“Reconstituting the Master Builder: The Architect Enhanced Through Art, Poetry, Science, and Scholarship”

BORLAND PROJECT SPACE / FACULTY RESEARCH SHOWCASE: “Reconstituting the Master Builder: The Architect Enhanced Through Art, Poetry, Science, and Scholarship”

Associate professor of architecture at the Penn State Stuckeman School, Marcus Shaffer, discusses architecture in relation to material, the machine, and humanity. This video was created for the 2017 Faculty Research Showcase at the Borland Project Space by Cynthia White and Cody Goddard. 

See the video HERE. Transcript below:


MS: There’s a saying that comes out of old ideas of Architecture – that Architecture must be theory and practice made simultaneously. So, we have to think, and then we have to build. You know… I’m kind of in with that crew.

All of these technologies that are coming online – robots and 3D printing and all of that stuff, it’s pretty great for the Architect because it gives us more autonomy from, say, a contractor. We can do stuff ourselves – we’re not dependent on technicians or sub-contractors. But, that’s actually a very old model of Architecture.

You know, back in the 1400s, people like Brunelleschi, they were a one-stop shop. They were the builder, the designer, they made their own machines, they made all of their own masonry testing…they did everything. So, not only are we getting back there, but our students are being trained to think that way. How can they (as Architects) do more of the process? And by doing more, obviously they control the outcome. There’s less compromise.


MS: The machine that makes the building is not necessarily an architectural machine. So, for instance, Filippo Brunelleschi – who’s really famous for the Duomo (in Florence) – he got the job for that building by first proposing a winch that would carry masonry block up to a building that was so tall… so he invented this machine and the building could not have been built without that machine. But the fact of the matter is, that that (machine – the winch) was just a simple construction device. The same machine was used to put on sacred religious plays (Sacre Rappresentazioni) in Florence, at the same time. So, the play, and the machine in its relationship to the church – as this device that brought the church to life; that created cinema and pageantry inside the church – that’s what defines more of an architectural machine. Not necessarily (the act of) construction… but the fact that this machine relates to a building and actually enhances or alters the program of the building.

My education is in Industrial Design, from my undergrad degree, and I worked for about fifteen years as a designer. And then, at some point – and I think it was because of things like the World Trade Center blowing up and stuff like that – I just decided that I’d had enough (of life in NYC) and I was going to go back to grad school, and I studied Architecture. But I had always been a person who was into machinery in some way or another – not necessarily a person who could take a car apart and put it back together – but just fascinated with machinery. And so that (interest) started to get into the work that I was doing as a grad student, and one of my professors said, “This is going to be your thesis – Architecture and machinery.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” and he said, “Well, just go the library and look it up…”, and it was the beginning of a big eureka! Wow. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, but there’s nothing really written about it in a single book… or it’s not really defined. (The machine in an Architectural context) is just an undercurrent.

I started working on this (robitic formwork) as my thesis in school, and I’ve been working on it ever since at a really nice pace. But I’m doing everything myself. I don’t have a lab, I don’t have students, I’m approaching it more in an artistic way.


MS: Most of these models are a robotic formwork for concrete or liquefied construction materials… something that we could punch in coordinates for – and this formwork would “walk” to the construction site, set itself up, we’d put concrete or a liquid (construction) material in it, (the material) would cure, the machine would break away… and set itself up again or climb up what it had just cast, assemble itself, and take another casting.

It (the robotic formwork machine) has to have a relationship with the builders – which would still be humans – but we have to figure out what the ritual is also. So, what is the dance of the machine when it configures itself to make a skyscraper? Or when it configures itself to make a small city?

If this machine is, in some ways, a proxy for hundreds of people with cement mixers or whatever, it should still reflect our human values. It shouldn’t become purely mechanical. And if it does, I think it goes off into a realm that might be Engineering… something efficient, something regulated by time and money. Architecture isn’t always regulated by time and money – it’s more about the creation of something spectacular… something meaningful.