A review of contemporary rocks

Three projects from MIT architects and designers use “geo-mimicry” to build new environments

DOMO, Structure of Landscape at the Tippet Rise Art Center, Fishtail, Montana, USA, by by Ensamble Studio, the practice of MIT professor of architecture Antón García-Abril and MIT research scientist Débora Mesa. Photo: Ensamble Studio.

By Galo Canizares, designer, writer, and MIT alumnus (MArch 2014)

Look at any image of Ensamble Studio’s hyper-scaled monolithic art installation at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana, and you will be transported back in time to the Stone Age. Here, in the midst of a serene rolling landscape of hills with a snowy mountain backdrop, stands a new Stonehenge of concrete and rebar, which, like its historical antecedent, prompts the question, “How on earth did they build this?”

The project, dubbed Structures of Landscape, is a series of titanic, rugged chunks of semi-artificial rock spread throughout the 11,500-acre sculpture park. Some are coupled to form archways, others stand by themselves, and the most grandiose of them all resemble enormous plots of land extracted from the earth itself. Their scale implies a fantastical approach to construction, and their form a kind of geological mimesis, which heralds the powerful imagery of natural processes.

But this isn’t Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa’s first rock show. The practice the MIT architecture professor (García-Abril) and research scientist (Mesa) has long been concerned with making geological formations. In 2010 their project, the Truffle, showed us that landscape not only provides inspiration for new forms, but also that our man-made materials can work together with entropic processes to achieve provocative results.

In this project, earth and bales of hay were used as a natural formwork for concrete, which after setting, was removed to reveal a rock-like pod. Ensamble’s point here was that architecture — habitat, form, and tectonics — can achieve a poetic understanding through the incorporation of nature. Structures of Landscape, as a follow-up to the Truffle, pushes the concept at an elephantine scale. Like the Truffle, the pieces were cast in earth, and signaled the site of their formation, making them petrified masses simultaneously “from landscape and of landscape.”[1]

For Ensamble, the Tippet Rise installation suggests a new poetics of landscape, one where man-made technologies stand not apart from nature but alongside it as we build new environments. However, they are not alone in a quest to learn from geology. Recently, a number of contemporary architectural practices have emerged that seem to be invested in geo-mimetic research. Together with Ensamble Studio’s ongoing investigations on form and tectonics, these practices have opened up the discussion of geo-mimicry to larger questions of material science and Anthropocene evidence.

In an essay entitled, “Views from the Plastisphere: A Preface to Post-Rock Architecture,” Meredith Miller recalls a 2014 report in which the Geological Society of America announced their discovery of a new substance called “plastiglomerate,” a multi-composite material comprised of both “rock and molten plastic.”[2]

The essay explains that the immense quantities of plastic dumped into oceans and other landscapes have fused with natural geological processes and are now part of the earth’s crust. This plastic sedimentation is so widespread that Miller suggests we add another sphere into our earth-related lexicon: the plastisphere. Her point also echoes Bruno Latour’s 2014 show and conference, The Anthropocene Monument, in which a series of animations were exhibited illustrating the process of plastic-rock agglomeration. In a way, Miller’s plastiglomerate is a corollary to Ensamble’s concrete giants.

If the theory of the plastisphere, which consists largely of scientific evidence, reflects an inevitable change in environmental matter, then the sculptures at Tippet Rise reveal a desire to celebrate this coupling of man-made elements and nature. Both architectural instances prioritize an understanding of what it means to be synthetic and, to a certain extent, to emulate geology.

Along those lines, we can also identify the work of a few other prominent rock-makers practicing today. Rocks by SIFT Studio and Buoy Stone by Matter Design are two distinct projects that exist within the spectrum of architectural geo-mimicry. The former, a project for the Architectural League Prize Exhibition in 2014, is primarily a critique of the cleanliness of the digital aesthetic.

Adam Fure, leader of SIFT, described the project as a call to open up architecture’s formal repertoire to “rough, messy, and even ugly forms.”[3] The entropy inherent to geological formation processes was used as a subversive aesthetic that set itself apart from contemporary form-making. Buoy Stone, on the other hand, embraces precision in craft, and exploits scale as a means of defining a modern “rock.”

Buoy Stone at the 2016 MIT Centennial Celebrations, from Matter Design, the practice of MIT assistant professor of architecture Brandon Clifford. Photo: Brandon Clifford.

The stone from Brandon Clifford, an assistant professor of architecture at MIT, stone is only monolithic in appearance, not in weight. It is therefore a study in the synthesis of geological imagery (i.e., heavyweight appearance) with assemblage techniques that enable the production of lightweight matter. Clifford’s argument is that stone is a historically significant building material and a key part of the architectural imaginary, but has been marginalized because of the inherent costs of current stereotomic manufacturing. New fabrication techniques, however, can help us achieve the awe and wonder of monolithic masses with modern efficiency.

Perhaps most curiously, there is also the strange case of MIT assistant professor of architecture Skylar Tibbits and the Self-Assembly Lab’s 2015 Chicago Biennial installation, Rock Print: a 3D-printed sculpture that used string and compressive forces to produce a mortar-less assembly (created in collaboration with Gramazio Kohler Research at ETH Zurich). Rock Print is peculiar because it is not so much about the rock itself, as about its friction and compressive properties.

Rock Print, Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich, and Self-Assembly Lab, MIT.

The final appearance of the installation is beside the point. Form is not central to the idea of a self-assembling aggregate, since any static form can potentially be achieved. Rather, the narrative posits that in a not-too-distant future, construction may require only robots, string, and rocks (whether half-plastic or not).

The dialogue between advanced robotics and natural materials in Rock Print and Buoy Stone is closely tied to Ensamble’s point about the “solidification of fluid mass.”[4] Tippet Rise is said to have been conceived as an illustration of a “monolithic petrification” — that is, an exercise in structural and geological statics. Compressive vaults and petrified earth are both direct results of exploiting the material properties of the silica itself. As such, these practices and their geo-mimetic objects are calling attention to a processes we take for granted as architects: the chemical reaction of cement, water, and aggregate, and structural statics. Each project functions as a rappel à l’ordre or a reminder to embrace our geological realities.

In contrast to bio-mimicry, whose primary concern is growth and formal mutation logics, geo-mimicry is fundamentally concerned with tactility, weight, and mass. All of these rock projects, in one way or another, seek to promote an aesthetic of textural complexity and scale. As the novelty of bio-mimicry wanes, there is now room at the table for talking about rocks and their properties. The geological aesthetic is host to a complex web of analysis that ranges from systemic discourses on environmental evolution to the formal tension between sculpture and architecture.

Rocks may seem simple, but if 1975 taught us anything with the Pet Rock, it’s that there may be more to them than meets the (googly) eye.

1.“Tippet Rise Art Center,” Ensamble Studio, accessed July 23, 2016, http://www.ensamble.info/#!tippet-rise-art-center/i9j0o

2. Meredith Miller, “Views from the Plastisphere: A Preface to Post-Rock Architecture,” The Avery Review, issue 13 (2016).

3 “SIFT Studio,” Architectural League of New York, accessed July 23, 2016, http://archleague.org/2014/10/sift-studio/

4. “Tippet Rise Art Center.”