Alexis Rochas of Stereo.bot and Andreas Froech of Machineous have joined forces in a meeting of “structure” and “skin.” They have just built Lightweaver at Coachella; read this interview with DnA for their views on “mirage architecture” and their ambitions for highly efficient and experimental buildings of the future.
Alexis Rochas and Andreas Froech Join Forces to Create Dynamic Partnership
Now the two have teamed up in a new partnership that promises to marry “structure” and “skin” in efficient, elegant and surprising new ways.
Alexis Rochas is a teacher of architecture at SCI-Arc (right in photo),who anticipated a career designing permanent buildings but has forged a new path designing temporary structures that he describes as an integration of “design, technology and advanced fabrication techniques.”
He and his firm Stereo.bot have created contortionist structures for Coachella 2012, last year’s Electric Daisy Carnival, the America’s Cup and an undulating audio-video screen for MOCA’s New Sculpturalism show.
Andreas Froech (left in photo) also trained in architecture but moved into the realm of fabrication, using robotic cutting techniques to give form to highly complex forms conceived on computers.
It was Machineous that made, for example, the metal screens on Patrick Tighe’s affordable housing projects in West Hollywood, and the looping desk in the office for The Barbarian Group designed by Clive Wilkinson Architects.
DnA recently visited Stereo.bot at their design and construction space in downtown just before they headed off to Coachella to build Lightweaver.
At that point the project was still in pieces: neatly stacked were over 2,000 metal tubes, each a different length but precisely measured, cut and numbered; and hundreds of heavy metal balls, or “nodes,” each with a different arrangement of holes drilled by a robot programmed by Andreas. By connecting the tubes to the “nodes” (photo, right) according to precise design specs, they create the complex space frame which is then covered in custom-designed fabric.
Alexis and Andreas referred to their partnership as a meeting of “structure” (Alexis) and “skin” (Andreas) and shared with DnA their delight in creating “mirage architecture” and their ambitions for highly efficient, experimental buildings of the future.
Read the interview below and listen to them talk about Lightweaver on this DnA segment, also featuring Jason Bentley.
DnA: You have both run very innovative companies. What brought you together?
Andreas Froech: We’ve known each other for ten years, we have a lot of mutual friends in the architecture community, Alexis teaches at SCI-Arc, I’ve taught at UCLA. We are both married to architects, and are friends with the same people. When I was fully operational with the robots and Alexis was ready with his projects, we would meet and have a lunch and say, hey, we need to work together.
Alexis Rochas: We’re trying to do something new, this idea of merging two companies, you don’t hear it every day, especially architecturally oriented people tend to be much more secluded, everyone for themselves, keep your distance from your competitors, and keep your distance from your friends in a way. We’re trying to break that up. We want to create a new entity where people collaborate to create a greater, more amazing future ahead of us. We are trying to lay out a possible future.
DnA: So what is that future?
AR: We are here to advance space frame technology into the 21st century and really enable the discipline of architecture and art and entertainment to flourish and bring forth an experience to the next level.
DnA: Tell us about your first collaboration, the Coachella project, Lightweaver.
AR: This is the biggest, largest, most colorful project that we’ve done so far. It’s a towering 40 foot tall, 70 foot span 3 dimensional space frame. By three dimensional I mean a knotted form, where all elements they gather up 40 feet in the air and they come gracefully to the ground, articulating a space of gathering for all 150,000 people joining us at the festival.
AR: I call it the cube of complexity, meaning it’s the primitive form of what complex construction is about. In a way you can look at this form as an example of how to articulate and integrate complexity. And by complexity I mean double compound curves that they translate about 150 feet across the piece and then they can come back and land exactly where they need to land. And we do that with about an ⅛ of an inch precision. So that’s a type of gracefulness that we’re trying to achieve in our work.
DnA: Who commissioned you? How did this project come about?
AR: We worked closely with Goldenvoice from the inception, and we were lucky enough that they were interested in our work and our proposals. So we started working with them closely on how to create the most striking piece of artwork. I think that music festivals and live entertainment is the new museum of the 21st century, because of the amount of creative people involved. If you think about Coachella in particular we’re looking at 200 music artists, plus 25 visual artists collaborating to create this immense experience that’s going across three days. And it happens on a yearly basis, as opposed to a 15 year period, how many people do you know that are exhibited twice at MOMA within 15 years?
DnA: Do you in any way work with the bands? Does Paul Clemente, the art director of Goldenvoice, give you a list of the bands who are going to be playing this year, and suggest that you take inspiration from the music that will be played?
AR: No, they don’t, because it’s an absolute secret. One of the most beautiful things about working at Coachella is the secrecy that comes with it. We as artists do not know who will be playing until everybody finds out. In a way the secret is inspiration.
AR: Absolutely. We are sort of thinking of ourselves as a rock band, believe it or not, because we actually tour around, and sometimes we make a piece and we present it 3-4 times along different instances around the same festival. So we actually have to gather our drums and guitars, if you will, and drag them around like old musicians do. So in that sense we’re really light years ahead of architects in terms of learning how to make a profound experience move across time and space.
