Designing alone together

A report from a teaching perspective


Switching over to the digital semester may have been comparatively easy for the Digital Design Group as many of the course units have already been taught using computers for quite a long time. Nevertheless, there was still much to learn about cloud-based applications and the limits of digital modelling. Professor Oliver Tessmann provides some insights into the digital semester in the Department of Architecture.

Digital design at the Department of Architecture.

As the Digital Design Group, we want to make architecture more diverse, adaptable and sustainable with the aid of computer-based design and digital fabrication. In the process, the computer is much more than just a better drawing pencil. We can simulate load transfers, material properties, light incidence and even production processes and even let these factors become the motives that drive the designs. Digital tools are a platform for interdisciplinary work that help us to harmonise the diverse requirements that have to be taken into account when designing a building and their complex interdependencies. These tools make it possible to create forms, spaces and constructions that could not be drawn using a pencil. Robots and 3D printers enable us to materialise the designs.

During the current digital summer semester, we have been able to use computer-based design as usual. Students have already used Moodle and video tutorials to learn how to use the digital tools and methods for many years because it allows them to learn at their own speed, experiment and try out designs. The students participating in a design project use Moodle forums to exchange ideas, formulate questions and provide each other with mutual support. This exchange of ideas strengthens newly acquired knowledge and is more productive than frontal instruction. During this semester, we are also experimenting with cloud-based applications that enable the students to work together so that several people can work in real time on a digital 3D model. In contrast to a video conference, this enables all of those involved to actively intervene in the process and implement their ideas in models.

Virtual reality and convertible spaces

Digital fabrication – the second integral component of our teaching and research – requires the use of our laboratories and workshops and has been cancelled this semester. An important component that allows us to physically verify and evaluate the digital designs is thus missing. Instead, we are using a software that is actually intended for the development of computer games and interactive virtual reality/augmented reality exercises. It not only allows us to depict a three-dimensional space but also to simulate physical behaviour, kinetics, animation and interaction. At the end of the course, the designs are made tangible in virtual reality instead of in the form of a physical model.

We meet up for presentations via video conference and the students have noticed that they are now able to sit in the front row. In the seminar room, this area was previously reserved for members of the jury. We want to transfer this positive effect from digital teaching over to face-to-face teaching. Another positive aspect of giving project presentations via video conference is the ability to invite international guest critics quickly and easily. We have been able, for example, to discuss the designs with Jonas Runberger from KTH Stockholm, Shayani Fernando from the University of Sydney and Luis Etchgorry from Argentina.

Floating Amusement – digitally created at the Digital Design Group.
Floating Amusement – digitally created at the Digital Design Group.

Something that is currently lacking are moments of spontaneity and creative accidents that develop during conversations, in joint sketches or in models and drawings. An apparently unproductive idea will never make it into the perfectionist online presentation yet could provoke completely new possibilities for developing the design during discussion in the workplace. These processes can only be recreated digitally to a very limited extent.

The originally planned production of rotationally moulded, hollow concrete structures has been dropped from the course. Instead, the students participating in the design project will investigate how these types of large-scale yet lightweight building components can be used to design spaces and constructions that are more adaptable and interactive. Building components can be interlinked to form dry joint constructions, dismantled again and then rolled, turned and swivelled so that they can be installed in a new position. The space thus becomes adaptable and can be shaped by its users. To create a test environment for this type of new architecture, the participants are designing new areas for people to play, celebrate, make music and eat together along the banks of the River Main in Frankfurt City Centre. These places – which we are yearning for during this semester – will become a projection screen for experimental, utopian and playful architecture. However, they will be based on very specific and highly relevant questions about sustainability through the flexible use of buildings, hollow building components that preserve materials and reversible component joints that can be reused in the spirit of a circular economy.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Oliver Tessmann/mho