How free can architecure be?

How free can architecure be?

In architecture, digital aids make it possible to design free forms. Already in the pre-digital era, repeated efforts were made to break away from the right angle and regular geometries. Nowadays, it seems that there are no limits to imagination. All that is left to discover are the paths for implementing the ideas of form in built reality.


Michael Hanak Many contemporary buildings have free forms. Structures are multiply bent or irregularly rounded. They have the form of irregular polyhedrons or are flowing, biomorphic shapes. Since the 1990s, free-form buildings have been grouped under the term “Blob” architecture. Sometimes there are also merely individual façade or roof areas that are undulating, jagged, or otherwise “de-formed.” Is the intent of clients and architects to thereby rebel against the rigid geometries of the modern era? Or can the phenomenon be traced back to its technical feasibility? The fact that architects carry out the design process on a computer with corresponding software seems to be an important reason for the forms outgrowing the right angle and straight line.

Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC)

Niterói, Brasil, 1991-1996
by Oscar Niemeyer


Free forms in architecture also existed in the pre-digital era. Some architects departed in their designs from the right angle and regular geometries in favor of a sculptural diversity of forms. Since the early twentieth century, architects have aspired to derive the form from the conditions of function, purpose, and material, with different results. The tendency toward forms that seem to have grown from a site was identified as organic architecture. This implied, among other things, also architecture’s psychological and social utility. A well-known example of organic architecture is the Einstein Tower near Berlin (1919–1922) built based on plans by Erich Mendelsohn, which was meant to experimentally confirm the validity of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.


Graz, Austria, 2001-2003
by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier


Another offshoot led to the discovery of architectures with fantastical forms in the 1960s, an era of social and cultural transformation. Novel architectural ideas also found entry in other areas of life. The Japanese Metabolists developed futuristic ideas for megastructures and cities. The British architectural group Archigram searched for entirely new approaches to building and cohabitation, and offered surprising, visionary projects that took on unprecedented forms inspired by new technologies, space travel, and science fiction. Among their most renowned proposals is “Walking City,” a mobile residential structure that resembled a huge insect on metal legs. Two former Archigram members, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, conceived the Kunsthaus in Graz, which opened in 2003—a translucent, biomorphic “bubble” dubbed the “friendly alien” by its designers—as a late child of the group’s world of forms.

Changing in
today’s digital era,
are both the
idea and method
of generating

Deconstructionism established in the 1980s as a breaking off from the postmodern: the representatives of this architectural style dismembered and fragmented architectural bodies and re-assembled their components. Deconstructivist architecture was distinguished by a free, playful handling of architectural elements. Familiar categories such as orthogonality, sequence, and symmetry are rarely if at all present, stability and balance give way to the impression of instability. One of the most recent structures by the Austrian architectural cooperative Coop Himmelb(l)au, among the most renowned representatives of deconstructivism, is the Museum of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition in Shenzhen, China, which opens this year.


I believe that it will be the first building to be built by robots, solely by robots.

Wolf D. Prix, co-founder


Free architectural forms are rooted also in engineering history. Originally, it was necessary to have horizontal walls or regular vaults in order to stack stones or bricks on top of one another. Since the introduction of reinforced concrete, the possibilities of formability are nearly unlimited, as long as the formwork can be
produced. Computer and CAD programs ultimately expand the methods of geometric modeling in architecture, too.


Potsdam, Germany, 1919-1922, by Erich Mendelsohn
©Ulf Böttcher, Potsdam


Roughly twenty years ago, the computer was granted entry into architectural offices and has since become omnipresent in the infrastructure of contemporary architectural production. The first to utilize the technology were deconstructivist architects, such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, who employed software originally from the automobile industry for their designs. Today, the use of the computer and its exploitation in architectural creation has reached a new phase. Computers are no longer merely tools for drawing efficient plans; they are linked above and beyond, with the digital fabrication of building materials and components. Robots support the building process and building production. Changing in today’s digital era, are both the idea and method of generating form. Some forms can be mastered only with a computer. Every building component produced by means of computer-controlled machines can look different. Digitally generated spatial structures challenge our imagination and open new design possibilities. Whereas previously, free form was associated with nature, intuition, and individuality—in contrast to geometric form, which embodied logics, rationality, and universality—digital free form now unites these two antithetic ideas.

Guggenheim Museum

Bilbao, Spain, 1993-1997, by Frank Gehry
©Alamy, Abingdon


Top Large Photo: bottom station of the Nordkettenbahn in Innsbruck, Austria, 2004-2007, by Zaha Hadid | ©Alamy, Abingdon

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