29-03-2023 Using digital techniques to empower the architect: the case of architectural practice Studio RAP
An eye-catching, almost sculptured acoustic wall prominently features in the newly built Theater Zuidplein, which is located in an urban renewal area in the south of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This acoustic wall has been designed by Studio RAP, a young and upcoming architectural practice located in Rotterdam. Studio RAP connects their cutting-edge computational design capabilities with innovative digital manufacturing methods. They, in other words, create a (customised) digital workflow which comprises both design and a significant part of the realisation process. By specialising in innovative technology, they challenge the traditional ways of building and rethink the architectural profession. Over the past decades, the nature of the architectural profession has changed considerably. In the past, architects would often supervise production from start to completion, being the lead actor in the creation of the design, mediating between actors, and managing others during construction. Today, architects’ scope of activities is increasingly limited, and their responsibility often stops after finalising a preliminary design. Studio RAP attempts to counter this loss, by using digital techniques to empower their position within the network. By means of their digital workflow approach, the owner of Studio RAP tried to ensure that, as the architect, they were needed in the phases that followed after finalising the design of the acoustic wall.
For this case research, nine interviews were conducted with actors who played different roles in the production process of the theatre and acoustic wall. These included the clients (a public private partnership between the municipality and a construction company), a contact person from the theatre, Studio RAP, consultancies on theatres and acoustics, and the manufacturer. In addition to the in-depth interviews, we visited the theatre and observed the acoustic wall after its completion.
The networked production of the acoustic wall
The construction of Theater Zuidplein had a long trajectory, starting in autumn 2011 and finishing nine years later. The creation phase started when the Rotterdam city council decided to invest in the development of Zuidplein and its surroundings. One of the key targets was to relocate and expand the theatre to a more central location on the square. In collaboration with the direction of Theater Zuidplein and a theatre consultancy, an architectural brief was drafted, listing over 12,000 aesthetic, practical, and technological demands. In the following period from 2013 to 2015, the construction consortium Ballast Nedam and Heijmans gathered a stakeholder network to address these wishes in their proposed designs. The process of creating these architectural designs involved complex configurations of specialised suppliers, each with their own specific set of knowledge and resources. In a highly interactive process, Ballast Nedam, the main contractor, consulted with its architects and consultants on a weekly basis in order to work through various design stages, moving from sketch designs to preliminary designs, technical designs, and, finally, executive designs.
One part of the construction, the production of Studio RAP’s acoustic wall, was highly innovative, as it involved a completely digital workflow. The designs, consisting of 6,000 computer-aided design (CAD) drawings with unique numbers and angle rotations, were forwarded to Aldowa, the manufacturer. By means of algorithms and machines, Aldowa nested the 6,000 triangles in plates as efficiently as possible, minimising waste. Because of Studio RAP’s singular expertise regarding its algorithms, they were needed to supervise construction, a task increasingly taken over by project managers instead of architects. Thus, Studio RAP’s specific knowledge and skill set demanded control in the stages of creation, production, preparation, and engineering. The idea behind Studio RAP’s “digital workflow” was therefore successful, as it enabled Studio RAP to capture tasks in both the design stage and the production stage, using complex design software, robotics, and 3D printing.
Studio RAP does not always succeed in applying its digital workflow due to obstacles in the architectural field and the Dutch institutional context. Fortunately for Studio RAP, the project of Theater Zuidplein provided the right conditions for the young company to be included, and given the prestigious public character of the project, they used the acoustic wall to improve their project portfolio and showcase their expertise and skill.
Studio RAP, as a relatively small and young practice, finds itself restricted because of the European Union’s tendering rules. While they often wish to participate in large public assignments, they will not be accepted due to limited experience. In addition, tenders for architects typically focus on proposals for designs, but not for the phases that follow. However, Studio RAP is not interested in merely carrying out the tasks of a designer; with their digital workflow, they wish to be the lead actor throughout the design and construction phases, thereby counteracting the erosion of the role of architects. If they must work within constraints set by the EU – that is, being limited to the role of a “designer” – they lose their competitive advantage. Luckily for Studio RAP, the initial tender for the acoustic wall failed, allowing the municipality to award Studio RAP the assignment without again having to adhere to the EU procurement legislation. This provided Studio RAP with the opportunity to collaborate on a large public construction project and improve their track record.
