Prototyping Architecture

Architecture has recently undergone a paradigm shift from being based on purely visual concerns towards an architecture justified by its performance. With the emphasis now on material performance over appearance and on process over representation, the role of fabrication has become a pertinent question in architectural discourse. With the rise of digital fabrication in the 1990s at the expense of traditional analogue modelling techniques, fabrication is now seen as either a tool to achieve a pre-desired form or a celebration of the manufacturing process. This essay aims to address the neglect of material computation by proposing that materials can be an active participant in the genesis of form. It is argued that the digital must co-evolve with the analogue by promoting a return to the architectural prototype so that a continuous feedback loop can emerge between analogue and digital design processes.

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Figure 1 (Cover): Digitally fabricated housing for New Orleans, 2004 by MIT (Bergdoll & Christensen, 2008, p. 202)
Figure 2 (Above): Digitally fabricated housing for New Orleans, 2004 by MIT (Bergdoll & Christensen, 2008, p. 198)



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Figure 3: Hanging chain model of the Sagrada Família by Antonio Gaudí (Giralt-Miracle, 2002, p. 51)


Architecture has recently undergone a paradigm shift from being based on purely visual concerns towards an architecture justified by its performance. This shift privileges material performance over appearance and process over representation (Leach, 2009, p. 34). A renewed interest in material sensibility and the making of experimental prototypes is therefore required in order to understand the intrinsic qualities of materials and the machines that fabricate them.

This desire to understand ‘material computation’, that is, analogue forms of computation, is fundamentally changing the role of the architect. In addition to inherent changes in the architectural process and outcome, material computation is also eroding the segregation of disciplines that came to prominence in the twentieth-century. As Toshiko Mori observes, ‘The age of mechanical production, of linear process and the strict division of labor, is rapidly collapsing around us’ (Mori, 2002, p. xv). The twentieth-century division of labour was a response to the notion of the single, hero architect. With the ‘genius creator’ at the centre, the architect was supported by a plethora of consultants including engineers, project managers, quantity surveyors and health and safety consultants to name just some.  Yet this was not always the case.

Etymologically the word ‘architect’ derives from the Greek word ‘arkhitekton’ meaning ‘master’ and ‘builder’. The master builder encompassed many trades and was proficient in not only design but also construction and engineering. Over centuries of specialisation and with the risk of legislation, the master builder gradually dissolved into the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) disciplines that now categorise traditional modes of practising architecture (Kolarevic & Klinger, 2008, p. 7).

What is at stake here is not to reverse professional evolution through the unification of specialised niches within AEC but rather to re-question what we consider architectural knowledge to be so that crafts once understood by the master builder, namely materiality and fabrication, are resurrected and reintegrated into the contemporary architect’s repertoire. It is proposed that this integration can occur through the implementation of the prototype.


The prototype and the digital era

Historically, prototypes have played a significant role in twentieth-century architectural innovation. As Steel elaborates, the prototype has been the cornerstone for many significant breakthroughs in architectural innovation:

Consider…Mies van der Rohe’s glass-and-metal working model on the 1917 Friedrichstrasse Tower… Le Corbusier’s child-like wire and string “toy” model of the Brussels Pavilion…Antonio Gaudí’s material computers assembled as inverted form-finding chain models…or Frei Otto’s no-less complex analogue model, a stereoscopic photography set-up that he designed to record and analyze the essential loading experiments applied to cable models of his Munich stadium.

(Steele, 2008, p. 2)


Figure 4: Friedrichstrasse Tower, 1917 by Mies van der Rohe (
Figure 5: Brussels Pavilion, 1958 by Le Corbusier (


Yet despite the evident advantages of the prototype and the recent digital advancements of CAD-CAM (computer-aided drafting – computer-aided manufacturing), buildings are becoming more abstract than ever. The problem for architecture is not how this new digital technology can inform the design but rather how to materialise it.

The neglect of material computation by digital architects should not be attributed to the emergence of digital computation which came to rise in the 1990s. Technology has always been at the core of architecture and building. Consider a quick list of the countless examples where technology has fostered innovation: The development of the flying buttress in twelfth century Gothic architecture which liberated load bearing walls of their solidity; the invention of the first passenger elevator in 1852 which paved the way for a new building typology, that of the skyscraper; or more recently, the development of air conditioning systems which led to transformation of the arcade into the mega shopping malls that we know today. The computation developments of the 1990s offered many perks to architecture including the implementation of time-based architecture and complex double curvature. Yet although computational technology offer architects new techniques and methods, architecture is still fundamentally a material practice.



