Rachel Dickey

Design Innovation Fellow 2015-2016

Qualitative Robotics: Making a Case for Huggable Architecture

Qualitative Robotics takes an opportunistic approach to design research and seeks to engage in both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of technology in design. Quantitatively, it effi ciently brings together a change of state material with a digitally controlled and automated reusable mold. Qualitatively, it asks, how might the design of an architectural element evoke a haptic response? By balancing the scientifi c and the immeasurable, the project tries to find the equilibrium between computational control and material volition and mediate between the metrics of robotics and the unquantifiable experience. In an effort of design and making, the project and its exhibition interrogate paradigms of the computable and incomputable by drawing on ideas of softness in both design and computation.


/sôft/ adjective

1. easy to mold, cut, compress, or fold

2. having a pleasing quality involving a subtle effect

or Wcontrast rather than sharp definition.

3. sympathetic, lenient, or compassionate

Learning from concepts of soft computing in computer science, which aim to embed tolerances for imprecision and uncertainty, this research project embraces a methodology which pairs the precision of tooling with material determination. The primary tooling for the project integrates a reconfigurable formwork with cast gypsum. The mold consists of a grid of pins, calibrated and pushed with a robotic arm and held in place with a crucial rubber clutch layer. Once the mold is set, an enclosure box is placed around the pins with a fabric layer on top to prepare for casting. The parametric interface produced with the mold takes in a surface as input and outputs two components: a digital model of the pin location approximating the curvature of the surface and machine code indicating the toolpath for calibrating the physical mold. While the pins are precisely placed and calibrated, the wrinkling and stretching of the fabric, due to its placement and the weight of the gypsum, leave tolerance for chance and irregularities.

Securing 1,150 pounds of gypsum cement—one of the most commonly used building materials today—a series of subsequent experimental casts test an unconventional approach for its use. While the sea of individual smooth, dense, and pure casts that result represent the range of curvature achieved through the reusable parametric mold, their frozen state seeks to invite the gentle, soft, and compassionate gesture of human touch. Overall, the research attempts to demonstrate the technological capacity of design to engage softness, as a computing concept, material property, and empathetic approach to architecture.