Henry David Louth, a computational designer and design researcher at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) London, earned his Bachelor of Architecture with honors from LSU in 2007. He spent five years in professional practice in Baton Rouge—earning his architecture license and LEED accreditation by 2011—before receiving a master’s degree from the Architectural Association Design Research Lab (DRL) in 2014. Louth has worked professionally on project types ranging from retail rollouts to university renovations to new commercial and interiors to product design, prototyping, and civic design across the U.S. and abroad. His current research in the Computation and Design Research Group (co|de) at ZHA speculates on curve crease folding (CCF) and topology optimization applications. Louth is a published research contributor in the proceedings of Symposium on Simulation for Architecture and Urban Design (SIMAUD) and has taught and presented in the United States, the United Kingdom, and India on various architectural topics ranging from sustainability to construction and geometric theory. Read more at henrydavidlouth.com.
Here, Louth talks about his career path and his work at ZHA. At the time of this interview his office was busy preparing for an exhibition on Zaha Hadid’s career in architecture and design at the Palazzo Franchetti in Venice, May 27–November 27, 2016 (fondazioneberengo.org/zaha-hadid-exhibition). The exhibition coincides with the Venice Architectural Biennale.
Q: Where did your interest in architecture originate, and how did you come to study at LSU?
I grew up in Louisiana in a small strawberry farming community with a live alligator on public display at the center of town. I owe a great deal to my parents, as they encouraged creativity as much as was within our means and proximity. From an early age, I participated in writing and art camps at the university where my father taught. Interestingly, my father would have me assemble tinker toy objects according to his students’ technical writing descriptions to grade their writing efficacy. I must have broken hundreds of pieces and never really built what was intended, likely contributing unfavorably to countless grades. I was encouraged, nonetheless, even when I believed I had failed, to craft something, anything, with what lay in front of me.
Throughout high school I worked locally for a friend of my father, who bought government surplus at auction, repaired, and resold items on eBay. I learned to repair things by doing, by tearing down ailing printers, computers, and other castaways to build them back up again with scavenged parts from other machines. Then I would do it again when the first time wasn’t successful. I was exposed to the comparative mechanics and assemblies between competing manufacturers, while troubleshooting, photographing, and keeping technical write-ups as thousands of items came and went through the doors. Now that I have a daughter, I am keenly aware that the most unlikely experiences such as these potentially shape who we become.
I went to LSU because of TOPS. [TOPS, or Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is a program of state scholarships for Louisiana residents who attend either one of the Louisiana Public Colleges and Universities.] It was purely a financial decision. I initially started along the fine arts/graphic design curricula, but I wanted to work more with my hands. I switched to architecture at LSU the following year and have never looked back. I hope in-state financial assistance continues for future generations. Leaving undergraduate debt-free allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom and flexibility after graduation.
Q: How did you end up in London and working at Zaha Hadid?
I had always known I wanted to go to graduate school but without a core focus in mind, I worked locally at Tipton Associates, earning my license immediately and taking advantage of travel and the experience afforded through fast-track renovation work. I saw through dozens of small, fast projects, whereas my peers were working on singular projects for longer durations. I learned a great deal from Ken Tipton [principal of Tipton Associates and also an LSU architecture alumnus] and the firm and carry that knowledge with me, still, today.
My wife had more to do with London as a destination than she might take credit for. When we first started dating in 2004, she did an internship with Virgin Trains in London as part of the BUNAC program. I visited her there for a few weeks, and we grew to love the city together. We revisited London in 2008 when, by chance, I toured the Architectural Association (AA). I remember the energy exuded by this place more than any specific project or person. Thereafter, I shifted my continuing education focus more toward technologies and construction methods, taking a weekend crash course in parametric design in Grasshopper from Mode Lab with Ronnie Parsons and Gil Akos and attending a facades conference with Patrik Schumacher as speaker in New York the following year. Events such as these were instrumental in my career. As a result, I remember taking small steps and building upon the momentum, pushing with a colleague at Tipton to implement Revit, which we successfully tested on several small renovations before firm-wide rollout.
In 2011 Christin and I married, and with a bit of haste, submitted graduate applications in December to various experimental design graduate programs in the U.S. and U.K. , including the Architectural Association Design Research Lab (DRL), under the program direction of Theodore Spyropoulos of Minimaforms. [The DRL is a 16-month post-professional design program leading to a Master of Architecture (architecture and urbanism) degree. Read more about the DRL at drl.aaschool.ac.uk.] The DRL investigates digital and analog forms of computation in the pursuit of systemic, scenario, and time-based design applications. Christin likens the program to an adult Montessori school; in many ways this is an excellent parallel: mixed age, choice of research from specific range, uninterrupted studio time, discovery with materials rather than direct instruction, developing independence according to our intuitions. I think the most important takeaways from the DRL include working by iteration and soliciting feedback from our creations.
