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Gilles Retsin Combines Timber Construction With Augmented Reality And Automation At The Royal Academy

Gilles Retsin: Real Virtuality (2019) at the Royal Academy


Exploring how Augmented Reality could be used for fabrication, rather than merely visualization, Gilles Retsin Architecture used Microsoft’s Hololens to assemble modular timber building blocks in real-time. The Hololens overlays a digital model of the envisioned design in the exhibition space, indicating the position of the lego-like blocks and their connections. As the blocks are modular and the design is not fixed, adaptations to the design could be done in real-time.

“We used AR to send instructions directly from the digital model to the team working on site. AR therefore helps us understand what a fully-automated construction process would look like, where a digital model communicates directly with people and robots on site,” explains Gilles Retsin. “Modularity is a driver for this process to work, rather than constructing a jigsaw puzzle, where every part is unique and has only one possible position, in this case parts can be placed anywhere and enable adaptation and interactivity between the model and the construction.”

Each plywood building block consists of a 9mm and 12mm soft plywood sheets that has been CNC-milled in a kit of parts. The elements are then engineered to be able to perform in any structural situation within the installation. In themselves, every element is relatively weak, but the redundant combination of the elements establishes a strong structure. The building blocks are kept together under tension with lateral steel rods placed in specific, repeating connection points between the elements.

 Gilles Retsin: Real Virtuality (2019) at the Royal Academy

The installation explores the real effects produced by something virtual. Since the 90’s, architects have thought of Virtual Reality (VR) as something completely separate from the “real reality”, a space for unlimited spatial exploration, not bound by gravity, budgets or clients. However, today, Augmented Reality (AR) is more and more interlaced with the everyday. Computer vision algorithms are embedded in the cellphone, traffic control, CCTV camera’s etc. AR is also increasingly used to automate labour.

 Gilles Retsin: Real Virtuality (2019) at the Royal Academy

“It’s becoming more and more clear that timber will be one of the most important materials for construction in the 21th century,” says Gilles Retsin. “The emphasis is often on the sustainable aspects of timber, but what is underestimated is also the degree to which timber construction can be automated and therefore reduce the cost of construction. Combine with digital technologies such as AR and robotics, timber construction can give us a completely new kind of architecture that is both exciting, sustainable and accessible to the many.”

The installation at the Royal Academy gives a first glimpse of what timber architecture could look like when combined with automation and algorithms. Gilles Retsin has previously explored these construction methods for projects such as the Tallinn Architecture Biennale Pavillion (2017) and a multi-family home in Wemmel, close to Brussels (2015)

Architecturally, the installation is a mere fragment of a larger design, which is not completely materialized. As a fragment, the installation is permanently unfinished but lets visitors understand and experience what the larger building would be like to inhabit. A series of benches allows visitors to sit down and rest, while watching videos by ScanLAB Projects and Keiichi Matsuda.  The installation is therefore both a neutral backdrop and a subject of the exhibition.

 Gilles Retsin: Real Virtuality (2019) at the Royal Academy