Gaudí’s hanging chain models: parametric design avant la lettre?

Polyfunicular model of Colònia Güell church by Antoni Gaudí, as exhibited at Colònia Güell Interpretive Centre.
Only the crypt was realized.
It is known that Gaudí preferred modelling architecture over drawing it; especially models made of chains hung from a ceiling, or strings with small weights attached. Through experimentation with such models, he discovered a way to use traditional Catalan masonry techniques in new, more complex ways. A chain suspended simply from both its ends results in a catenary curve that naturally distributes the static load — in this case tension — evenly between the links of the chain. When this shape is flipped vertically and the materials become brick or stone, then the static load — now compressive — is similarly evenly distributed, resulting in an optimally efficient arch. This was already known for centuries. What Gaudí did was to apply this tension-compression analogy to chains hanging from chains (or arches superimposed on arches) asymmetrically, permitting him to design a much more fluid architecture. 
Interior of Colònia Güell Crypt
Gaudí made the models of his buildings upside-down, then, using mirrors on the floor, visualized his designs downside-up. He also took photographs of these “wire-frame” models of sorts and “filled” them in with color to generate “solid model renderings”, so to speak. All this has been well-documented in publications and exhibitions.
What is interesting is how, in the process, Gaudí effectively invented a kind of “parametric” design process long before the invention of the computer (let alone the development of software such as Maya or the Grasshopper plug-in for Rhino). One feature of so-called parametric design software is that it updates a complete three-dimensional digital model of a building every time any parameters are altered, allowing alternatives to be studied and compared in the search for a design that performs optimally (although to many architects who use this software it seems that the most important parameter is aesthetic form). Gaudí’s hanging chains do exactly that: if a chain end-point is moved so as to enlarge or reduce, say, the floor plan in one corner, then the shape of the entire hanging chain model shifts and settles into a newly optimized catenary geometry. Of course, parametric design software does a great deal more, but at their conceptual root both of these modeling tools — one physical and the other digital — are analogous. 
Makes you wonder what Gaudí might have accomplished if he had had a computer. Or conversely, how Gaudí accomplished as much as he did without one.

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  1. Great posting Rafael, it was fantastic to visit these sites with you. I might also add that for Gaudi, like many others (Otto, Isler, etc.), the study of “parametric” structures was simply the study of “self-forming” architecture. Since we have adopted the practice of using materials in the design and modeling process to simply represent material and form at a larger scale, we have in essence reduced them to be passive participants in design; we have in many cases forgotten that shaping architecture is a dynamic process that can invite us to relate to the materials we build with through an active conversation. It can be an effective process, facilitated with either digital or physical tools; a process that can as easily be made with the intelligence of materials themselves (responding to forces through form), as it can be with digital coding.I might say though that there is still no plug-in for Rhino to emulate the sound of ropes tightening, plaster cracking, wood creaking when loaded (all of which are descriptors of an invisible range of qualities the materials are displaying). I am also still waiting for the ‘tactility’ plug-in that can allow me to feel the tension in the models I make with, my eyes closed.

  2. Pingback: Gaudi | researchlm

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