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Animation Software for Real-Time Motion Control
Edited by Amit Wolf
S C I – A R C P R E S S
42 Fig 1. Kyle von Hasseln, Liz von Hasseln, Phantom Geometry, SCI-Arc ESTm, 2011, instructor Peter Testa.
In 2011, SCI-Arc Director Eric Moss and Academic Affairs Director Hsin-
ming Fung, with the support of the Board of Directors, opened the Robot
House, an initiative spearheaded by design faculty member Devyn Weiser
and myself. Situated physically and metaphorically between studios and
the shop, the Robot House is a digital/physical interface comprised of a sys-
tem of six Stäubli robots. While not a roadmap of the larger institutional
objectives, “Autonomous Translations” outlines the theory behind our orig-
inal 2009 robotics initiative and architectural design projects of the past
two years. This theory provided the framework for a series of seminars,
studios, and theses that operated on and contributed to the construction
of the digital/physical interface of SCI-Arc’s Robot House when it opened
in Summer 2011. In these projects, explored at the latter part of the text,
there is a new visual language undergoing rapid mutation, adaptation, and
transformation, as designers deal with increasingly complex topics and
tools [Fig. 1]. Projects variously address five themes: (1) Vision and Visuali-
ty; (2) New Geometries and Physical Computing; (3) Real-Time, Simulation,
Emulation, and Post-Animation; (4) Synchronous Robotics and Non-Linear
Motion Control; and (5) Free Form Fabrication, Computational Materials,
and Composite Design.
From Bauhaus to Bothouse
In the lineage of the workshops of radical modernism, Walter Gropi-
us’s Staatliches Bauhaus, and the ‘Laboratory Constructivists’ of the
Vkhutemas, the SCI-Arc Robot House initiative reintroduces modernist
concerns with facture and faktura.1 While Russian Constructivism, which
was exported to the Bauhaus by László Moholy-Nagy, foregrounded the
artworks’ status as a faktura, an objective, manufactured object, the Robot
House initiative interrogates the protocols of manufacturing itself, and
its logical structures. Ungrounding the ‘house,’ from Bauhaus to Bothouse
shifts from mechanomorphism to looser, extended morphisms based in
production, from modernist machinic obsessions to the making of things.
Even before the Bauhaus and the Vkhutemas, Fredrich Nietzsche argued
for a similar productivism in philosophy. Imagining the possibility of
“philosophizing with a hammer,”2 every belief was to be “hammered,” a
stress test Nietzsche engineered to reveal whether or not any value is wor-
thy of being kept. Today, we operate similarly, but with a hammer of a very
different nature [Fig. 2].
Paradoxically, with a view to rethinking the manufactured object, our
interest focuses on visual thinking and non-linguistic technologies. This
enterprise is consistent with Peter Sloterdijk’s argument that the most
advanced thinking today must make use of “image giving” techniques if
it is to “illuminate the landscapes of ideas, discourse, and data […] with
a new kind of conscious formal seeing.”3 Sloterdijk’s image is not a rep-
resentation of an idea but has the sense of an “image that means ideas.”4
Sidestepping materialist and phenomenological ontologies, the German
philosopher tracks the debt of contemporary visual thinking and visuality
to technological environments ranging from Stefan Zick’s seventeenth-cen-
tury anatomical model of pregnancy to the electrosonic space of Berlin’s
current-day Love Parade. To think this new type of image-idea is to sub-
vert and move beyond conventional representation (pictorial, essentialist,
concrete) into the realm of making. Henri Bergson’s early discovery of
matter as an aggregate of images and his conceptual framing of a “move-
ment-image,” and, more profoundly, of a “time-image,” is essential to such
making.5 Opening the possibility of a non-idealist understanding of the
material milieu, Bergson demonstrated the various ways in which the
Fig 2. Erin Besler, Eugene Kosgoron, Siim Tuksam, Peter Vikar, SCI-Arc ESTm, 2011, rigging models for Stäubli TX90 robots, instructor Peter Testa.
Fig. 3. Robert Hooke, drawing of a grey drone fly, from Micrographia: Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying
Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon (London, 1665).
image challenges modernist empiricism and its reliance on abstract geome-
try in defining matter. One outcome of such visual thinking is an ontological
framework neither to be found in modern idealism, nor molar materialism,
but rather in visual translation. This translation, which refers to physical,
synchronous motion, affects a one-to-one relationship between image data
and the technological environment. With translation, Sloterdijk’s “noob-
jects,”—which, never fully giving up their secrets, stretch into the immate-
rial and fictional—and the metaphysics of Bergson’s “time-image” become
procedural and productive.
