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The Hot Rod and the Craftsman

Gaston Nogues in conversation with inter·punct

Gaston Nogues was born and raised in Buenos Aires, graduated from SCI-Arc, and went on to work for Gehry & Partners. In his current collaboration with Benjamin Ball, Nogues is focused on fabricating what they visualize; on process as it relates to the built object.

For additional information and to view Gaston’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: Earlier, we were discussing the decomposition of “parameter” into its constituent parts: the abnormal out of “para” and the idea of measurement we get from “meter.” This alternative reading seems to have a strong, if unintentional, relationship to your work. I was wondering if you could speak to the role of parameters in your method of design and execution, the almost sublime nature that some of your work takes on for you as you engage in the act of making.

GN: For our studio, parameters include things like the budget, the schedule, the distance we have to travel to put something together. It’s not just about setting up design parameters in the beginning. It’s great that things have a budget, that they have a limit; within those constraints you have possibilities, and that’s freeing in a lot of ways because it helps you to refine initial ideas you may have had. It allows you to make things more real. Even a computer can be deceiving because it’s not of the world, and it allows you to believe you can see everything, or know anything, but that’s not the case. The “real world” constraints become rules that we use to check our work.

We’re also interested in what you can and can’t do with a material. Things have a certain amount of resistance and resilience. We’re always working to see if we can push beyond those limits. We sometimes have to ask our students at Sci-Arc, who also have these enormous ideas: how can we make that? And if we can’t, let’s work with these materials, this site, and see what we can do with it all.

We always use materiality and craft to take a project out of the purely digital realm.

i·p: Regarding your use of software and your experimentation with materiality, how do you and your partner reconcile the strict logics of computation with the intuitive sense of play that many of your projects inhabit?

GN: A lot of times we try to embed things with their own material logic. We’re using intuition, but intuition that evolves and grows as we learn about how things behave. Making used to be guided by rules of thumb. Egyptian engineering, for example. We check our intuition, our rules of thumb, with our materials. The process modulates in scale; we make a lot of mock-ups and models. But our models are about the act of making; we’re not interested in these tiny, white, precious objects which are all just about form. 3D-printing is a process takes material completely out of the equation and reduces the project to a shape. Rigorous model-making is something that we learned from other places that we worked. I worked at the Gehry’s for a long time, where they would make models of a single project for years. They’re constantly developing. But most of those models were still about form. They were still representational. We also learned the importance of making mockups, at multiple scales.

i·p: Last semester, we tried to do a digital fabrication project, and we worked on it digitally for too long. When we actually constructed the first mock up, it just fell over. We were trying to use the school’s robot to bend metal and thread it through wooden boards, to sew the boards together.

GN: There are actually machines out there, CNC wire-bending machines specifically designed for that purpose. There’s a roll of steel wire, which gets run through a series of straighteners to uncoil it. They can run it through rollers at opposed angles to bend or straighten the wire. It works like computer-controlled pliers. The machine does it all automatically.

i·p: Right. We had to force the robot to do that; it didn’t seem natural to the machine.

GN: Those types of machines perform well at different tasks, from what I’ve seen. The Eleventh Venice Architecture Biennale had an exhibit by Gramazio and Kohler called “Structural Oscillations”: they had a robotic arm that could lay bricks – it would give the bottom of a brick and place it forming this twisting wall. It seemed like a pretty realistic task for that specific machinery. We have a few machines, the CNC router and the laser-cutter. Even with the robotic arm, my own arm is better sometimes. For us, the question is, when do you use the machine and when do you use your hand? There are things the computer can do better than you can, and there are things you can do better than the computer. There’s no real gain in trying to program it sometimes. We try to make things faster, so you don’t have to sit there and thread needles all day, but somehow I like that more. I think it gives certain pieces a different edge, because they don’t just appear out of the air. I think that people really respond to that, when they look at something so complicated and realize those things were done by hand. You start to understand it. You can start to see a history or traces of the hand left behind. That was one of the things I liked about my time working at Frank Gehry’s. When you worked on the models, you could see the marks of changes made on them. You could see the development of the project, the thought process as things evolved. They became artifacts of the design process. With these physical things, when you start to see the traces of the hand, you also start to see the process, to understand its history. Does your robot have a particular interface you work in?

i·p: It’s just code, so that’s limited what we can do, despite its potential.

