the relationship mentioned above. The Studio MAKE project for the first semester concerns the initial stage of the whole process which is the transformation of a single rectangular surface (as a unit of the total space) to a curved one. At the same time, because a different height is also needed for the curved surface the strategy of folding was deemed necessary. Thus, such a topological transformation in two dimensions takes place gradually employing the logic of origami (Figure 3). In order to employ this logic a triangular pattern is used to divide the initial rectangle. The pattern creates control points all over the surface enabling the designer to manipulate the transformation. A further study on the angles of the pattern formed all the parameters needed for the desired outcome.
CP: I am curious if you have investigated such geometrical transformations before you came to study with us at Sheffield?
MS: As an architect I was always interested in human - space relationships and attracted to geometrical patterns. However, this was the first time I was engaged with kinetic structures in a context like that. I was previously studying how people relate to and adapt to spatial arrangements. This time I considered how the space could adapt to people instead.
CP: Throughout Semester 1 I have seen you busy with both physical model-making (3D printing & laser-cutting) and Rhino-Grasshopper-based parametric modelling. Were these two modes of working linked in any way? Was this physical-virtual prototyping approach to investigating the transformation useful to you?
MS: Virtual modelling helped me to investigate how the parameters are linked together, how they affect each other as well as to discover the initial rules that would make the parametric network work. On the other hand, fabricating the model was quite important for revising the rules established considering the materiality of the final product in order to avoid any potential malfunctions (Figure 4a and 4b).
CP: At the beginning of Semester 2, all students in Studio MAKE were asked to define their own project briefs so that the outcomes of the Semester 1 investigation could be applied to the design of an architecture for adaptive interaction. Could you describe your project brief?
MS: To extend the idea of changing topology, the structure of the primitive spaces designed for semester one were scaled and applied to an interactive toy for children. The folding object created was enriched with Arduino boards, sensors and motors in order to make the children interpret the concept of topology, the different primitive shapes, and the transformations among them (Figure 5).
MS: The initial state of the object is a rectangular box on the floor waiting for somebody to enter the room. If nobody is close enough to interact, it will start making a noise. When someone comes closer and keeps moving around, the box starts following or avoiding them in order to keep a minimum predefined distance. By doing so a game like chase is been established. When the child feels tired and sits on the floor, the box sits too next to them by turning into a cylinder. After a few minutes, when nobody moves, the cylinder becomes a box again to allow the game start again.
CP: This sounds to me like a child's robot companion in the form of an adaptive interactive toy that will undergo shape transformation when the child plays with it (Figure 6). What were the technical challenges encountered in the process of building a prototype of the child’s robot companion?
MS: The fabrication of this prototype was the most difficult part in terms of materiality. The right choice of material is a really important part of the whole process. For example the type of the material defines the joint which will be used and the weight affects the whole mechanism that will apply the transformations. Another challenging part was the mathematical identification of the right angles in order to define the parameters and achieve the desired transformation (Figure 7).
Marilena Sorrou studied Architectural Engineering at the Technical University of Crete and did her internship as an architect in Athens (Greece) before joining the MSc Digital Design and Interactive Built Environments* course. She is interested in both academic research and architectural practice. Her research interests include participatory design, parametric design, computational design and human-computer interaction. Working with Dr Mark Meagher, Marilena continued researching participatory design for her MSc Thesis Project titled ‘Flat Form: A software design for capturing the contribution of personality and ordinary activities in early design’, which was successfully completed in September 2016.
* MSc Digital Design and Interactive Built Environments will be renamed as MSc Digital Architecture and Design from September 2017