Antecedents for this immanentism approach may be found in work of
Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and intermedia artists of the 1960s such as
Josef Beuys, but also within contemporary object-oriented aesthetics.6 More
relevant is the example of seventeenth-century architecture, before the
abstract concepts, systems, and models of early rationalism. Particularly
related are the serious games of make believe that formed the systematic
exploration of Christopher Wren, member of the Royal Society of London.
Wren’s building surveys for the City of London, culminating in his plan
of Baroque London after the Great Fire of 1666 and the drawings for Saint
Paul’s Cathedral, say less about any finite built product (e.g. Saint Paul’s
was executed twenty years after their making) than about the invention of
techniques of automated notation, anamorphic projection, and technical
encryption. Mathew Hunter has argued for how these diverse visual prac-
tices were essential in later Baroque London.7 As Hunter suggests, archi-
tects, such as Wren and Robert Hooke, do more than reinforce the familiar
linkages of naturalism in painting or empiricism in science. Their inclina-
tion to experiment with representation—from a fly’s eyes [Fig. 3] drawn
with the aid of an optical magnifying device, to projection machines cast-
ing apparitions onto laboratory walls—exemplifies the Baroque’s interest
in visuality. Theorizing representational practices that run beyond art and
science, the architect’s serious games of make believe “demonstrate highly
imaginative and stylized ways in which objects were being manipulated,
fictionalized, and performed as representations.”8
48 49 Fig. 4. Testa/Weiser, Robot House, 2010, SCI-Arc, project drawing of “workspheres.”
Indeed, rather than occasional, Wren’s automated techniques of rep-
resentation and translation are allied to a whole history of technical draw-
ing and visualization that has been one of the main driving forces for the
development of architecture. The earliest architectural treatises, includ-
ing Filarete’s Libro architettonico (1464), identify the alchemical translato,
or change of grade from two-dimensional drawings to three-dimensional
objects—from matter to geometry and back again—not as a linear process
but as autonomous, overlapping practices of translation. Notably, Bruno
Latour has gone on to extend precisely such morphological thinking. Argu-
ing that production is nothing if not a “metaphysical alchemy,” he insists
on the viability of translation processes as to capture the object’s propensi-
ties, its most intimate energies, and in terms understandable by others.9 As
Latour makes clear, the instrumental visualizations of a thirteenth-century
stone vault by stereotomy or, we can add, the motion drawn by a Stäubli’s
arm as captured by kinematics, do more than interpret certain objectives.
Rather, such visualizations translate and transform object-relations, form-
ing other, unexpected “chains of equivalence.”10 The Robot House rein-
troduces and multiplies these translational movements by making more
explicit and precise the matrix that allows each entity in the “chain” to
relate and give shape to the other.
The Image Machine
To shape perception of and navigation within the world of images, the Robot
House was originally conceived as an image-inducing machine. This digital/
physical interface self-consciously extends the above-described lineage of
visualizing instruments. The polyspherical architecture of the Robot House
is delineated in the specific selection and positioning of the Stäubli robots.
The software architecture, the purpose-built digital/physical interface Espe-
rant.0, extends Autodesk Maya’s animation software for real-time motion
control. Any element of the system, from the end-arm tools to applied mate-
rials to additional robotics, may be visualized, virtualized, transformed,
cloned, and coupled with actual polyspherical motion [Fig. 4]. The abstract
Rather than simply adding to or subtracting from material substance,
the polyspherical architecture of the Robot House thus operates on rela-
tions. The blending of animation and robotics makes an otherwise artifi-
cial, abstract form accessible to real-time, “on the move” adjustments and
manipulations. It is possible to slow down form as to eliminate distraction,
or speed it up to a point where each reshuffling invites new aggregations
of images and tools, in feedback. Admittedly, in this last regard, our image
machine is not so at odds with other, more conventional representations,
in that it is perhaps still too homogeneous and anodyne. The Robot House’s
two-year advances notwithstanding, the revision of architectural manufac-
turing and faktura requires the further development of the above outlined
work—a transitioning to what might be a new metadesign.
digital space and the physical robotic space are conjoined twins, simultane-
ously construing a new, four-dimensional visualization of space. The focus
on the development and usage of imaging and visualization technologies
in turn challenges the notion of the image as a flattened-out-object. The
scopic fixation (image as a copy) is set aside in an effort to foreground the
image in the definition of form. Through this process, the real and the
virtual are brought closer together and given equal weight as valid and
necessary descriptions of reality. This convergence concerns itself with
material and digital spheres, as well as with metaphysical translations, by
setting out the attributes of material perception as much as the object’s
own materiality. So while the tools and protocols of fabrication continually
evolve, the focus remains on production as translation: the development
of a cascade of protocols instantiating transformations, resistances, even
The Robot House pursues a fundamentally different, non-finalist
conception of movement. The hardware/software architectures enable
kinematic models based on active analytical processing of design informa-
tion—choosing categories for instigating, processing, and reacting to design
problems in real-time. Programmed motion with real-time feedback sets
up a non-holonomic system whose states are path specific, a configuration
that is non-Euclidean and multi-dimensional. Accessing material templates
from any position within this configuration, the platform realizes the com-
puter’s potential for removing, or at least relaxing, physical constraints.
