ACADIA 2017 | Workshop 1 — Computational Research in Architecture and Structures

Mitch Page
6 min readNov 2, 2017


Philippe Block (Block Research Group, ETH Zurich), Tom Van Mele (Block Research Group, ETH Zurich), Matthias Rippmann (Block Research Group, ETH Zurich), Mariana Popescu (Block Research Group, ETH Zurich).

Disciplines & Disruption initiates a dialog about the state of the discipline of architecture and the impact of technology in shaping or disrupting design, methods and cultural fronts. This conference provides a platform to investigate the shifting landscape of the discipline today, and to help define and navigate the future.

Workshop setup in the Innovation and Design Building, Seaport

ETH Workshop (Day 1)

The day began at the The Innovation and Design Building in Boston’s Seaport District. Formerly a U.S Department of Defence storehouse, today the building is 130,000 sqm innovation and design hub filled with architecture and creative service studios, specialised manufacturing facilities, research and development firms, and technology start-ups. Whilst Alex L. was enrolled in the Perkins and Will workshop, Tristan M. and myself were both participating in the ETH Block Research Group workshop.

Our workshop focused initially on introducing the past, current and future work of the Block Research Group (BRG) at ETH Zurich and their python-based framework compas; a framework that they have progressively formalised over a number of years for generating, analysing and optimising much of their research and built work. Running the workshop through the day was Tom Van Mele, co-director of the BRG, with Matthias Rippman and Mariana Popescu assisting.

Throughout the day, we progressed through installation and basic operation of Sublime Text Editor as a python scripting environment, to basic examples of implementing the compas framework in simple geometrical application.

Moral of the day;

Employing techniques of list comprehension in Python is key to concise and elegant scripting.

… a further fun Rhino fact revealed by Tom;

‘Conduits’ are a visualisation function in Rhino that draws pixels to screen as opposed to the actually generation of geometry (Grasshopper utilises conduits to preview geometry). These can be exploited in Python to inexpensively preview geometry in the viewport.

… and some further reading suggested by Tom;

With the day finishing around 5pm, we bused and walked our way into Boston CBD for clam chowder (Alex’s request) and a beer. Despite my scepticism about dairy + seafood, the chowder was pretty good.

Matthias explaining how iterative planarisation can be achieved through use of the compas framework

ETH Workshop (Day 2)

The day began again at the The Innovation and Design Building, however a burst water main (so we were told) shut down access to the entire facility. With the workshop moved to MIT’s IDM Lab, we uber’ed our way across the city to the MIT campus in Cambridge. Running the workshop today was Matthias Rippman and later Tom Van Mele. Joining in the afternoon Philippe Block, co-director of the BRG.

The focus of the morning was on more involved geometrical applications of compas through worked examples; in dynamic relaxation, iterative planarisation, form finding techniques and mesh subdivision. Throughout the afternoon and evening, we were introduced to generating custom Python buttons and toolbars for the native Rhino interface.

Final day workshop setup in the Innovation and Design Building, Seaport

ETH Workshop (Day 3)

Back at the The Innovation and Design Building, the final day of the workshop was oriented around writing our own application utilising the compas framework. As many of the workshop participants were from professions outside of architectural design (engineering, fine arts, computer science etc.), the projects people were pursuing were quite diverse. While one engineer was experimenting with generating complex compression structures in FE software Tekla, other designers were producing form finding tools for Rhino.

Tristan and myself decided that for our project we wanting to implement the compas network data structure type to create a standalone shortest path calculator application based on Dijkstra’s algorithm. The application being for route finding and time calculation for both urban planning, public architecture and transport design.

Whilst we have written processes in Grasshopper before that accomplish similar functions, the implication of having a pure python tool is that we have a tool that can be run independent of, or replicable in, any software (see workflow diagram and video capture of workflow below).

Introduction of a .json type file write and read step in the process leaves the door open to some fun interaction drawing possibilities for web-based applications.

Screen recording of the tool

Each workshop collated all the work from the participants for an evening exhibition across both the 6th floor work space, and the ground floor Autodesk Build Space. Many of the conference attendee’s came to the evening event to check out both the product of the workshops and meet and greet some of the more notable workshop tutors.

With tickets to the Boston Celtics vs. Sacramento Kings basketball game, we left the event somewhat early to end the evening at TD Garden stadium.