A Pattern Language

Soon an unusual 14-foot-long Gaudí-esque screen will bisect the already slender exhibition space at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, a tiny New York gallery that spills onto a sidewalk on the border of Chinatown and Little Italy. This month passersby glancing through Storefront’s pivoting windows and doors will see Joe MacDonald’s “bone wall,” the first full-scale prototype of a structure he designed using CATIA’s versatile parametric modeling tools. “CATIA is a whole new cognitive environment in which design is conceived,” says MacDonald, an associate professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). He claims that most of the architects who have appropriated the program use it in a limited, backward way, to render warped and flattened geometric forms rather than derive purposeful architectural structures. Frank Gehry, often credited as being among the first architects to experiment with the program in the early 1990s, set the current precedent by using CATIA to create immense expressionist sculptures wrapped around buildings.

In contrast MacDonald has spent the last two years studying the program’s modeling features, which were originally developed to help aeronautic and automotive engineers solve real-world problems, such as how to reduce drag on the wing of a plane or the hood of a car. In a written statement describing the intent of his research, for which he received a total of $12,000 in funding from the GSD, MacDonald explains why he discourages students from using the program merely for the purpose of designing dynamic surfaces. “Architecture, when I last checked, does not travel at speeds exceeding 400 miles per hour,” he says. For MacDonald the architectural promise of CATIA lies in its ability to generate complex solutions in response to site, climate, available materials, and budget.

In this case MacDonald designed a wall with two objectives in mind: to use a minimal amount of material without compromising the integrity of the structure and to design a nonrepetitive 3-D pattern made up of individual cells that, though similar in shape, vary incrementally in height, width, and depth. The solution came in the form of a “genus cell” with a three-pronged base that he varied 72 times, creating an intricate lattice along the length of the undulating S-shaped wall. “It is as efficient materially as it can be, thanks to this software,” MacDonald says. And while Storefront’s triangular floor plan and compact interior might have provided an additional set of constraints, the structure that MacDonald had already designed—as part of his research on Austrian sculptor Erwin Hauer—happened to fit the space precisely. The screen’s dimensions provided just enough room for circulation and the possibility for built-in seating and storage.

“The bone wall was an experiment that allowed us to explore as many possible variables as we could,” he says of the modest installation. By joining these variables in a single form he has created a mesmerizing installation in which structural strength and ornament are inherently merged—and that’s the true beauty of CATIA.

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