The material eruption and, further, the physical corruption of computation
offer architecture new formal perceptions as well. As real-time or near real-
time form-finding disrupts established conventions of representation and
production in architecture, it allows for other translations and translitera-
tions, from motion-based tomographic imaging to projection mapping. Nei-
ther synoptic nor definitive, this particular outcome advances a different
discourse, one that is consistent with Sloderdijk’s image as a medium of
cognition as well as with current advancements of visuality and imagina-
tion within the field.
but less than that which the realist calls a thing,- an existence placed
half-way between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation’. This conception of
matter is simply common sense.” See “Introduction”. In Mater and Memory
(London: George Allen and Unwin, 1911), ix.
6 For example Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1966) with its instruction
manuals and autonomous translation machines that involve optics, motion,
and multiple material processes offers a proxy for the staging of vision,
technical translations, material models, artifice, and redefinition of the
‘manufactured object’ in this project. Likewise, Graham Harman, Quentin
Meillassoux and other figures in the philosophical movement of speculative
7 Mathew C. Hunter, “Experiment, Theory, Representation: Robert Hooke’s
Material Models,” in Roman Frigg and Mathew C. Hunter, eds., Beyond
Mimesis and Convention, Representation in Art and Science (New York: Springer,
8 Hunter 216.
9 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1993). See also Bruno Latour, “A Cautious Prometheus?” in Fiona
Hackne et al., eds., Proceedings of Design History Society Conference, Universal
Publishers (2009): 2-10.
10 I am particularly indebted to Graham Harman for his insistence on the
relationship between Latour’s “alchemy” and visualization. See Prince of
Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne: re.press, 2009) 15.
1 Erin Besler, et al., sPhysical, “Project Description,” SCI-Arc Archives, Fall 2011.
1 Kyle von Hasseln, Liz von Hasseln, Phantom Geometry, Graduate Thesis, SCI-
3 Cf. discussion of Reyner Banham’s critique of German Modernism in the
present study, “Sideman Architecture,” 11-12. TN.
4 Relazione e motivazione della giuria del Compasso ‘Oro 1964, Milano,
5 LE CORBUSIER: Le Modulor 2, II ed. Paris, 1951
6 NIKOLAUS PEVSNER: Pioneers of Modem Design, Londra., 1957, trad. it.,
Cappelli, Bologna, 1962.
7 COLIN CHERRY: On Human Communications, science Ed. Inc. Mimeograph,
8 JOHN R. PIERCE: La teoria dell’informazione, dizioni scientifiche e tecniche
Mondadori 2, londadori, Milano, 1963.
9 MAX BENSE: Aesthetica, Deutsche Verlags-.nstalt, Stuttgart, 1954.
10 Bohr’s atomic model of 1913. TN
11 Cf. discussions of shell topology in the present study, “Sideman
Architecture,” 27; and in Eric Owen Moss and Patrik Schumacher, “’Pleated
Shell Structures’ Exhibition Discussion,” 72-85. TN.
12 H. WEYL: La simmetria, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1962.
13 K. L. WOLF e D. KUHN: Gestalt und Symme-ie, Max Niemeyer Verlag,
14 W. H. GRES: Die geometrischen Verhältnisse bei der Herstellung
unregelmässiger Fläcben, Springer Veri., 1953.
1 On the productivist concept of facture, see Benjamin H. D. Buchloh seminal
“From Faktura to Factography,” October, Vol. 30 (Autumn, 1984): 82-119.
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer
(New York: Oxford University Press, Reissue edition, 2009).
3 Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären. vol 2, Globen (Zurich: Surkamp 1999). See also
Marc Jongen’s, “On Anthropospheres and Aphrogrammes. Peter Sloterdijk’s
Thought Images of the Monstrous,” Humana Mente Journal of Philosophical
Studies, 2011, Vol. 18: 199-219.
4 Jongen 208.
5 Bergson argues that “Matter is an aggregate of ‘images’ […] a certain
existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation,
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Animation Software for Real-Time Motion Control