From predetermination to dialogue in digital fabrication
This paper discusses digital fabrication in non-industrial contexts and its possible use in self-construction of low-income housing in Brazil taking into consideration the cybernetic concept of variety. It shows the result of a master’s degree research in architecture which first step was to verify how accessible to lay people this technology would be, since most of the times its non-industrial application happens within structured labs. To accomplish that we took a pragmatic approach and built a low cost CNC milling machine based solely on DIY instructions currently available on the internet. The aim was to assess potential difficulties regarding the clarity degree of information, the availability of the necessary production tools and the final cost of producing it the Brazilian context. The following step was to approach a favela as it is one of the most complexes situations regarding the self-construction of low-income housing in the country. To seek a better understanding of the intricacies of their self-construction strategies we established a partnership with a local resident proposing to use digital fabrication to help in the renovation of his house. The most important aspect this experience has shown is that favela dwellers have a method of thinking-as-doing that is crucial to allow them to incorporate found or donated waste material during the building process. In a total opposite fashion, the machine we were making could only deal with homogeneous sheet material. Moreover, it needed the digital modeling of the entire pieces previously to making them. In other words, even with low production costs, the machine still contained in its operation many traces of its industrial origin that would hinder its application in the material and social context of the favela.
In terms of Ashby’s law of requisite variety, the favela self-building context required more variety than the machine usage could provide. However, increasing the machine autonomous capability to respond to that situation seemed extremely difficult. On the other hand, improving the human-machine interaction revealed an easier and more beneficial way to increase the final variety in the machine usage. Thus, we envisaged three machine improvements. The first one was to ‘join the ends’ of the broken loop that is caused by the separation of the processes of design and milling that were carried out by different software. The second improvement, still to be made, is to incorporate ultrasonic distance sensors that can read the sizes of the pieces to be milled, so the digital model can automatically be adjusted accordingly. And the last step is to attach either a projector to display the digital model directly on the material to be milled or a video camera to capture the material form and display it in the background of the digital model on a computer screen. These steps would shorten the feedback loops between material and digital model, thus enabling a kind of ‘short sentence dialogue’ between them. One example of this dialogue would be to take short automatic procedures (e.g. to mill a joint, a hole, etc) and combine them outside the computer in order to generate a piece that wasn’t digitally modeled. That would end up configuring a mixture of handcraft and digital fabrication.
Applying the concept of variety to this investigation showed that the shorter the feedback loops of one interaction system compared to other processes observed, the more dialogical it relatively is. Conversely, the longer the loops, the less dialogical the interactions are, up to the point that feedback is no longer recognizable and ‘dialogue’ turns into ‘discourse’. Thus, since feedback is ignored, discourse can be considered a non-systematized attempt to transform other systems, while dialogue can be viewed as a system where variety responds to other systems variety. This distinction becomes clear when we compare the different strategies the ‘favela dwellers’ and the ‘star system architects’ use to achieve variety. While the dwellers employ waste variety to respond to the already complex context of the favela, the architects employ the industry based digital fabrication to bring any variety to the homogeneous context of the formal city. Both processes respond to the complexity of their contexts, one by everyday loops and another by ignoring the everyday towards what can be called ‘a long term Bilbao effect’.
- 5) Education and conversation
- 7) Art; design; music; literature