For much of its early history, architecture was more than a pragmatic response to the problem of shelter. It was infused by craft. “Craft has existed in all kinds of industry, especially architecture, for a long time,” said Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH) principal Matthew Johnson. “But I feel it it lost its way in the twentieth century as we chased efficiency over quality.”
SGH provided concept design, detailing, and full structural services for the exposed structural stainless steel walkway on the Hoover Mason Trestle, with Wallace Roberts & Todd. (Halkin Mason Photography)
Until quite recently, in fact, Johnson felt that hope for a reunion of art and technics within architecture was dim. Then he had an epiphany. “It struck me that craft exists now, it’s just in a completely different way than what I traditionally had thought,” said Johnson. Where he previously defined craft as “a manual labor and artistic trade,” Johnson saw that “craft has evolved into a computational trade, where you can create interest and detail computationally.” Johnson, who is the “New Design” Practice Leader for SGH as well as Structural Engineering Head for the firm’s Chicago office, will share his thoughts on the contemporary craft of building envelopes in a presentation at next month’s Facades+ Chicago conference.
Johnson was careful to stress that, for him, the new architectural craft is about more than just good-looking graphics: it extends to fabrication, for instance 3D printing. “There’s a whole world of opportunity out there to create [at least] parts of building with an incredible level of detail and precision,” said Johnson. “That doesn’t mean we need to make things materially complex for complexity’s sake. But there are often other needs to be met. We can start to be really creative in how we approach things.” As an example, cited new techniques for designing and building in concrete. Constructing a concrete hyperboloid the old-fashioned way took a ton of time and effort, because the forms had to be put together on site, by hand. “Now all of a sudden we can build incredibly complex formwork, off site,” said Johnson. “It’s sort of like craft has reemerged in our profession. There’s a skill set out there that allows this to happen.”SGH designed a faceted, structurally glazed, five-story curtain wall with custom structural steel mullions for UMass ISC, with Goody Clancy. (Courtesy Simpson Gumpertz & Heger)
For Johnson, who will focus his talk, “Digital: Design-to-Fabrication Opportunities in Contemporary Facades,” on SGH projects in the public realm, one of the most exciting developments has to do with the relative affordability of certain digital techniques. “For a museum, it’s easy to be inventive,” said Johnson. “They might have $1000 per square foot to build. What’s interesting is where we see it in smaller projects, for example in K-12 schools. You can start to be inventive and inject craft into something that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.”
Hear from Johnson and other AEC industry leaders, and view the latest facade materials and systems at the Methods & Materials Gallery, at Facades+ Chicago November 5–6. View additional information and register online at the conference website.