Craft in the Digital Era - Louis Sullivan and Digital Fabrication

Terracotta detail from building
As we rely on new tools in the production of architecture, the advantages of digital design are many, but the challenge may lie in how we maintain high levels of craft while embracing collaborative working environments and highly technical building systems. This studio entitled “Craft in the Digital Era” introduced students to high-precision documentation and fabrication with a case study of Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in St. Louis. Students were tasked with advanced modeling and the translation of digital documents into molds for replicating historic façade components. The digital tools enabled surfaces that exceeded the precision of the historical terracotta tiles, thus requiring additional skill by the modelers to resolve these complex geometries and successfully prototype them.

With the Sullivan precedent (and many historical details) no drawings or surveys exist, so students began with photographs of the Wainwright Building. Digital models were built directly on photographs taken from elevation view of the building details. Sketching proved once again the vital instrument it is to architecture, regardless of the technologies that follow it, to analyze, uncover and comprehend the organization of the complex patterns. Sullivan’s design process was put in reverse – delaminating the organic geometry to uncover the scaffold on which divergent floral attributes was constructed. This ultimately determined the hierarchy of lines within the detail to extract and utilize in the production of 3d surfaces, and this hierarchy provided the origins to a cascade of surfaces to follow, much in the way Sullivan conceived of the details. Students were challenged with recognizing “maker’s marks” of the computer software and fabrication tools and to gain control over the expressive patterns that result from these industry standard tools.

Year: 2016
Location: Lawrence, Kansas
Course: Arch 509 Designbuild Studio
Instructor: Keith Van de Riet

Students: Kelechi Akwazie, David Brookman, Alex Delekta, Cassandra Hall, Jacob Hansen, Joseph Herdler, Andrew Hutchens, Maxwell Irby, Mark Kaufman, Grace Kennedy, Joseph Libeer, Benjamin Marquardt, Andrew Marquette, Andy Martinez Renteria, Jacob Peterson, Dana Ritter

Partner: KU Ceramic Department

Sponsors: KU School of Architecture and Design, Cottin’s Hardware and Rental

Vendors: Bracker’s Good Earth Clays, Royal Metal Industries, LLC

Media: “Architecture Students Explore Craft in Digital Era,” University of Kansas News; “Wainwright Building serves as model for KU students,” St. Louis Post Dispatch; “University of Kansas students recreate the ornate details of Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright building,” Architect’s Newspaper; “Q+A: Keith Van de Riet on Exploring Techniques with Modern Technology,” Architect Magazine; “Architecture professor brings old designs to life with new digital tools,” The University Daily Kansas; “Craft in the Digital Era: Louis Sullivan, Digital Technology, and DesignBuild Education,” Oz Journal