Moreover, the municipality emphasised favouring collaborating with fellow “Rotterdammers” to support local entrepreneurship and generate employment. The fact that Studio RAP was Rotterdam-based was part of the reason that it was hired. Not only Studio RAP, but most actors were located in Rotterdam, which is known as a cluster for trend-setting architectural firms and progressive architecture. Accordingly, the case of Theater Zuidplein – in particular, the collaboration with Studio RAP – shows how the municipality maintains this image of high-quality and innovative architecture.
Finally, because the project concerned the building of a public theatre, the lead actors to a large extent prioritised artistic and acoustic values. Contrary to many contemporary construction projects, risk reduction and cost efficiency were not as important as innovation and creativity. So, to achieve the end goal, the lead actors were willing to take risks and provided Studio RAP with a high degree of autonomy to carry out its innovative digital techniques.
With this case study, we analysed a project in which the architect was strongly present thanks to the possibilities presented by digitalisation. Unlike many current construction projects, this research showed an alternative production process in which the architect’s tasks are not limited to the creation of a preliminary design. Accordingly, Studio RAP’s innovative approach could serve as an example for other architects, as it shows how to enforce more responsibilities, control, and turnover by building up expertise. In the case of Studio RAP, this knowledge focused on digital techniques of both designing and building.
However, for many architects, it is not easy to go along with this trend of digitalisation, as it requires significant investments. Not all firms have the financial capacity to balance their present workload while investing in future technology, since adopting new technologies is a heavy cost that includes not only the purchasing of the new software, but also the time to instruct staff on the method of use. Therefore, not all architectural firms will be able to distinguish themselves in the same way that Studio RAP has done. Moreover, in order for Studio RAP to implement this digital approach, a crucial requirement is that clients are on board. Due to the innovative character, this requires a certain attitude from the client – namely, a high degree of trust and a willingness to take risks. Luckily for Studio RAP, in the case of Theater Zuidplein, both the municipality and the construction company were willing to take this risk. However, this is largely due to the nature of the project: a theatre building in which innovation and aesthetics were prioritised. In other projects, such as commercial real estate, a client may be less willing to apply Studio RAP’s digital workflow.
From the perspective of a production network approach the case of the design and realisation of the acoustic wall contains several important lessons. The first one is that enlightened commissioning is important. The public-private partnership between the municipality and the construction company was guided by creating something beautiful, something the city of Rotterdam could be proud of and not just focused on the costs. Such a mindset is (partly) shaped by tastemakers in the exchange phase who contribute to create an environment that is conducive to aesthetic issues and, in turn, by a culture among (local) policymakers which is open to such an attitude. This also presupposes an opportunity structure which is open for innovative young architectural practice. The EU rules on competition, however, do present serious obstacles for young practices to enter the creation phase.
A second observation concerns the strategy of Studio RAP. This architectural practice has pursued a consciously devised strategy to counteract the long-term erosion process which narrowed down the role of architects to just (a part) of the creation phase. Using a digital workflow, they have been able to upgrade both their product (the aesthetic quality of their design) and be actively involved in the actual realisation of their design. Their digital expertise has thus allowed them to embark on a process of functional upgrading in which they acquired higher level functions of the production network. Digital skills have strengthened their position within the production network.
Written by Prof. Robert C. Kloosterman and Milja Vriesema MA
This blog relates to a case which is part of the report “Production networks in the cultural and creative sector: case studies from architectural design”. This full report can be access here.
The report is part of work package (WP) 2, which constitutes the empirical backbone of the CICERONE project. WP2 contains case study research that focuses on networked production in eight cultural and creative industries: 1) architecture, 2) archives (including libraries and cultural heritage), 3) artistic crafts, 4) audio-visual media (film, TV, videogames, multimedia) and radio, 5) design, 6) festivals, as well as performing and visual arts, 7) music and, 8) publishing. The purpose of the case study research is to understand key linkages and mechanisms within real-life production networks in the cultural and creative sector (CCS) and the relationships of these networks to context-dependent variables.
The rich empirical case study findings are used by the CICERONE project to 1) assess which quantitative data are available for mapping these networks – and which not -, and how this data could be augmented with qualitative data as to enable a more accurate measuring of the societal impact of the CCS; and 2) construct a typology of production networks across the CCS (re-reading the current industry-based conception). This typology is then used as the basis for the construction of a policy framework which departs from the concept of production networks instead of separate sectors or industries.
All empirical analyses and findings, and their implications for CCS policy support, will eventually be communicated through an interactive CCS observatory. This observatory, then, is to facilitate ongoing debates on the economic as well as sociocultural potential of the CCS.