A look at how data and design thinking are changing the way our cities take shape
Feb 26, 2018
Numbers have always played an important role in architecture.
The gopuram gatehouses of Hindu temples exhibit characteristics of fractals, meant to represent the infinite universes in Hindu cosmology. And the ancient Greeks constructed their temples around the Pythagorean triangle, believing in its divinity.
In the architecture of today, numbers are viewed somewhat less religiously, but carry no less significance. The divine is no longer found in doorways and daises — it is in the data.
Data, combined with design thinking, help architect create buildings and systems that put their users first, making them more liveable and efficient.
Data is changing the face of architecture in greater ways that one might expect.
For one, clients simply expect more. Gone are the pen-and-paper blueprints of yesteryear.
Today, the barest minimum that might be expected from an architect is a full Building Information Modelling mockup, rendered in a three-dimensional space — supplemented with data on expected material quantity and cost.
But on a larger scale, our interactions with technology have also exposed urban planners and architects to a wealth of information, giving rise to data-driven architecture. We now know far more about metrics such as population growth and resource consumption, and our knowledge of these has influenced the way our cities have taken and are taking shape.
For instance, data derived from Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station gantries and buses has given the Land Transport Authority valuable insight into the volume and direction of human traffic movement during peak hours and off-peak hours. Stations on the Downtown Line have been designed to accommodate extra capacity, as well as optimise traffic flow to and from train platforms for maximum efficiency.
In turn, the data obtained from these stations will influence the design and development of future MRT lines like the Thomson-East Coast Line.
A research project from PhD student Feng Tian from Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) integrates simulated human crowd flow patterns into the design of middle-scale built environment layouts, such as a shopping mall or a theme park. The approach predicts human crowd flow more accurately than third party simulation applications thanks to machine learning techniques.
Data has potential to shape urban development in both Singapore and the world. In cities such as Tianjin in China, Berlin in Germany and Hong Kong, data is being used to shape integrated developments, high-rise apartments and road traffic infrastructure.
Thus, architects must be adept at not just working with data, but also effectively analysing it, such that it can meaningfully influence urban design.
Thanks to data-driven architecture, our little red dot could look very different 20 years from now — and architects and engineers will be at the forefront of this change.
Architects design buildings to serve their users and maximise spaces in intelligent ways. To do so, they need to possess a design-thinking mindset to understand space constraints and how users move within buildings.
Professor Erwin Viray, pillar head for Architecture and Sustainable Design (ASD) at SUTD says that sustainable design should focus on social and cultural issues.
An example of this is in the area of public housing. Upcoming apartments and living spaces should be designed to sufficiently facilitate mobility to deal with the country’s steadily ageing population and land scarcity.
Last September, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) signed a $6 million memorandum of understanding with SUTD to collaborate on the New Urban Kampung research programme, an initiative spearheaded by ASD Assistant Professor Chong Keng Hua.
The programme will use data analytics and smart technology as part of a social behavioural study to predict how demographics in HDB towns will evolve.
Technology can also boost construction productivity and forecast behaviour, which in turn develops stronger communities. For instance, if the data reveals common interests in cycling, customised cycling apps can be introduced to cultivate a cycling community.
The campus of the SUTD is another design-centric building. It is specifically constructed to counteract the conditions of Singapore’s tropical climate.
The building’s architects UNStudio and DP Architects studied the layout of the land and wind patterns so as to utilise natural ventilation principles most effectively to keep the building cool. Foliage lines the plazas, roof terraces and other social spaces and the buildings are angled in a manner that takes advantage of wind directions.
The SUTD campus is also designed and built to foster collaboration, invention and creativity by integrating academic, housing and recreational facilities to encourage interaction among the faculty, students and staff.
Unlike traditional academic institutions, SUTD does not have dedicated buildings for different disciplines. Throughout the campus, sky bridges were built to connect students and faculty from building to building, fostering interaction between the different academic, research and entrepreneurship programmes.
And in the new field of computational architecture, programming will help architects build creatively and efficiently. For instance, architectural firm Surbana Jurong has developed an application that automates parts of the design process, saving architects and engineers half the time.
Combined with digital fabrication, computational architecture can also help establish design feats with irregular structures, such as the Cutty Sark visitor centre in London.
The oddly shaped building was designed, modified and built in a short time with computer programming and served as a temporary exhibition venue for one of the world’s most famous sailing vessels, the Cutty Sark.
Between trying to solve urban issues such as overpopulation, climate change and rising housing prices, and still trying to meet other client requirements, architects of today have their work cut out for them.
Specialised architectural programmes
The demands of the industry have thus led to the development of specialised architectural programmes such as those in SUTD.
In particular, their Architecture and Sustainable Design pillar (ASD) was conceived to deal with the emerging critical needs of a world in transition. ASD students are trained to confront global problems such as energy and resource management and changing manufacturing norms through planning of land use and building design (exterior and interior). They are also well-equipped with new technologies and building methods to adapt to shifts in demographics and the changing needs of consumers’ lifestyles.
ASD’s curriculum prides itself on focusing equally on the immediate present and future need of architecture, as well as on a traditional course framework that focuses on the trinity of technological innovation, design creativity and cultural sensitivity.