In the case of contemporary precedents, I believe gridshell designs can be indexed according to the inherent qualities of technological advancement within the cultural context of architecture, these being technical refinement, and aesthetic techniques. According to Ali Rahim a technology is “the application of a purely scientific advance to a cultural context.” He goes on to clarify “the effectiveness of a technology depends on its ability to produce in users new patterns of behavior and levels of performance.” While technical efficiency can be measure quantitatively, technology must be considered qualitatively. Techniques then become the “methods that allow individuals to use technologies in specific contexts, to accomplish complex or difficult tasks.” How does this relate to gridshells then?
Gridshells, in my opinion, are a particular technique architects have employed that utilize the technology of long spanning laths of timber, as well as more recently, specific computer modeling applications that allow form finding and simulation. These gridshells, as an application of technology, can then be be analyzed on a case by case basis, using technical refinement and aesthetic technique as a guide for overall cultural impact.
I feel that the Downland Gridshell and the Savill Gridshell, both engineered by Buro Happold, represent a clear example of the difference between technical and technique.
The Downland gridshell, completed in 2002, utilized the standard construction method of gridshells, which is flat mat raised into place, with a very unique twist. Instead of pushing the shell into place, the team decided that gravity would help the shell take form on site, and so the flat mat was built on a raised platform and the grid deformed naturally.
This unique perspective method is seen as a technical advancement. While not aesthetically different than previous gridshells, the refinement of construction was important. The team at Buro Happold also had a special connector plate designed that allowed the variability while raising the shell.
The Savill gridshell, on the other hand, represents a particular aesthetic technique applied towards gridshells. Rather than the shell being self supporting, the thin double lath structure is actually supported by steel columns, and acts as more of a canopy than the structure that shells were meant to embody.
The laths are also held together with the traditional pin joint, instead of a special connector. Because of the primary structure the laths are actually quite thin, and are used as an architecture element, not a structural one.
While still a technical advancement, utilizing the custom Tensyl application designed for Buro Happold to calculate loads and pre-drill the lath holes, the main focus is the importance of technique as way of making gridshells culturally relevant. The Downland gridshell is a workshop, while the Savill gridshell is a gardens visitor center.
One note about both these gridshells, and a way to introduce a part of the research problem is their symmetry. Both gridshells utilize reflected geometry in the form. Is there a way to introduce asymmetrical forms into culturally relevant and inspiring gridshells?
I understand our research to be an exploration of both the technical and the technique. While both are relevant in respect to gridshells as a technology, it will become important to find which factor limits the designer more, and how then a new technology might begin to emerge from these limitations. We will utilize physical and digital tools to gather data from which a definitive statement about gridshell technology might be gathered.