Walk around any major city in the world and you'll find iconic buildings that simply couldn't have been constructed until just a few years ago.
Some are so admired by the public that they've gained affectionate nicknames: two famous examples are the Bird's Nest (the National Stadium) in Beijing and the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) in London.
But now we're seeing some dramatic new concept buildings turning the heat up a notch. The Newer Orleans building and the incredible Kunsthaus 'friendly alien' gallery in Graz, Austria are both great examples of this fascinating new trend.
How on earth were these structures conceived – and why don't they come crashing down? Modern building materials have played their part, but the real hero of the modern skyline is the computer.
Bricks and bytes
Before computers were invented, these buildings could exist only in the minds of architects. Now, thanks to advances in computer graphics and pre-visualisation, we can explore structures before they're built.
Computers are also essential beyond the initial design stage, making it possible for engineers to analyse the stresses and strains that an architect's dream will place on steel, glass and concrete in reality. The program AutoCAD is still the dominant design application.
A veteran of Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Autodesk has been developing the program since its inception in 1982. The architectural design suite now graces the computers of almost every architectural practice in the world. Pete Baxter, Autodesk Sales Director of the Building Solutions Division for Northern Europe, says: "CAD enables architects to test and analyse designs in an intelligent and efficient way, and because this is done at the earliest possible stage, it gives them the freedom to realise their creative ideas while designing buildings that are fit for purpose."
Using pre-visualisation to clearly view the design of a new building has become very popular over the last couple of years. From the slick graphics in TV shows like Grand Designs to the fl y-by visualisations of how the main stadium and aquatic centre for the London 2012 Olympics will look once it's completed, we all expect to see pixels flying before we see bricks being laid. Visualisation has also become an art form in its own right, with companies like Smoothe, UNStudio and CityScape 3D using software such as V-Ray, Spine 3D, Maya, LightWave, MotionBuilder and Photoshop to portray their concepts in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Building with maths
Building information modelling (BIM) is a branch of architectural and engineering computation that enables all parties to design a building without having to get their hands dirty. Within AutoCAD, for instance, the BIM components include 3D digital modelling tools Revit Architecture, Revit Structure and Revit MEP for mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers.
The Newer Orleans project is a good example of BIM in practice. The architects at UNStudio outline their approach clearly: "We design in 3D from the very beginning of each project. We also use our models to acquire data for the development of the design and the visualisation of the final project."
Many of the world's architects and visualisation specialists use tools like Bentley Architecture V8 XM, a suite of structural design and architectural BIM tools. The whole suite runs on the well-established MicroStation platform , which offers world-class 3D rendering via its Direct3D support.
The design applications that are now used in architectural practices can be as complex as the MicroStation platform or as traditional as ArchiCAD and the applications from Autodesk. They're now moving one step forward by including APIs that can be used to link any numbers of third-party applications together, allowing data to be seamlessly transferred between apps.
Another change that has impacted on all forms of computer-aided design and engineering is the move to distill the actual form of the buildings into mathematical equations. Because many of today's structures are based on organic shapes, curves have to be manipulated with great accuracy not only to perfect the design, but also to ensure that the building's components can actually be fabricated.
The curve form is known as its parametric base. The parametric equation is simply a method of defining that curve, and even a low-powered PC can handle it with ease. The impact of parametric modelling is that designers have been liberated from the limitations of the human mind, allowing them to use more organic shapes in their buildings. What was once the province of high-level programmers is now accessible as desktop applications. Coupled with 3D modelling, the PC desktop suddenly becomes a powerful tool that can move a design from initial concepts through to the actual manufacture of components.
For the architect, being able to manipulate a curve's form is the ultimate control over their design. Suddenly, complex geometrical designs become possible. For example, Zaha Hadid, whose designs seem to defy the laws of gravity and physics, uses parametric curve manipulation to make sure that these buildings are able to exist past the initial design stage and become a physical reality.