GN: Programming is another limit, especially when you work with various specialized pieces of equipment, and each file is different. You have to program each file. That’s a lot of time spent, or money if you need someone else to do it.

i·p: Do you think programming should be required in our education?

GN: The question then becomes, do you want to keep up with that stuff constantly? Personally, I don’t know how to use all of the equipment, but I know how they work. I spend enough time around machinery to understand the possibilities and the challenges of it. I don’t want to program the machines because, for me, that’s not the interesting part. I know a thing or two about welding, but I’m not as good as the guys who have do it all the time, and I could never weld anything like that. To get to that level, you have to really devote yourself. I think it’s important to find something that you like and really learn it. One guy we worked with is a Form Z geek. It’s an early modeling program. He has made interfaces for us with Form Z that we can work with parametrically, because he knows how to set up the relationships in the code. He gets in and hot rods it, and it works for us. I don’t know if you have to learn the greatest and the latest because you’ll never keep up. There’s always going to be someone who’s younger than you who knows it better and spends more time on it. I don’t think it’s important to learn it all, but it’s important to know how it works.

i·p: I have a question about your office as a business model because it is very different from most architecture firms; it’s responding to installation process and the need for public art. Do you see it as a business model or as a rare occurrence? Could someone try to run a firm like this?

GN: It is very similar to an artist studio: you go for commissions, you get requests for qualifications at different opportunities, you apply for public art grants and projects. We do use that model. We also use the model of the movie industry: we have two guys and two interns, but we’ll bring in another ten people because we have a project. You have to knock that movie out, work on it for three months straight, and then when it’s done the whole crew disappears. They might get together a different time for a different movie. My partner and I didn’t set out to do this, it just happened. I wouldn’t say it’s a lucrative business model [laughs], but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I would rather do what I’m doing than sit inside an office drawing plumbing or wiring diagrams – that can also be interesting, but it’s not what I want to spend my time doing. The office is like a shop, too; we have everything we need there. It’s really important for us to be in an environment that’s conducive to what we like to do, so we always try to have the space to work and enough supplies to do what we need.

i·p: So, on a building scale, how do you see your process and your work with complex surface geometry effecting space?

GN: All those projects are about affecting space, right? I don’t think that if it’s made out of string or cardboard it has any less power to be a building. I think you can make walls out of that stuff: why not? Codes twist those things a little bit, but we don’t approach our installations as art objects or precious things. We call them “arch-y” things. They’re not quite architectural because they don’t have plumbing or fit the code, but I think they have implications for types of spaces, environments, membranes – those things are part of an architectural type. Membranes for a stadium, for example. Could we do things at that scale? Sure we could, I think. Will we get a chance to do those things? I hope so. I think it’s always about taking a little bit further, like going bigger. Just learning from what we’ve done in the past and just trying to push it further. When I went to school, almost nobody had a computer. Even once I started working at offices, there weren’t any computers around. Most people drew by hand. Now anywhere you go, there are laptops everywhere. I learned how to draw by hand and if I were a student today, I wouldn’t know what to do, what I would want to learn. Or how much time I want to spend learning it.

i·p: There’s a risk sometimes. Some of the courses become software tutorials; they’re teaching us environmental strategies but also trying to teach associated software. But you spend half of the class learning the software, despite the fact that there’ll be new software in a few years and I won’t have gained any actual knowledge of the subject.

GN: That’s why I would say just pick one you like and know how it works for you. Use it like a Mayline. Use it anyway you like. I think it’s just too hard to keep up with that stuff. It’s too much. We have guys who know how to use it, and I think what’s important is just being able to communicate with them. I’m more interested in equipment than software. I like the machinery, gizmos, all kinds of tools. My grandpa was a big handy dude; he made everything. He made all their furniture, my mom’s toys, with handsaws and handplanes. Nowadays, technology is changing, but it’s really no more sophisticated than my grandpa’s saws – even if you know how to use it, but especially if you. I think all equipment is meaningless if you don’t kind of get the most out of it by spending time with it and learning it. The same goes for software. I think that we really admire the notion of the craftsman, giving form to things because he knows his materials. You have to get out in the physical world, be in space.

i·p: We have someone else in our journal writing about Patrick Schumacher, who defines parametrics as a style. Do you consider your work to be within this parametric style, or do you think people identify it that way?