Figure 6: Munich Olympic Statium, 1972 by Frei Otto (

This does not strike a chord for many of the contemporary architects working in the digital realm, seduced by the digital architectural image. These architects produce projects within the vacuum of a digital modelling space and shun from the material world. Their approach therefore can be categorised as ‘thinking-then-making’ as materiality is an afterthought. This genesis of form philosophy can be contrasted to the ‘thinking-through-making’ philosophy which uses the prototype as a medium to innovate. The differences between these two approaches can be clearly illuminated through the comparison of selected works which subscribe to each particular philosophy.


Limitations of digital computation

Steel_2008_pXFigure 7: PS1 MOMA pavilion, 2005 by Xefirotarch (Alonso, 2009, p. 216)

Figure 8-10: PS1 MOMA pavilion, 2005 by Xefirotarch (Alonso, 2009, p. 216 & 217)
The work of Hernan Diaz Alonso’s practice, Xefirotarch, clearly demonstrates the ‘thinking-then-making’ philosophy by way of its schism between his analogue and the digital design processes. Based in Los Angeles, Alonso finds inspiration from Hollywood to create malleable, architectural imagery that exists in the realm of pure simulation. Alonso’s rejection of architecture’s traditional theoretical premises is made explicit in his claim that he feels ‘like a film director stuck in an architect’s body’ (Steele, Bratton, & Petit, 2008, p. 2). His work he adds, always exist in ‘this kind of science fiction’ (Alonso, 2005).

This sense of the unreal can be seen in Xefirotarch’s most recognised work, the PS1 temporary summer pavilion built at MOMA in 2005. Here, the building is made to look like the visualisation and not the visualisation look like the building (Alonso, 2009). The project, like so many of Xefirotarch’s works, is cinematic in nature, carefully choreographed and presented on a ‘virtual’ black background with a ‘futuristic’ red colour scheme. Indeed, Alonso’s main medium of communication, the architectural animation, is post-produced by a Hollywood production agency. From a conceptual point of view, the project is entirely digital in the way that it deals with geometry, form and typology (Alonso, 2005).




Figure 11: PS1 MOMA pavilion, 2005 by Xefirotarch (Alonso, 2009, p. 217)


Whilst the work is commendable in terms of going beyond the limit of the mundane and predictable, Alonso’s preoccupation with digital imagery and the neglect of any material sensibility potentially limits his work by situating it outside of the realm of architecture. This view was shared by the client, as Alonso (2005) recounts: ‘We picked you, but we want you to produce a prototype and when we see the prototype, we will go ahead.’ It was only once the project was commissioned that materiality and constructability were considered. This approach, coupled with a restricted time frame, relegates the construction process to conventional techniques of fabrication. As evident in PS1, Alonso’s approach sees the computer as a tool to achieve a pre-desired form and in the process neglects an implicit understanding of materiality. Alonso is not alone. This same approach can be seen in many highly acclaimed works.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1997) by Frank Gehry offers another clear example of the ‘thinking-then-making’ philosophy. Designed from the ‘outside-in’ to produce unprecedented sculptural architecture for its time, it was highly acclaimed for what would be later coined the ‘Bilbao Effect’. The external sculptural forms of the building are clad in titanium panels supported by an enormous steel sub system. The titanium panels were chosen after the form was designed resulting is an enormously inefficient sub system to actualise the pre-given form. This system was achieved through the appropriation of CATIA software, designed by the French military aircraft manufacturer Dassault. The technology implemented in order to bring the project to fruition was unprecedented and a major advancement for the architectural profession. However, one cannot help but wonder if these forms could have been produced from an understanding of materials rather than the imposition of materials.


Figure 12: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1997 by Gehry & Partners (


One must recognise, however, that although there may be apparent formal similarities between the nonstandard forms of Frank Gehry and Hernan Diaz Alonso, there are enormous differences between the two: Gehry is in the twilight of his career while Alonso, on the other hand, is still considered a young architect (the definition of which is under forty years of age); Gehry has an extensive ‘construction trajectory’, Alonso does not. But what is of interest in a comparison between Alonso and Gehry is their different attitudes towards materiality. Alonso is comfortable situating his work in the realm of the unreal or immaterial. Gehry’s work on the other hand, whilst not engaging fully with materiality, is a product of the period’s technology. Technology appropriated and developed in order to bring his works to fruition – a digital prototype.


