Shape to Fabrication
University of Westminster
Shape to Fabrication is a biennial gathering of industry specialists, architects, artists, and fabricators in the architecture, engineering, and construction fields. Coordinated by Simply Rhino, the largest reseller of Rhinoceros (a.k.a. Rhino) in the United Kingdom, the event’s main focus is the software and its various applications. Like many such gatherings, the conference had to be postponed a few years, making the 2023 edition the first Shape to Fabrication since 2018. The latest event—the largest by far—was a mixed bag of magical tech demos and real-world case studies that illustrated both the predictable and unpredictable uses of the Rhino ecosystem.
Held on April 26 and 27 at the University of Westminster in London, the conference offered its 300-some attendees presentations and workshops, many of which revolved around innovative uses of Rhino, related plug-ins such as Grasshopper, and workflows that streamline communication between Rhino and other industry-standard programs like Autodesk Revit. The audience also received a preview of new features coming in Rhino 8 and Grasshopper 2.0, both of which have unannounced release dates.
Predictably, the question of AI surfaced throughout. The most concise answer came from Steve Baer, lead developer at McNeel: “I don’t know anything about AI,” he said in response to a question about integrating it into Rhino. But Rhino’s extendibility allows other experts to develop plug-ins or other tools that could theoretically integrate AI into the software, he explained. It’s difficult to predict what the results might be, but that was beside the point. Rhino is not so much a modeling tool as it is a geometry platform. As such, it can be extended and tweaked to suit a variety of contexts and applications.
A running thread throughout the two-day affair (three, if you count the Rhino New Developments Day held on April 25) was a surprisingly casual acknowledgment of a new kind of architectural worker: the software maker. Over the past few decades, an increasing number of high-profile architecture firms have invested in R&D divisions dedicated to custom software development. The presentations covered many custom tools and workflows from teams at Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, Heatherwick Studio, KPF, and others. This is by no means new; many firms since the 1980s have had dedicated specialists researching software internally. But what became evident was how much more interesting the process of toolmaking was than the final built products. Perhaps it was the bombardment of geometrically complex projects, the repeated industry buzzwords, or simply the graphic fatigue we are familiar with after a decade of scrolling through Instagram that made it difficult to respond to any project with anything more than “cool.”
This is not to say that the architecture presented was bland. On the contrary, there is so much to unpack regarding the kinds of luxurious projects in oil-rich nations and high-end manufactured items that boiling them down to their geometric acrobatics or aesthetics feels trite. In the age of unlimited image generators and ChatGPT, complex geometries appear less impressive than the sociotechnical phenomena of the slow emergence of architect/software developer culture. For me, the most fascinating aspect of the conference was witnessing this community of technologists come together and share ideas about open-source initiatives, new ways to tackle old problems, and the joys of making things.
These architectural technologists sit at the clichéd intersection of design and technology. McNeel itself has hired many architects-turned-software-developers. Despite the software branding itself as industry agnostic, a high percentage of the development team has a background in architecture. The reason for this is twofold. First, the company is community-oriented and often looks to its pool of users when expanding its team, and second, architectural design and software development require similar skill sets and approaches. Both deal with structure, functionality, and creativity. According to Scott Davidson, head of business development at McNeel, architects also make good problem solvers.
Rhino was built largely in dialogue with a community of beta-testers. This is why they periodically release their Work-In-Progress versions on their website. Each version attempts to address feature requests from its user group, and at the conference, attendees were encouraged to download the Rhino 8 WIP and try it out. The most common feature request the company receives, McNeel admitted, is to build Rhino into something that could replace Autodesk Revit. However, that is not McNeel’s goal. The core tenet of this relatively small, employee-owned company is simply to provide freeform modeling solutions that are accessible, easy to use, and accurate enough for manufacturing purposes. Bob McNeel sees Rhino as a highly specialized product that should be used in conjunction with other industry-standard tools and may be extended through plug-ins. This is perhaps not the best business model for profitability, but over the years it has amassed a significant following of devoted architects, students, fabricators, artists, engineers, and other geometry enthusiasts. Many of these individuals showed up in London to see what’s coming next. When the next version happens, presumably in 2025, they may need to seek a bigger venue, as this community of designers, coders, and tinkerers appears to be growing significantly each year.
Galo Canizares is a designer, writer, educator, and the author of Digital Fabrications: Designer Stories for a Software-Based Planet.