GN: I think that anything that is done with a particular software or method can be a style. You look at the work of certain offices and you can say, “That’s done in Rhino.” You can see it. I don’t want to be able to see the software that made something. That’s why we always try to tame those things with the material, with the physical. Even things that we decided to use parametric methods of design, like “Drop-in Distraction,” it was just an internal process. We don’t want it to be in that pantheon of “this is parametric” projects.

i·p: I think it’s really limiting the architecture of certain firms too, like Zaha Hadid, relying on the software. It’s not pushing anything.

GN: Even though we used a lot of software that is parametrically driven, in the end, it’s just a mechanism. I think material can take something out of that digital realm when you actually have to drive in the nails. Instead of leaving those things for the end, why not put it in the front. Just think about it before: for example, the nail pattern on a dry wall, maybe we can put a special screw pattern on it and it becomes decorative. You don’t have to just let the guy put in the nails. If this is the wall, and we have to have a bunch of screws in this, why don’t we do something great with the screws? I think it’s the builders approach. We’re kind of control freaks, too. We like to be in control of every aspect, not just design, and to know the possibilities of each stage in the process. We like to make all the decisions up front, so we can show up, go play, and we’re done. We can make this thing happen, we’ve thought about it; we have contingency plans if something doesn’t work out. It’s just kind of sensible, I think.

i·p: You showed one project where you referenced the coffered ceiling. Based on what you just said, do you think architecture is going to become more decorative again? As opposed to modernism, which is stripped down of ornament, with these tools it seems like there is a tendency to decorate more.

GN: Yeah, I agree. People nowadays are a little different. We have this huge amount of images that you can access instantaneously. You can buy anything you want immediately. That’s definitely going to change attitudes. Modernism is great, but it’s also really austere, and it’s not the kind of world that we live in now or not maybe what we like to live in. Attitudes change over time. Technology drives some of those changes. I see a lot of people scripting, making wall panels that are decorative. I would rather our work be not just about that, but if the decoration could have some sort of structural implication, or move beyond an unengaging surface, that could be interesting.

i·p: We have an essay about the necessity of developing a different language to think through digital design, and it suggests you can develop your ideas through language, without any materials. I guess it’s somewhat opposed to your idea of starting with the material. It’s the idea that you can, through theory, push design or a particular architecture.

GN: Sure, there are people that. There’s room for everybody. But I’m not sure we have to invent new words; I don’t want to learn new words. I would hope that if we do something like that, it’s not just a parametric thing. And I don’t think we want to forget our hands. We use the computer to aid in the craft. Call it digitally-aided handcraft. And you don’t always have words for that, maybe only actions. The hand can do so much. You do get lazy though. I don’t like to cut things by hand anymore; the laser-cutter is so clean. But if the power goes out, at least I can get it done. It’s not as good as the laser obviously, it’s not as precise, and not as fast, and not as repetitive, all kinds of things. In the end, it’s just a tool, it’s just a really fancy scissor. It was fascinating when we first discovered we could make hundred of thousands of the same thing; now it’s fascinating that we can just make one when you want it, exactly how you want it to be. Direct digital manufacturing. I think that’s really freeing, having machines and knowledge so accessible. It’s exciting to see what could happen or what is going to happen. I think eventually, soon enough. How old are you guys?

i·p: We’re 21.

GN: I’m 43? 57? I don’t know how old am I. I’m really forgetting, my wife thinks it’s weird. I think 43, 43 or 44. There weren’t cell phones when I was a kid. I grew up in South America too. Things change so quickly. When I grew up, I had three channels of T.V., and two of them were in black and white, one of them was in color. All of those things just change life. I freak out if I leave my phone at home. I can’t live without the damn thing. It can become a crutch too. We’d rather it not be a crutch, technology. We don’t think that it makes things any better, it doesn’t make it good. If it’s not good, it’s not good, whether it was done on fancy software or not. But it can help, sometimes.