Material computation

diesteFigure 13: Industrial complex, Salto, Uruguay, 1972 by Eladio Dieste  (Perez Escolano, 1997, p. 98)


 Materials and surfaces have a language of their own. Stone speaks of its distant geological origins, its durability and inherent symbolism of permanence; brick makes one think of earth and fire, gravity and the ageless traditions of construction; bronze evokes the extreme heat of its manufacture, the ancient process of casting and the passage of time as measured in its patina. Wood speaks of its two existences and time scales; its first life as a growing tree and the second as a human artefact made by the caring hand of the carpenter or cabinetmaker.

(Pallasmaa, 2000)

The work of the Mexican philosopher Manuel de Landa offers an insight into the relationship between digital and analogue architectural fabrication. De Landa’s (2001) theory of the genesis of form suggests that form can either be homogenised or heterogeneous. Homogenised is where ‘one thinks of form or design as primarily conceptual, something to be generated as pure thought in isolation from the messy world of matter and energy’ (DeLanda, 2001, p. 132). Heterogeneous, on the other hand, sees materials ‘as not inert receptacles for a cerebral form imposed from the outside, but active participants in the genesis of form’ (DeLanda, 2001, p. 132). De Landa compares steel to iron to illustrate this theory:

Steel, especially mild steel, might euphemistically be described as a material that facilitates the dilution of skills…Manufacturing processes can be broken down into many separate stages, each requiring a minimum of skill or intelligence…At a higher mental level, the design process becomes a good deal easier and more foolproof by the use of a ductile, isotropic, and practically uniform material with which there is already a great deal of accumulated experience.

(Gordon, 1988, p. 135)


Figure 14 (left): Blacksmith forging iron (
Figure 15 (Right): White-hot steel pouring out of an electric arc furnace (


The docile, predictable qualities and homogeneity of steel is contrasted to iron, which is heterogeneous in nature due to its different impurities and mixtures: ‘the iron sword…is forged not cast or moulded, quenched and not air cooled, produced by the piece and not in numbers’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988, p. 406). Iron therefore requires a certain interaction between the designer and the material which cannot be reduced to routine in the same way as steel: ‘Craftsmen did not impose a shape but rather teased out a form from the material, acting more as triggers for spontaneous behaviour and as facilitators of spontaneous processes than as commanders imposing their desires from above’ (DeLanda, 2001, p. 135).

This know-how once understood by craftsmen and metallurgists seems to be slowly disappearing and replaced with more ‘scientific’ and predictable materials such as steel. One reason for this phenomenon that De Landa (2001, p. 135) proposes, is that ‘the philosophy of design of metallurgists and other craftsmen was implicit (not verbally articulated)’. Furthermore, the knowledge was not seen as scientific and thereby looked down on. Hence, the complex behaviours of materials have been typically neglected and reduced to simple, routine properties.

The problem for De Landa (2001, p. 136) is that ‘despite the availability of new materials with complex behaviours, our design skills may now lag behind.’ So despite the seemingly advantages of materials with routine behaviours, these materials may lead to the reduction of the design process itself to yet another routine. What is at stake here is an acknowledgement that real material behaviour is complex and that instead of imposing cerebral form on an inert matter, as shown in the case of Gehry or Alonso, materials are allowed to participate in the genesis of form.


Prototyping architecture


Figure 16: Model of the columns and ceilings of the Sagrada Família in Gaudí’s workshop, 1926 (Giralt-Miracle, 2002, p. 28)


Mark Burry is one such advocate of the ‘thinking-through-making’ philosophy. Burry has written extensively on the topic of the symbiosis of analogue and digital skill sets by teasing out the relationship between CAD-CAM techniques, parametric design and rapid prototyping. His essays, ‘Blurring the lines’ (2003) and ‘Homo Faber’ (2005) can be seen as responses to De Landa’s warnings.

In these essays, Burry argues for a return to ‘man the maker’ by blurring the roles between architect, engineer and mason.  He considers prototyping to be an essential precursor of building construction:

…firmly seated within the context of ubiquitous computing and pervasive digital design, homo faber – “man the maker” – is required to experiment with the actual stuff of his or her endeavours, at full scale and regardless of all the automated design and building aids increasingly as our affordable disposal.

 (Burry, 2005, p. 31)

Burry is sceptical of automated building aids as a replacement for time-honoured craft claiming that, ‘currently the relative expense of the rapid prototyping machine and materials combined with the relative slowness of their operation…limit use of such equipment to tasks of relative importance’ (Burry, 2005, p. 34). Instead, he suggests this is a perfect time to ponder the best possible relationship between homo faber and the agency offered through the automated procedure by creating a hybrid activity to demonstrate the unequivocal benefits to the design process. Burry’s desire to consolidate both the traditional and digital design processes into one system can be attributed in large part to his involvement on finishing Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona.

