Provided; Elizabeth Nelson
Provided; Elizabeth Nelson

Created with Brick, Mortar, and Amazement

by Skylar Xu ’24

Architects and designers have embraced 3D printing, which generates three-dimensional objects by way of a printhead that moves in all directions, depositing plastic, clay, or a similar material according to digitally encoded instructions. The rapidly evolving technology has streamlined the construction process, with the foundations of some condominiums now being 3D printed. “As an architect, I would not want to live in a world full of identical homes,” says Alexia Asgari ’22, a Rawlings Cornell Presidential Research Scholar. “I think there’s a lot of potential for the house to be an object of art. At any scale, the creations we interact with can be objects of art.”

As design and construction become more automated, Asgari is developing human-computer interactions that reaffirm the human component of design. She is currently writing computer code that enables 3D printers to react to the emotions expressed by a human designer.

Where Architecture Meets the Cognitive Sciences

At Cornell, architecture majors complete an intensive five-year undergraduate program. Most majors take few classes outside the department, which makes Asgari, whose research engages heavily with cognitive science, a sort of outlier.

“I think I’ve always been more of an exploratory person,” Asgari says.

Asgari is drawn to architecture’s intersection with engineering, industrial design, material science, and biology. As a first-year student, she was struck by the transdisciplinary bent of the work of Jenny E. Sabin, Architecture, whose lab explores new tools, methods, and design materials. She recalls pleading to join the lab her sophomore year: “Eventually I reached out to her, with no skills, having never used a 3D printer in my life, but asking her to take a chance on me.’” Asgari is now Sabin’s lab manager. “I think she [took me on because she] was impressed by the amount of effort that I was putting in, coming to reviews all the time and going to every optional event,” Asgari says.

In Sabin’s lab, Asgari began fixing any 3D printers that had broken down. Sometimes she consulted manuals. More often she looked things up on the internet. Through those experiences she gained a thorough knowledge of how 3D printers work. “I was constantly assembling and disassembling these relatively complex machines, and eventually I became comfortable with them,” she says.

PolyBrick, one of the first projects in Sabin’s studio that Asgari contributed to, is a fully 3D printed and fired ceramic brick. The brick’s design draws on the lightweight, supportive interior structure of bones. Hollowed out in a maze-like pattern, each brick has a unique shape, challenging the assumption that bricks need to be uniform and compact to support the weight of building materials. In an article for urbanNext, the project team writes that these curved, perforated bricks “[mark] a shift away from…the thrust of column, beam and arch and towards interiorities, networks, fabrics and topological meanders that are pliable, plastic and open.” The article includes pictures of the work: Against the backdrop of a white exhibition space, printed PolyBricks fit together like puzzle pieces to form a wavy, statuesque wall.

Robotic Dialogue

Asgari will graduate with a minor in cognitive science, and she approaches her work with an appreciation for the complexities of human behavior. “I incorporated a lot of what I learned from cognitive science into one specific studio, where we were asked to create a library of the twenty-first century. I think everything [in cognitive science] can be used as a lesson to apply to architecture and design, which is why I kind of merge the two right now,” she says.

“The end product is being constantly shaped and changed by the human and the machine working together.”

In her own research, Asgari is transforming the 3D printer into a design tool. A 3D printer, she asserts, is not a passive instrument, limited to carrying out already formulated, static plans encoded in a digital file. She envisions the printer as an integral part of a creative process in which designer and machine constantly interact, giving each other feedback. Asgari calls it a non-predictive process. “The end product is being constantly shaped and changed by the human and the machine working together,” she says.

Asgari’s thesis project, Robotic Dialogue, aims to create a 3D printing process that can sense and react to a designer’s emotions. The seed for the project came to her while she was trying to figure out the correct parameters to use for an old stereolithographic 3D printer. Asgari noticed that incorrect parameters could lead to some interesting outcomes. After noting down these outcomes, she began playing with various parameters to explore all the possibilities.

To connect human and machine, Asgari writes emotion-detection algorithms as a generative design tool. Using computer vision, Robotic Dialogue reads and categorizes human facial expressions as emotions. It then alters the 3D printer’s movements in response to what it sees.

The Enigmas of Human Expression

Emotion detection isn’t as simple as it seems, Asgari points out. The system might easily mistake a screaming designer for a happy one if the algorithm interprets the raised corners of the designer’s mouth as positive emotion.

Recognizing the complexity and difficulty in reading and categorizing human expressions, Asgari created polls and surveys to establish a frame of reference for positive, negative, and neutral emotions. She learned that even humans cannot agree on the meanings of a facial expression. “Without the additional context of knowing what a particular person looks like with a neutral expression, or with different expressions, if you only give a person a single photo of someone, humans are actually really bad at knowing how to read the expression on somebody’s face. It's interesting to see that it's not quite that simple.”

Asgari’s work comes out of the belief that when we integrate technology into the building process, we should not eliminate the role of the human architect or designer. “The craftsperson not only brings their design expertise but also their personal touch to the object that they create. For me, the reason I find my passion in this non-predictive process is that it brings the human back into the conversation.”

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