Computers have a long history in the field of architectural design. The iconic shell shape of the Sydney Opera House – which was designed in 1957 and completed in 1973 – relied on computers to calculate the angles of each pre-cast concrete component.
35 years later, computers are enabling architects to complete buildings that in theory seem almost impossible to build. Hadid has designed several extraordinary buildings, including the Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art, the BMW Central Building in Leipzig and the Phaeno Science Centre.
What all these buildings have in common is the use of computers to describe the shapes that the buildings are constructed from. Mathematical equations are used to refine a shape into spheres, cones or tori (doughnut shapes). Reducing a shape to its mathematical components means that it can be infinitely manipulated.
Using traditional graphics with their use of stored coordinates and defined surfaces would mean that more computations would have to be performed to manipulate the shapes. By reducing a shape to an equation, the software application simply has to draw a straight line between two points and segment this into a number of nodes in order to create shapes that can be easily manipulated to the architect's specification.
Hand in hand with this mathematical modelling of a building or structure's fundamental shapes is the rationalisation process. This takes the shapes that have been modelled on a computer and projects them into the real world. A step-by-step process is created that is able to build the shapes that are on screen. This is where the architect's computer model meets the demands of engineering.
Often a modelled shape will have to be further refined to create a number of subcomponents that can actually be cast in concrete. Today, programming is just as important as design when architects and engineers meet to create a new building.
Specialist applications, including the Autodesk NavisWorks range, enable designers and construction companies to work together to realise new buildings or structures. Systems like NavisWorks enable architects and construction companies to identify what they call clash detection. This is where the design of a building clashes with the construction processes that are available. The computer can instantly see if there will be a problem on the building site, saving time and money for the engineers.
Translating potentially inaccurate 2D drawings to our 3D world has been a problematic area ever since the human race starting building structures. The introduction of virtual architecture has overcome this obstacle.
Any issues that the construction company highlight can be resolved with detailed 3D modelling of that aspect of the building: a kind of virtual construction. The practical upshot is that financial savings can be massive, because the potential for costly onsite mistakes is vastly reduced.
A recent example of virtual construction is the One Island East project in Hong Kong. At the centre of the design is a single 3D model that acts as a foundation onto which all the other design and construction disciplines base their work. This means that the entire team has a common 3D model to work from. Any changes made by one team instantly filter through to other departments, and workstations highlight any potential conflicts between design and construction.
So what kind of hardware are the people involved with these projects using? A recent survey revealed the hardware platforms that the architectural market currently favours. Not surprisingly, Intel-based workstations continue to dominate this space. Dual-core processors are gaining market share, but many architectural practices are still using single-processor machines. It seems that even with processor-intensive applications on the rise, 64-bit processor-based PCs are still few and far between.
Looking at the hardware generally, most practices favour custom building their own workstations, with Dell leading the charge in this market. And for image rendering, Nvidia's graphics cards are the favourite among today's designers.
Building maintenance is also seeing the application of new technologies. One leading development is Cospaces. This project is being partly developed by COWI, a leading construction management organisation.
Using heads-up display technology linked to 3D-visualisation software, they have developed 3D glasses through which you can look at the 3D model and the real-life building at the same time. From an engineer's or architect's standpoint, these new technologies are a godsend. They move 2D and 3D images from the flat plane of the computer monitor and into the tactile world that we're all intimately familiar with.
One example is the CAVE, a fully immersive space that can be used for a wide range of visualisations. It allows designers to walk around in buildings that they have only previously imagined or at best modelled on a computer's flat screen.
With VR system on the horizon and the development of 3D-rendering applications looking set to continue, the buildings and structures around us will become even more stunning over the next few years.
Many architects have lamented the arrival of the desktop computer to the field, complaining that architectural students now seem to be symbiotically joined to their PCs. However, the fact remains that without the capabilities of the humble desktop PC, many of the most exciting buildings in existence around the world today would not have been possible to conceive or construct.
With Moore's Law continuing to deliver annual increases in computing power, architects and designers will be able to push the envelop of design even further in the future.
First published in PC Plus, Issue 278
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