High-tech tools help architects find the artist within

Take a stroll along Shanghai’s Bund, the traditional promenade along the western bank of the Huangpu River, and relish the cornucopia of 17th century architectural style on display in the waterfront buildings: Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Classical and Renaissance. These were the banks, hotels, gentlemen’s clubs and corporate headquarters of the British concession in the international trading port. 

To the east, over the river to Pudong, the architecture of the 21st century issues a magnificent riposte. Buildings reach exuberantly for the sky. One resembles a sphere perched on a tree trunk. Another is pierced near the top by a trapezoidal hole through which you could fly a jet. Others twist and cantilever, curve and taper.

So different to the rectangular blocks of brutalist architecture that burgeoned in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s! 

Ever since seeing the exuberant architecture of Pudong, I began to take notice of the new crop of soaring, twisting skyscrapers being built everywhere from New York to Dubai to Sydney.

Why, I wondered, was architecture in recent years so much more artistic than 50 years ago? It was hard to believe there was a difference in fundamental creativity. There had to be another reason – and there is. The architects of today are freer due to two gifts from the modern era: computer-aided design and advanced materials.

It is exhilarating to see how computer and materials sciences have unleashed the art of architecture.

Computer-aided design allows an integrated approach to all aspects of a building, from the broad brushstrokes of the architectural design to the detailed engineering of the structure. It allows investors or future occupants to take a three-dimensional virtual tour, flying through the proposed building to assess its aesthetic appeal as well as practical issues like the usability of the space and the movement of people. Other powerful software allows complex structures to be imagined and engineered, such as the soaring, geometrically dazzling glass canopy covering the Great Hall at the British Museum in London: the canopy is made of 1,656 pairs of glass panes, each pair slightly different in size and shape.

The advanced materials now being used might have the same names as materials of 100 years ago but concrete, glass and steel have lifted their game. 

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Concrete is still a mixture of cement, stone and water; but now state-of-the-art concretes are reinforced with steel or carbon fibres, fine-grain sand, nano silica particles and powdered quartz. This type of high-strength concrete was used in the rebuilt World Trade Center in New York, the One World Trade Center. Advanced concrete enabled smaller cross-sections for columns and walls to maximise floor space. 

Modern window glass is coated using exotic techniques such as ‘magnetically enhanced cathodic sputtering’ that creates almost no tint, optimises thermal transmission and minimises reflection that would otherwise make the windows look like mirrors. Glass impregnated with various mixtures of copper, titanium, zirconium, nickel and silicon is stronger and has better thermal and acoustic performance than traditional glass.

The strength of modern steel results from advances such as quenching and tempering during fabrication, and the inclusion of other elements such as manganese, tungsten or cobalt.

Besides beauty and strength, the advanced materials are produced with minimum wastage. The precision of computer design ensures the thicknesses and shapes of the beams and walls are no greater than they need to be, while the use of fabrication methods such as laser cutting achieves the desired shapes. 

The future promises to be even more spectacular. Expect to see final completion of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Família Basilica in Barcelona, commenced in 1882. Computer-controlled fabricating machines are enabling the complex hyperbolic and parabolic shapes specified by Gaudi to be made faster and more accurately than could be done by hand.

Elsewhere robotic brick-laying machines will create walls and design features that flow and bend in ways that would be impossible to build by hand.

To see some current examples, search for the 2012 China Central Television Headquarters designed by Rem Koolhaas for the Beijing Olympics; the 2010 Teshima Art Museum in Japan, designed by Ryue Nishizawa; and the 2008 Shanghai World Financial Center in Pudong, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox.

It is exhilarating to see how computer science and materials science have unleashed the art of architecture.

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