- Working by iteration: We must be able to design such that I can exchange a step-by-step procedural history of a model with teammates such that they can repeat the process. This is how data is validated and also demystifies the process of creation. It allows us to assess the decision making process objectively in design and intervene at a given point to take the design in a different direction.
- Soliciting feedback: Our role as designers requires that we listen and observe from context and design performance and then make a better version responding to these constraints. Theo emphasizes the act of making and has lectured extensively on this topic of communication and feedback between ourselves and the constructed world (Adaptive Ecologies).
At the DRL, we begin by listening to the potential research paths each tutor intends to extend, and we individually choose which research strand we want to pursue in each of a few short-term projects and a year-long research project. Then students self-divide into teams of four according to tutor choices to develop specific projects framed around this research agenda. Over the first three months, we have introductory “workshops,” which explore a specific material, behavior, or digital simulation method. This also allows time for students to get to know one another and try out different tutors/research paths and to change teams, if desired. I was introduced to Shajay Bhooshan, group leader at ZHA’s Computation and Design Research Group, during his introduction of a curved folding workshop the same year Arum was unveiling in Venice, in which we were asked to make a piece of furniture with pliable sheet material, folded using curvilinear patterns to make it rigid.
From there, I continued on with Shajay as my thesis tutor, developing responses to the Thames River using the repetition of the rise and fall of the seven-plus-meter tide to participate in a material formation process using salts latent in the water to curate deposition of these particulates and thereby the formation of swimming territories and public spaces along the waterfront. I must admit, I have seen my share of salt. What most impresses me about Shajay, still, to this day, is just how invested in the profession he can be while still exploring creatively facets of the world through simulation, lectures, workshops, and ongoing PhD work. To quote Michael Caine from The Prestige, “the only way I know how he does it, is he uses a double.” Shajay introduced us to dozens of practitioners, fabricators, and academics abroad and was always thoughtful to have ZHA visitors stop by the DRL to share their contributions to the field.
I knew I wanted to participate in the profession in a similar way. In January 2014 my team defended our thesis work on Thames tidal landscapes, and in June 2014, I graduated from the DRL. I now work alongside Shajay in ZHA co|de .
[View Louth’s thesis presentation at aaschool.ac.uk/VIDEO/lecture.php?ID=2596.]
Q: Describe your position at ZHA. What does the Computation and Design Research Group do?
I am a computational designer and design researcher at ZHA. From the sound of it, you may think I do not draw, sketch, or make tangible objects, but this could not be farther from the truth.
- I use abstract logic and mathematics on a daily basis.
- I am not tethered to any particular software.
- My second language is C#.
- I explore geometric performance (structural principles) not building facilities performance.
- I ask, “What if this were a façade system?” not “Which façade system should I use?”
- I publish findings and methods contributing to a collective body of work.
- I induce failures purposefully so others may learn from my endeavors.
Led by Shajay Bhooshan, the Computational Design Research Group (co|de) is comprised of eight members, each collectively contributing to the advancement of knowledge in a select few research strands. We are primarily interested in six core research strands at the moment:
- Topology optimization, material reduction methods governed by internal stress strain patterns (Ole Sigmund, ETHZ).
- Curve crease folding (CCF), a means to impart structural rigidity to flat sheet materials by curve fold patterning (whereas origami imparts flexibility through orthogonal patterning) (David Huffman, Ron Resch, Erik and Martin Demaine).
- Minimal surfaces, a special geometric set similar to soap films comprised of surfaces tending toward zero mean curvature locally (LaGrange, Frei Otto).
- Ruled surfaces, a special geometric set that is curved in one surface direction while linear in the other (Antoni Gaudi, Mark Burry, Felix Candela).
- Spatial structures, a development of novel data structures for encoding complex geometric relations (Phillipe Block, Masoud Akbarzadeh).
- Robotics, the exploration of material formation processes through robotic interaction.
We have a few principles at co|de.
- Reconnect past, forgotten, or overlooked methods of design and construction and establish a continuum, a projective future for historic techniques, for example, exploring the building potentials of the structural principles governing the historic helical stair.
