Mud + Laptops – lessons from India


The makeLab’s 2014 India workshop successfully concluded January 11, 2014 in New Delhi.  Four students attended the workshop from the makeLab at Lawrence Tech along with 10 students from our host University, the Sushant School of Art and Architecture.  Together, we explored the design and construction of masonry dome structures covering material explorations, digital form-finding techniques, generative and algorithmic design. The students were forced to think beyond the now conventional unidirectional digital-to-physical workflow to methodologies that explore ideas of contingency, tolerance and error, which allow digital tools to interact with the “messiness” of manual fabrication and non-industrial materials.



To accomplish the complex form of the dome Prof. Ayodh Kamath developed a Rhino script capable of not only determining each masonry units placement in the dome but one that would work in unison with the mason.  A domes plan, when changed from the geometric primitive of the circle, presents multiple formal challenges: First, the dome could not be built by a mason using the standard reference points and mortar-makeup that allows for experienced “by eye” construction.  The brick units did not follow a pattern recognizable to the builder, architect or mason.  The script was no small task given that most scripting is done with the assumption of form finding as the primary goal and not as a tool to interact with a tradesman on-site.  The script therefore required that the mason place each masonry unit with a center measurement taken from three stationary points.  This data would be called out, entered into the script with the result being the top two corner measurements from the stationary three points.  Once the mason and the architects found their cadence the process moved smoothly determining the angle of each unit.


Our second challenge was to use digital tools to perforate the dome by milling portions of the bricks surface away to allow light. To do this, the makeLab needed to build a new suitcase CNC (our 3rd).  This new machine was capable of cutting traditional Indian mud bricks and was transported via checked luggage to our host City and its new permanent home at Sushant.  The machine and the process was successful but came with significant challenges.  The bricks, made by hand, were not standard.  The 6x12x3 inch blocks could deviate as much as 2” in any direction.  The density of the bricks could also change depending on where they were located in the pile, the amount of direct sun they had received or simply by the humidity.  During the milling process we also uncovered foreign material in the clay such as plastic bags, glass and bangles.  These variables are not something normally encountered in digital making but we found them liberating, forcing us to improvise or more precisely – to practice India’s Jugadd innovation.  The project grayed the lines between the craftsmanship of certainty and the craftsmanship of risk.   Masonry units where designed digitally, milled digitally and modified by hand afterward or at times during the milling process.

DSC07449 mockup

The workshop and its context in India has reaffirmed the makeLab’s position that digital fabrication’s potential lies within the vernacular and lessons of the past.  India gave us intense fluid actions at all times that at first glance seemed like chaos, yet with closer examination we realized it was only movements forward.

Photos by makeLab, Prof. Steve Rost and workshop participants 

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