Architektur Aktuell 415

Block Research Group at ETH Zürich

Philippe Block, head of Block Research Group (BRG) at ETH Zürich, pursues research and design work at the interface of architecture and engineering. Since multiple years, with the support of university resources and in cooperation with industrial partners, high quality research has been implemented in the areas of equilibrium analysis of historic masonry vaults, the developing of new 3D graphical methods for designing vault structures in pure compression and designing efficient and expressive surface structures. Innovative fabrication and construction methods have been tested in multiple full-scale projects around the globe.

The relevance of historic principles in contemporary building

Analyzing historic built examples and learning from gothic master builders are a strong emphasis of the BRG. In the past, impressive structures such as the Kings college in Cambridge, were created in stone in a pure compression state, without reinforcement or any use of steel. Block and his team analyze structures with the help of graphic statics, a geometry-based, intuitive way of analysing equilibrium and stability without any mathematical calculations. This method has been initially conceived as a two-dimensional technique by K. Cullmann, a professor teaching at ETH Zürich in the 19th century. Later, master architects such as Gaudi found a way to describe three-dimensional force flow with the use of complex hanging models. Using the diagrammatic method from Cullman which directly relates the flow of force with the form of architecture, Philippe Block translated the 2D principles of Cullman further into a 3D geometrical method being able to develop aesthetically interesting and at the same time structurally efficient shell structures.

Innovative applied research

The BRG intitated the “equilibrium” platform featuring new design tools such as Rhino Vault. Resorting to form and force diagrams present in graphic statics, Rhino Vault is a very useful digital tool to interactively design efficient shell structures with the use of the computer.

The combination of high-tech knowledge and low tech materials

RhinoVault has been consequently used to design, build and physically test some very efficient and expressive surface structures. In the Martin Luther King Park in Austin, a pure compression stone structure will be constructed using the know-how developed at BRG. Stereotomy is the geometrical technique of drawing and cutting blocks of stone in small pieces and their assembly into complex structures. For this project, historic unreinforced masonry examples and their respective stereotomy patterns were researched. The tiling pattern of the structure has been described according to the flow of forces, with corners and facets as perpendicular as possible. The stone tiles are cut with a large diameter stone cutter and will be assembled without mortar. A temporary formwork will be only used to describe the geometry during construction of the impressive, wave like structure with a span of 30 meters.