Bin it? NO!
Designers in Berlin are using big data to recombine builders’ rubble into something new and beautiful
• It’s a rather spooky 45-second display that plays out across four monitors. The first shows triangles and rectangles passing across a screen from left to right as if on a conveyor belt. On the two monitors in the centre a computer algorithm sorts them in to categories. On the final screen the fragments are seen coalescing at lightning speed into a 3D object, as if assembled by an invisible hand. Every shard slots into place. The end result looks like a cube with the corners sculpted off: a unique new object forged from random pieces.
The installation is called Mine the Scrap, a data-driven process that designs new structures algorithmically generated from existing construction waste. Visitors see an algorithm at work. Its first official performance was at the Forecast Festival in Berlin’s House of World Cultures in 2016. In 2018, it was bought by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, becoming part of a renowned international collection. But the story behind the installation began with a single question: can machine vision and big data be harnessed to transform a chaotic heap of random scrap into something beautiful?
It may sound like something dreamed up by someone who spent too long at art school, but Mine the Scrap could change our approach to builders’ rubbish. It is the brainchild of Certain Measures, a design agency based in Berlin and Boston. “For us, it is not about recycling,” says Tobias Nolte, “but about redistribution, about arranging things in a new and possibly better way.” Nolte, 39, is a co-founder of Certain Measures.
His agency’s key tool is machine vision, the technology that allows driverless cars to navigate safely through complex environments. It works like human perception: two sensors of moderate quality (the eyes) combined with a highly complex computing tool (the brain). Surfaces, boundaries, forms, colours and structures are decoded and categorised by shape and background. The gaps between them are filled by memory data and estimates.
Human vision, as identified by psychologists even before the second world war, is basically data processing plus creativity. Nolte and his American business partner, Andrew Witt, are seeking to imitate this with software. They met at Harvard; later, working for Gehry Technologies, founded by the architect Frank Gehry, they used what they had learned, carry out complex construction projects. “One day we had had enough of just advising on other people’s ideas. We wanted to shape things ourselves,” said Nolte. So he and Witt set up their own firm, which he describes as a “hypothesis-driven design studio”.
But what are these hypotheses? One is that machine vision can help to totally rethink design. Staff from Certain Measures dismantled an old summerhouse, scanned all the parts and then, as in Mine the Scrap, let the software work out what new structures could be created using the same pieces. The boring little “dacha” was transformed – at least digitally – into breathtaking new objects.
Some of these new objects are evocative of the deconstructed designs of Nolte and Witt’s former employer, Gehry. He destroyed traditional forms and structures in order to transform the fragments into something new. The results range from the modern to the mad.
Certain Measures called its dacha project Cloudfill, combining the concept of the “cloud”, storage in the digital ether, and “landfill”. The scanned summerhouse was just a digital heap of construction waste. Cloudfill is about transformations: beauty from rubbish, something striking from something banal, something whole from something broken, elegance from remnants.
“Traditionally, you design the shape and then produce the parts,” says Nolte. “With our prototype, we want to show that you can also turn this round and begin with the material instead. It’s like being in the kitchen: you open the fridge and think of the tastiest possible sandwich you could concoct out of the ingredients available.” The focus is not so much on using the leftovers as creating something good to eat. It might end up being more delicious than anything you’d find in a recipe book. The point is that the end product must be “more desirable”, says Nolte.
The charm lies in the promise such new combinations hold out for the future. People could make better use of the planet’s limited resources if they did not regard big cities solely as places to live but also as a repository of raw materials. Looked at this way, every power line is a little copper mine, every 1990s bank building is a glass depot and all that concrete can be broken up and recycled.
Experts call this “urban mining” and believe it could become a hot future market for a very conservative industry, the construction sector. The Certain Measures projects illustrate a particularly radical way for such urban prospecting: instead of using energy to crush old building materials to build new ones, they recycle the shape of the pieces as well as the material. “Every building component is preserved,” explains Nolte, “it just ends up in a new place. Ideally, in the best of all possible places.” What might happen if the idea of reusing components is pushed even further? Urban fracking, says Certain Measures. Staff scan street maps, using machine vision to identify undeveloped sites that might be suitable for building in greater density. The principle is similar to Mine the Scrap. Each site is surveyed, classified and catalogued in a kind of urban data bank. For example, says Nolte, it would be possible to identify areas suitable for building so-called “tiny houses”, where single occupants can have everything they need in just 20 square metres of living space.
Taking the city of Chicago as an example, the agency highlights the vacant sites of tomorrow, rather than the spare land of today. Cars are currently parked, using up space, for 95% of the time. If self-driving taxis took over a large part of urban traffic that situation could change: if more people used them, the vehicles would be on the move more often and standing idle by the roadside much less often. So for the same level of mobility, you would need significantly fewer cars.
A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicts that between 16% and 48% of parking spaces will soon be superfluous. But where precisely will this valuable new resource – space – actually be? To find the answer, the software scans a map of Chicago, block by block. Areas where the most nuggets are likely to be found are coloured yellow. Town planners can already consider what they might do with the new space. And if all goes well, the outcome will be “more desirable” than today’s street parking or multi-storey car parks.
For now, Certain Measure’s plans for recycling scrap are still hardly more than fiction and computer modelling. Where will all the parts be stored? Who will clean them for reuse? Who will use them? All these questions are still largely unanswered. So far, work has tended to stop at the point where the reality gets dusty and dirty. But that could soon change. The design agency is in talks about working with the Austrian concrete firm Rieder. Within a few years the first buildings based on the Mine the Scrap process could be springing up. Next year, Certain Measures will be transforming a computer image into a real object for Berlin’s Futurium exhibition.
Michelangelo is reputed to have said that the work of art is already present in the block of marble – the sculptor just had to chisel away the superfluous. Perhaps Certain Measures has found a way to turn this idea around: the new object is already there; now it is about recognising the greatest possible beauty in the things just lying at our feet: the magnificence hidden in the waste materials.