The Sagrada Família is arguably Gaudí’s most recognised work. Inherited in 1883 from another architect, Gaudí implemented a geometric codex to ensure that his design had a legacy long beyond his own mortality. He worked on the project for over 40 years, with the last 15 years of his life devoted entirely to the endeavour. As anticipated, however, the project was never completed before his death in 1926. The completion of the project was further set back as his models and workshop were destroyed during the war by Catalan anarchists, making the job of completing the project almost impossible. That was until a relatively unknown apprentice working on the project managed to unlock the mystery of the geometrical codex. That apprentice, was of course Mark Burry who is now lead consultant architect charged with completing Gaudí’s vision. This discovery was only made possible through the geometrical codex that Gaudí implicitly embedded into the design. Contrary to Gaudí’s earlier work which uses much more free form geometry, the Sagrada Família is fully parametric. What is remarkable is that Gaudí’s design pre-dates by over seventy years the now ubiquitous parametric modelling software.


Figure 17: Geometrical assemblies of hyperbolic paraboloids of revolution of one sheet and columns for the Sagrada Família, 1926 (Giralt-Miracle, 2002, p. 28)
Figure 18: Screenshot from ‘Temple Sagrada Família – Barcelona’ (
Figure 19: Plaster model of the Sagrada Família (


Gaudí’s in-depth geometrical analysis was always tested structurally through prototyping. His comprehensive analogue design modelling has been well publicised – from the 1:10 plaster models of the columns and ceilings to the much referenced inverted hanging chain models, every element is tested:

Gaudí’s world was one of test, trials, errors and corrections that enabled him to get as close as possible to the solutions of the problems. In this he went against the flow of construction techniques up until that time: Gaudí did not go from calculation and theory to the realisation of the project, but from the model to calculation, and from thence to the drawing and construction. We can see, therefore, that Gaudí reached these conclusions via experimentation…

(Giralt-Miracle, 2002, p. 21)

 Gaudí was extremely knowledgeable in craft techniques. He studied at the newly-created school of architecture in Barcelona, which prior to then, was the school for master builders. Due to his superior knowledge of materials and craft, Gaudí was able to go beyond the surface and achieve plasticity in his work, comparable to much of the digitally produced forms of today.


Figure 20: Sagrada Família, 1882-  by Antonio Gaudí (Giralt-Miracle, 2002, p. 133)
Figure 21: Twisting columns of the Sagrada Família (Giralt-Miracle, 2002, p. 46)


To understand the true significance of the Sagrada Família in terms of the hybrid use of both analogue and digital design processes, one must fast forward to Burry’s involvement. Although Burry commenced working on the project in 1979, it was not until 1992 that parametric software was introduced as a tool to help finish Gaudí’s masterpiece. Like Gehry for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the team implemented CATIA, pioneering the use of digital design software in the process. Burry (2005, pp. 36-37) explains the significance:

It would seem that not only was the Sagrada Família Church one of the first projects anywhere to have adopted the most sophisticated digital tools, it is also one of the first to enter a postdigital era as a leader, in circumstances where the continued contribution of the craftsperson is judged as a crucial partner to the digital dialogue.

With the design team situated in Australia, digital templates were sent direct to the quarry in Galicia, Spain where individual granite elements were made. The more complicated pieces were prototyped from polystyrene at 1:1 scale. The design-construct process was further improved as the parametric digital model could be continually updated based on the building’s idiosyncrasies, giving a greater accuracy and precision to the building information (Burry, 2003, pp. 114-116). Burry’s relationship with Gaudí is one of equal partnership which fully demonstrates how the design process can flow from digital to analogue to digital providing a feedback mechanism between design and production.


Figure 22: Gaudí geometry (Giralt-Miracle, 2002, p. 96; 104; 112; 115)



Fabricating the prototype

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Figure 23: Digitally fabricated housing for New Orleans, 2004 by MIT (Bergdoll & Christensen, 2008, p. 202)

An architect must be a craftsman. Of course any tools will do; these days, the tools might include a computer, an experimental model, and mathematics. However, it is still craftsmanship – the work of someone who does not separate the work of the mind from the work of the hand. It involves a circular process that takes you from the idea to a drawing, from a drawing to a construction, and from construction back to an idea

 (Renzo Piano in Buchanan, 2003)

Architecture, as it has been argued, is an inherently material practice that implies making through the close engagement of materials.  Recently however, as illustrated through Burry’s involvement with the Sagrada Família, making is increasingly mediated through digital technologies such as CNC machines, laser cutters and 3D printing. Kolarevic (2008, p. 120) coins the term ‘digital making’ referring to the use of digital technologies in design and material production which is ‘blurring the sharp discontinuities between conception and production established in the twentieth century.’ Yet as Goulthorpe (2008, p. 147) argues, ‘the equation “available technique = aesthetic” is evidently facile.’ An inherent craft is still needed. But can this craft reside in the digital realm?

