Among other international projects, MDC2015 Emerging Talent speaker Alvin Huang, AIA, has been busy with a series of commercial commissions in Thailand. Sitting down with him, we were particularly curious about these buildings. What were the particulars of constructing work in that country, and how had Thai expectations changed design. But before we delved into those specifics, we had to ask Huang about his perspective towards the implementation of digital technologies. Both individually, and as leader of his office, Synthesis Design + Architecture, Huang has experimented with and expanded the use of emergent design technologies and digital fabrication. He is the recipient of the 2014 Autodesk Small Business Innovation Award and the 2013 Time Magazine‘s 20 Best Inventions of the Year accolade.—Tibby Rothman
MDC: The expansion of computer modeling technologies has led to the facilitation of complexity in your facades, but a recent project of the firm’s mixed these technologies with material stitched together by hand. Several speakers in the last few years have talked about similar interplay between the digital and the analogue, including Frank Barkow who will be at MDC2015 from Germany with partner Regine Leibinger. Is the field shifting from a love-at-first sight relationship with the digital to considering digital as simply another tool? Or is that a silly journalist question?
Alvin Huang, AIA: No, it’s actually pretty interesting. Basically, the term that my office—it’s starting to show up in other places—that we like to use is digital craft. Craft is being utilized in what we call a post-digital era. Digital is a given. It’s something that you don’t have to talk about but it’s also not something that is a target. We’re not trying to be digital. Because of that, the back and forth between what is digital and what is analogue is just part of the process.
I think that technology driven solutions should be seen very much as a means rather than an end. Trying to do things exclusively for the sake of doing them for the sake of novelty does not make for intelligent design, so we’re looking at how the digital actually facilitates the real world. Meaning, through digital mechanisms, we’re able to simulate material properties, material performances, but also fabrication processes, assembly processes that are very hand made or analogue, particularly. We’re interested in this because a lot of times the projects we’re working on are either low budget or in Asia. What we’re trying to do is leverage computation as a way of investing all of the complexity in the design side so that the assembly can be done quite efficiently.
MDC: Does the analogue also give you a more visceral quality of the material?
AH: In the end, architecture is material, and it is visceral, and it is something that you see and experience and engage with in a physical way. You physically enter it, or you physically touch it, or you’re physically enclosed by it—that’s what we are about. Our office is very much about making things that are informed by a digital process but they are not digital artifacts, they are physical artifacts. So, the tactile experience is super important to us. What we are able to do, or trying to do, is use the computational side to produce spatial experiences that we wouldn’t be able to figure out how to do in a more traditional or conventional sense.
MDC: Everyone wants international work but then, during the construction phase, depending on where, the project encounters hurdles that prevent it from being realized the way the designer envisions. (Of course, the same issue frequently happens here in the United States.) A number of Synthesis Design + Architecture projects have been realized in Thailand. Are there particular ways of working in that country that have supported the final result?
AH: Well, specific to Thailand, there’s an inverted relationship between us and our local design team. At the beginning of the project, we have a very deep engagement: we’re drawing and they’re only advising—advising us on code restrictions, on material costs, on means and methods. As the project then moves on, they pick up the load and begin to translate our drawings into a bidding document, and ultimately construction documents.
One of the things that we found is: during the construction document process things are absolutely going to change. The way that we have dealt with that is: we will include dimensions, but we’ll also include relationships instead of just saying this façade is “five-foot panel, five-foot panel, five-foot panel.” The local design team can see that it lines up with the drop ceiling on the interior, but then, as the project moves forward, they have to have a bigger duct because of the skeletal load and they drop the drop ceiling, and then we have our drop ceiling showing past our spandrel and it will be visible in the front elevation. So what we would do is say, “align, align.” As much as we can, we include instructions that are about alignment, about tangency, about divisions, about “equal, equal, equal”—where geometries have relationships towards one another, and you’re explicitly describing the relationships rather than the dimension. So, if the dimension has to change, the local design team can maintain the relationship.
Also, of particular relevance to the process is the product. The products that we have here, in the United States are not necessarily easily available over there, nor are they necessarily the cheapest thing you can find there. So typically, we are specifying not by product but by reference, so the local design team can look it up and find comparable results locally.
MDC: Has the construction process in Thailand forced changes to design?
AH: Well I would say, in general, it’s no different than it is anywhere else. You have to be able to inform your thinking by the constraints of a given design problem. Those constraints are not just about the cost, they’re not just about time, they’re not just about the program or our client’s aspirations or desires. They’re also about constructability and sequencing and construction logics. How it’s put together and the sequence of how it gets put together.
We work a lot—this is not just about Thailand, it’s actually about the way we work—we’re working with variability. So we are repeating, but we are repeating and varying, repeating and varying. We like to look at a process called mass customization. Producing the façade that we did in Lampang, Thailand–when we started off the project, that was a design that was technically 2000 unique panels. No two panels were alike in the entire elevation. And through a process of mass customization, we refined the design, we got it down to five modules of pre-fabricated panels, which were flipped, rotated, mirrored. Through their rotation, flipping and mirroring and recombining in different ways, we were able to come near to the visual complexity we were trying to achieve.
MDC: I guess what I’m interested in is a particular instance that could illuminate the Thai perspective or process, and how you’ve accommodated it or influenced it?
AH: The project in Bangkok–this is a site rather than a cultural condition–the site we were building on was an existing parking structure below grade. So, we had to use a lightweight steel structural frame to put the lowest amount of load on that parking structure. Typically in Thailand, they like reinforced concrete. So, that was one where it was actually contrary to the cultural constraints but, because of the site constraints, we were using steel.
We’ve had to deal with different attitudes towards exterior space—which we were able to challenge. The project in Bangkok, we wanted to push indoor-outdoor space, which is a byproduct of the way we like to experience alfresco dining, because we come from Southern California. We live in a moderate climate where it’s nice to be outside. They live in a really hot, humid climate. Culturally, they actually don’t like to be outdoors. They like to look at it; they don’t like to step into it.
So what we wanted to do is explore that a little bit, challenge them to get out of their comfort zone. We designed an indoor-outdoor atrium with a retractable roof over the dining area. Because of the retractable roof, we were able to facilitate protection from the sun and use interior landscaping to reduce the temperature [to the point] where we weren’t so dependent on air conditioning. The entire courtyard was protected from solar heat gain and, because of the orientation of some of the entrances, we were able to bring a lot of natural ventilation into the space. We were able to create a very pleasant indoor-outdoor space, which is something that in Thailand is not typical. In this case, it went against their cultural inclination. But because we were able to think about the problem, it’s become a nice spot. I just had a former student call me, and he told me that he has friends in Thailand [who] told him […] it’s become a very popular nighttime destination.
This interview has been edited, condensed and re-ordered for clarity and brevity.