Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On the Studio's New CNC Machine and Materiality Today



After many years of discussing the possibility with friends and colleagues I took the leap and ordered a Shopbot several months ago.  In many ways I was lucky to be able to do it.  Among other factors I had the good fortune to get many pointers from two very capable ex-interns (Jonathan Odom and Benjamin Rice).  I had no idea what it was going to look like when it arrived.  To say the least, the box was a little intimidating!  With a big influx of REAL work (so grateful), I spent the next two months assembling this thing on nights and weekends.  An hour here, an hour there...

Let me just say, in general, the Shopbot support in Durham North Carolina is amazing.  I'd have a question, take a picture and wait a few minutes to a few hours for a response.  This happened even on the weekends.  They were great.  As I watch the machine work, it feels very reminiscent of watching the plotters that existed before inkjet technology.  An intriguing analogy might go something like this:  Shopbots are to Plotters what 3D printers are to Inkjet printers.  

A lot of people wonder if the machine is like a 3D printer and because of the aforementioned analogy I'm quick to school them.  I respond with another analogy:  There are sculptures that work additively with clay and steel and there are ones that work reductively (i.e. carving) with materials like stone and wood.  For the time being, the 3D printing world makes things additively out of relatively "silly puttyesque" materials; mostly plastics.  The CNC milling table (e.g. the Shopbot) on the other hand, works reductively with wood, aluminum and or foam.  If one looks at automated drawing machines, Plotters use actual pens.  Inkjets... well, I actually don't know what that stuff is.  Thermoplastic? 

I'm going to abandon this discussion of 2D imaging and 3D forming for a moment to discuss a wider notion of processed things and unprocessed things.  I use this term "processed" the way foodies use it with the same general aversion foodies have to eating something whose origins have been so obscured by human intervention one no longer completely understands what one is eating.  It has always seemed to me this is not usually a good thing.

In architecture I have always sought ways to reconcile my mind's insular fascination with geometry - often associated with computer work - and a love of the natural world.  One thing is so internal and the other so shared.  In many ways this is the story of architecture;  Shaping nature and its materials to a kind of public artifice through a largely personal geometric endeavor.  This way of looking at architecture is the story of human's shaping the environment.  

But there is another story of architecture that is similar but inverted.  It is the less proud and more tentative story of architectural design as a kind of experiment. We forget that geometry is one of the mathematical sciences and therefore defined by experimentation. We may not state it explicitly but every time we undertake a geometrically complex project we often take some lesson from the process that we enjoy applying to our next endeavor and even our general comprehension of how the world works...smoothing out the wrinkles of our faulty understanding.  When the building is being built, no matter how confident I manifest to the client, I always watch the construction with a kind of skeptical curiosity.  

For those of us who love this kind of work, there is a deep peace that comes from this practice.  This side of the undertaking is underrepresented. Is there some kind of strange parallel between our lack of ability to recognize how much the phenomenal world is giving us in these undertakings and our larger environmental disrespect?  Forget about global warming, how curious are we about our environment?  I don't mean the scientific studies.  This often feels like more interest in our own human cleverness.  How interested are we in being out there in it?  Isn't this a more basic question?  

Back to the CNC machine...

I spend a lot of time watching the highly processed images on a computer screen and I can't help but feel there is an analogy between this kind of processed media experience and the processed materials being produced by a 3D printer.  Despite an early california upbringing that revered figures from Thoreau to Edward Abbey I feel it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge I am also a creature or our very technological age and place.  Because of this, it feels to me like a central struggle of our time might simply be to try to find ways to cultivate nature while feeding our scientific curiosity and pedestrian drive for technological comfort. 

Gary Snyder once said, when talking about our scientific age "Who among us can explain how a telephone works...we take that on faith right?"  The same can be said of plastics and other highly processed humans artifacts.  We are in awe of ourselves and it just seems appropriate to try to make objects that also conjure thoughts of inhuman causality if we are to retain an appropriate interest in the larger world that fundamentally produces and brings beauty to our stuff.

All of this to say: The reductive process of CNC milling feels closer to the causal realm of raw materials than plastic's mysterious origins and, as such, it helps keep this particular technophile reconciled to what lies under all the blinking lights.


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