McCullough (1996) argues that craft can exist in digital fabrication. He uses the term ‘digital craft’ and suggest that ‘is not an oxymoron, but that today craft medium need not have a material substance, and the craftsperson need not touch the material directly’ (Kolarevic, 2008, p. 120). There is a growing number of architects today working with digital craft including Bernard Cache, Greg Lynn and ReD to name but a few. They claim to be working with material affordance: ‘Knowing what, why and how to adjust requires deep knowledge of the process, tools, and techniques, just as it did in the pre-digital era’ (Kolarevic, 2008, p. 127). Yet what results is mostly a machined surface effect as can be seen in Cache’s Objectiles (1995).



Figure 24: Objectiles, 1995 by Bernard Cache (


Home Delivery_2008_p199

Figure 25: Digitally fabricated housing for New Orleans, 2004 by MIT (Bergdoll & Christensen, 2008, p. 199)


At issue here is that these digital fabrication techniques are working with the machinery, not the material. If we are to learn anything from the works of Gaudí, Frei Otto, Eladio Dieste or Buckminister Fuller, it is that materials can participate in the genesis of form and not just be relegated to surface effect. If a dynamic interplay between digital information and physical prototyping is to occur it cannot be due solely to the celebration of the technical sophistication of manufacturing processes.

A perfect case in point is Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) ‘Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans’. This housing project was exhibited as part of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) ‘Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling’ exhibition held in 2008. The exhibit illustrated many of the paradoxes of the prefabricated house by bringing together ‘an expansive evaluation of the past, present and future of the prefabricated house’ (Bergdoll & Christensen, 2008, p. 7).

MIT’s response was to develop an ‘Instant House’ which could be deployed on mass scale for the rapid reconstruction of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Instant House uses a portable laser cutter machine to cut planar sheets of plywood which can be assembled with by five people within five days using only rubber mallets. Bergdoll & Christensen (2008, p. 196) claim that the instant house is ‘radical for its desire to distil technology’s power solely to solve problems rather than invent a new formal language’. Yet this approach essentially degrades the role of rapid prototyping to that of an on-site Ikea factory producing flat-packed vernacular housing. Whilst MIT’s goal was to harness rapid prototyping to solve basic housing needs at unprecedented scale and pace, their approach illuminates the reliance of a manufacturing process rather than the affordances given by the material. It is this naïve application of digital fabrication which requires a return to analogue computation.



This paper opened by claiming that architecture has recently undergone a paradigm shift from being based on purely visual concerns towards an architecture justified by its performance. With the emphasis now on material performance over appearance and on process over representation, the role of fabrication has become a pertinent question in architectural discourse. It was proposed that we must re-question what we consider architectural knowledge to be so that crafts, once understood by the master builder, namely materiality and fabrication, are resurrected and reintegrated into the contemporary architect’s repertoire. Moreover, it was argued that this integration could occur through the implementation of the prototype as it had already played a significant role in twentieth-century architectural innovation.

Through the analysis of works by Hernan Diaz Alonso and Frank Gehry it was shown that often in digital architecture materials are used as a means to attain a pre-desired form. This philosophy was contrasted with the work of Antonio Gaudí and Mark Burry whose work demonstrates that materials can be an active participant in the genesis of form. Finally, new methods of digital fabrication and digital craft were discussed showing that these techniques work with the machinery, not the material. And if a dynamic interplay between digital information and physical prototyping is to occur, it cannot be due solely to the celebration of the technical sophistication of manufacturing processes.

The relationship between the digital and analogue design processes is difficult in today’s world of ubiquitous digital computation. We are, as it seems, at a crossroads in time, between tradition (analogue) and technology (digital). Perhaps Burry (2005, p. 37) offers the best way forward by suggesting that ‘the academy should resist any tendency for conservatism or a total rush to technology. Rather, it seems best that they seek to consolidate both traditional and digital design processes…’.

homo faber2

Figure 26: Screenshot from ‘Temple Sagrada Família – Barcelona’ (




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