p3_Final_Natalie Levinson

Cellular Breakdowns and Warping the Path: A Study in Volumetric Sculpting

Precedent: Vertical Village

Precedent: Richard Serra's walkable sculptures


My original project proposal stemmed from a precedent I had found called Vertical Village – a skyscraper city design generated with Galapagos using a Voronoi algorithm. At first, I wanted to apply the same process to a local site, Wilson Auditorium. However, I soon realized that what attracted me to the design was the sculptural quality of the spaces within, not the endless possibilities or the gradual evolutionary process. Therefore, I moved my investigation to manual manipulation of polygons in Maya, choosing a site adjacent to Wilson on the hillside. The goal of this investigation was to create a walkable landscape that heightened one’s awareness of their relationship with space. The powerful sensation that results from simply tilting walls along a path has been explored by Richard Serra with his walkable metal sculptures. However, his sculptures focus entirely on the path, while Vertical Village focuses primarily on occupiable space. I chose to include both in my project.


40'x20'x5' polygon box, with 3 divisions in the x & y directions

Polyextrude the back row 10', the middle row 5'

Cut faces tool, using the above menu options to offset pieces. After each cut, use the Fill tool to turn the hollow fragments back into solids.

Use the Separate tool to isolate pieces and delete as desired to form walkable voids

One fragment at a time, select each face and extrude them inward to create a frame on each surface. Without de-selecting, use the Smooth tool to soften the lines. Turn off all on/off options in the right panel to make the changes visible. Keep in mind that the number of divisions in the right panel controls how smooth the outlines appear (1-3 is a safe range). Once satisfied with the result, delete the interior faces.

If desired, extract views for atmospheric renderings.

Once the Maya model is complete, production of the physical model may begin. I chose Pepakura, a free online program that "unfolds" the planes of the Maya solids and makes a printable template.

Import the Maya model into Pepakura. If the planes of the model don't pierce each other, then Pepakura generates a clean, printable template as a jpeg file. For a $30 membership, Pepakura allows you to save your files and convert them to vector files if desired.


My project was cellular and biomorphic in nature. In retrospect, Pepakura probably wasn’t the best fabrication medium for a large number of tiny, complex units. Cutting, folding, and reassembling proved much more difficult and time-consuming than expected, despite the helpful tabs and numbered edges that the program generated on the template. Also, the limits of an 8.5″x11″ sheet weren’t appropriate for this project. In the future, I would use a more durable material such as chipboard at a larger scale.

Regardless of the challenges that arose in fabrication, the design succeeds in its ability to sculpt occupiable space. It creates tension with its heavy-looking masses hovering above the walking path, and the tilting wall that leans toward the path heightens this effect. The organic hollowing of the units emphasizes the cellular composition of the pieces, and invites viewers to explore these spaces.

I explored a landscape, but cellular breakdowns and volumetric shifting translates easily to any scale, from buildings to product design. Zaha Hadid’s “Space Bar”, shown below, demonstrates volumetric shift at the level of a product. Incorporation of the unfamiliar, such as a series of ellipse-shaped frames, into the everyday, generally orthogonal landscape of a building interior presents a stark contrast, encourages investigation, and tangibly alters human interaction surrounding the unfamiliar conditions in the space.

Zaha Hadid's "Space Bar" demonstrates an unconventional manipulation of space at a more human scale.

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A topic of interest covered in this course has been Galapagos, a script written for Grasshopper and Rhino that applies evolutionary principles to computational problem solving. Unusual/unprecedented solutions may be generated because the computer works randomly within assigned parameters; it isn’t subject to subconscious decisions and conventions that a person may not be aware that he or she commits to. There is great potential for architectural discovery in this process. I would like to use Galapagos to assist with the reprogramming of Wilson Auditorium into a multidisciplinary learning center. This may apply to programming the space (proximities of programs to one another) and solar radiation (where the most/least sunlight should be funneled into the interior).

Below are a few images from a project called “Vertical Village,” which used Galapagos and the Voronoi algorithmic system to generate a wide variety of similarly programmed housing units that may be assembled into a tower. Vertical Village is just one example of how architects may use mathematics, ecological concerns, and biomorphic principles to venture outside of the traditional “box as building block” mentality.


For more information about vertical village:


Free online books and tutorials for Grasshopper (particularly interested in Generative Algorithms with Grasshopper) : http://www.grasshopper3d.com/page/tutorials-1

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I arrived at this design through a series of operations: chamfering vertices, the poke face command, grid division adjustments, and varying thicknesses of superextrude. The desire was to create a screen condition for the interior of a theater/exhibition space: something that could serve as a physical boundary but not a visual one, and which could create visual interest between spaces.


Zahner’s tesselated screen products: http://www.azahner.com/tessellate.cfm

…and Islamic arabesques: http://www.patterninislamicart.com/


The first draft satisfied my project goals, but it was too complex to accomodate the rule that the product have three layers. I had to simplify it.

SECOND DRAFT DESIGN: I realized that if I avoided using the move tool during the poke face command, it greatly simplified the overall design and prevented the overly dense line work from the first draft. The three screens were variations of each other. The first used the fewest grid divisions and a single chamfer command. For the second I added more divisions and poke face. For the third I increased the grid divisions again.


Word to the wise: ALWAYS check for double lines in the final lasercut file before arriving at the RPC. They charge based on how long the machine takes to cut the panels, and double lines mean double the time. It saved me 90+ dollars when the double lines were removed. Also, embrace happy accidents: some interior pieces remained in the frames, which gave me the idea to pick and choose which cutouts to reapply to the frames for added visual interest (or in the real world, perhaps lighting for a window screen). An added bonus was that the lasercutting had created a beautiful smoky shade around the edges from burning through the material. Another unexpected result in fabrication was that some grid units fell apart and left voids in the corners of the screens; this allowed me to further vary the densities between layers.


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“A ‘elastic city’ is a flexible urban environment to replace the current static one. By fully utilising information technology, driverless vehicles will become a reality. ‘Smart tile’ surfaces, a thin layer of reprogrammable sensors within the surface of roads, will coordinate the flow of traffic so that the city can be free of the clutter that supports driving. Finally, with a push of a button the ‘urban pavement’ can transform to adapt to our needs.” —Interview with B.I.G.

While this vision of the elastic city may be extreme, a more subtle shift in urban infrastructure is taking place: the retrofitted or sustainable city. The belief that buildings are disposable, the “paper architecture” ideal that progress and innovation can only come from a tabula rasa, is slowly but surely being replaced with a concern for minimizing wastefulness, promoting sustainable practices, and designing urban infrastructure to last. Tianjin eco-city is a prototype for this model. Surbana Urban Planning Group, a Singapore-based firm, produced the city plan using parametric modeling based on the assumption that compact, high-density building is the most effective strategy for shaping an environmentally sustainable city. Tianjin’s new plan came out of a partnership venture between China and Singapore. It supports 350,000 residents on 30 square km. “The project is based on three points: people-people, people-environment and people-economy…Tianjin Eco-city is expected to be scalable and replicable and will be completed in 2020.”


Other perspectives on Tianjin:



Tianjin’s official information site:


While it metaphorically has been designed to be an “elastic” city that can survive and adapt over time to a changing world, the parametrically designed formal elements seem to echo the sentiment. While I haven’t yet found any commentary on the reasoning behind the physical design of the city, I’m curious what Surbana Urban Planning Group would have to say about its undulating array of pod-like green spaces.