DnA: Have you been a big music person all of your life? Or is this something that is new to you?
AR: I think this experience let me discover the fascinating world of outdoor festivals and music festivals as a new type of experience. I like my museums, I like my readings, I like my music played in my living room and so-on, and I had never been particularly fond of outdoor events. But I’ve come to discover this new world that I wasn’t really aware of, and it’s incredibly powerful.
DnA: What’s the difference between what you’re doing and the colossal stage sets at the mega-concerts of the late 1960 and ’70s?
AR: First, you can actually inhabit our stages. As an architect I’m interested in not only creating the scenery, but the place of engagement itself. If anything you can say that whatever it was on stage is now coming down to the ground, and people are engaging with it fully.
DnA: If there is a word that describes your temporary installation work, what would it be?
AR: Mirage, I call it mirage architecture. The idea that an experience can materialize itself in front of your eyes, and it can also disappear with the same ease. Los Angeles is a city of mirages, it is constantly changing and it’s a great inspiration. So we’re able to actually fabricate mirages and hold them for a brief period of time and with the same intensity bring them down and move them down into a new location or territory.
AR: Exactly, we’re targeting that specific memory. I can think about the amount of time I’ve spent in the best buildings in the world, and it’s probably under an hour. Our thought is that we can manufacture that one hour or those 50 minutes and then it will dissipate and go away.
DnA: Andreas, you’ve joined forces with Alexis. Let’s hear about your part in making Lightweaver.
AR: The sheer size of the structure is a great opportunity to achieve a level of excellence and an ease of execution, of a structure that may appear very complicated and complex. This is something that I’ve always been trying to do, is to develop something on the computer, plan it ahead in the 3d model, and bring the pieces on site and make it appear easy.
DnA: Are you saying that to date it has been difficult to accomplish the two? One can design in the computer, but realizing those forms has been challenging?
AF: It is challenging when you’re working on the site. If you think of architectural construction, it is field-measured and field templated, and there is a lot of error that makes you go back and forth way too many times. If you can maintain the computer-managed structure of the planning, then you can take the pieces to the site and they will fit together perfectly.
AR: The knot itself is about 750 feet long if extended, that’s about half the size of SCI-Arc and I call it a constellation system, it’s a space-frame system. I think that the Coachella project is one of the most important pieces we’ve done so far because it really managed to synthesize an ambitious form, an ambitious experience and a technical ambition regarding how to put these things together.
DnA: Explain a space frame system.
AR: A space frame is a combination of linear elements, that achieve more strength as you start triangulating this network together. So instead of achieving strength by material, by adding more material to it, you achieve strength by means of geometry, so the way things are related to one another make the piece inherently structural. It’s an incredibly versatile system and so far in the past 100 years it’s been constrained by the fabrication methods. So what we’ve done is advance that process and streamline the technical aspects of it in such a way that we can simplify it in our universal nodes that we’ve created.
AF: I’ve been working with these automotive robots for quite a while, and I’ve been trying to use them in any possible way to fabricate components for construction. This is where the relationship with Alexis started, he was thinking of this universal node that needed to be fabricated, because he didn’t want to be limited to how the linear elements connect to the nodes.
You give the robot the angle you want to penetrate that node, and it will do it it very quickly. That was the big speciality that I bring in, besides the experience of managing projects and execution and all that good stuff, is operating these robots and programming these robots to make these complex parts.
AF: I’ve played and worked a lot on the skin level for all of these projects I’ve done as a machinist. A client of Machineous would come and say I have this beautiful object and ask how do I make it. And we worked our way back from the skin to the inside and tried to find a way to support the skin. But we always came up with different solutions that weren’t really re-applicable. The structural support system for the skin had to be reinvented every time.
DnA: Whereas at stereobot, you’re taking a structural system and applying it in multiple formations?
AR: We are creating an amazing system for people to make things with it, eliminating as much of the translation process that goes from the design to fabrication, and with it much of the wasted material that you would get with traditional construction methods.
DnA: Both of you have been educated in and have been involved in architecture, and now you’ve moved into this realm of temporary structures.
AR: I think the ability to create a compelling experience, that’s my ambition for architecture, both temporary and permanent.
AF: Temporary structure is not the primary goal of the company. The primary goal is the design, execution, and fabrication of very efficient structures. They can be temporary, but we are very keen on making permanent structures, because we think permanent structures can benefit from efficiency of execution, construction, planning, and waste management, which is going to become more and more important how we use our resources. It’s something that needs to get better and a system like this delivers that.
Images, clockwise from top: Lightweaver installation at Coachella 2014; node connected to metal tubes; models of space frame concepts on display at Stereo.bot; robot drilling holes in a “node;” desk at The Barbarians’ office designed by Clive Wilkinson, made by Machineous; “Flock of Walls” installation by Stereo.bot; Andreas Froech, left, and Alexis Rochas, right, stand by fabric covered prototype of section of Lightweaver; Installations for the Electronic Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas by Stereo.bot; section of Lightweaver structure in Stereo.bot workshop; Andreas Froech, left, and Alexis Rochas, right, hold one of their “nodes.”