- Make methods accessible to designers, simplified enough for us to interact and begin to understand intuitively what opportunities there might be to intervene in formative processes. An example includes the geometric method of structural calculation using graphic statics rather than numeric method for compressive structures (Block Research Group, Zurich). If you intuitively understand the processes of formation, you are more able to focus on other aspects or constraints of the design.
- Collaborate in an interdisciplinary way with engineering, mathematicians, computer graphics, and manufacturers. What are the formal opportunities latent in processes afforded by other disciplines? Understanding and leveraging biological phenomenon and formative processes and applying those principles to the constructed world (Shajay Bhooshan, parametricism 2.0).
We partner with manufacturers and universities including the AA Visiting School [a collaborative and global program exporting the highly international AA pedagogical approach across the world] to build prototypes to test the application of our research and continue to tune our methods for use internally on projects in a broader sense. [See AA Visiting School, Chennai.]
[The academic activities of co|de serve as a platform for various professional and academic partners to collaborate, apply exciting and contemporary research to address locally relevant issues, and to understand and assimilate traditional wisdom. The Computation and Design Research Group has been active within ZHA for nine years and has been involved in various pedagogic and research collaborations across the world. Read more at http://www.zha-code-education.org/.]
Q: Can you tell us about a couple of specific projects?
Images copyright Zaha Hadid Architects, http://www.zaha-hadid.com/design/volu-revolution-project-design-miami-2015/
Commissioned by Robbie Antonio for Design Miami 2015, Volu is part of the Revolution Project exploring the application of advanced design and fabrication technologies in the creation of cost-efficient living spaces.
“Defined by digital processes, the pavilion has been developed in such a way that its components are, at most, singly curved. Computer programming that integrates fabrication constraints into the design, while also incorporating engineering feedback in an iterative delivery process, enabled the development of complex and expressive forms through the single bending of flat sheet materials.
“Comprised of a series of structural bands collecting at the spine and expanding overhead, the patterning of the pavilion’s structure and shade structures are guided by the varied structural loading conditions. Through the analysis of the geometry under load, the pavilion’s structure and skin have been digitally optimised to remove unnecessary material, resulting in the lightest possible design solution—following an organic structural logic that recreates many of the same principles found in nature.”
—Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
I remember Patrik stopping by, dropping an ancient yellowed 3-D print on my desk, and describing rather loosely a brief of what the Volu pavilion would become. “It needs to be freestanding, movable, and made from prefabricated parts. Let’s see what you can do with it,” was basically the attitude at the time. This was how Volu was born in co|de.
We set about gathering precedents which ranged from material methods in similar scale pavilions to the more pragmatic aspects such as temporary ballasting methods as are used in removable driveway basketball goals. Simultaneously we were testing out conceptual ideas of structural organization, applying ongoing co|de research, in this case topology optimization of a base surface geometry. We tested how this pattern might be articulated in various structural conditions, such as bundled tubes of equal cross section to varied compound curved members similar to Ban’s Pompidou Metz, before settling on equal depth orthogonal members following primary stress directions for economy and speed of fabrication.
This posed the particular issue creating developability of all surfaces in the model (which is globally compound curved). We opted to develop a workflow whereby the structure was controlled using a coarse polygon to position and adjust the location of structural intersections encoding various attributes to the vertex position. This ensured we could maintain developability of surfaces, and as such, could unroll and laser-cut all of the parts for Volu.
Images copyright Zaha Hadid Architects, http://www.zaha-hadid.com/architecture/mathematics-gallery-science-museum/
“The Mathematics Gallery design explores the many influences of mathematics in our everyday lives; transforming seemingly abstract mathematical concepts into an exciting interactive experience for visitors of all ages . . .. The gallery’s design will bring this remarkable story of the Handley Page biplane to life by considering the entire gallery as a wind tunnel for the aircraft which will hang in the centre of the space. Three dimensional curved surfaces representing the aircraft’s aerodynamic turbulence field describe the formal and organizational concepts that define all other aspects of the gallery. These curvilinear surfaces convey complex mathematical ideas such as vector fields with their capacity to describe constantly varying quantities.”
—Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
Co|de has been extremely fortunate in that we prepared the initial competition concept design for ZHA and continue to be involved in the design development and delivery since the project was awarded. This was the first competition project I worked on with ZHA and the co|de team, and I continue to contribute on an as-needed basis through construction here in London until opening.
Specifically I have been involved in three areas:
- robotic hot-wire cut bench geometry concept design and development,
- parametric development of folded metal interpretation elements, and
- ceiling concept design and engineering coordination.
In terms of the benches, the brief called for us to develop discrete zones within the space for curatorial purposes. The first realization of this was actually a partition. However, as we worked through this idea of a visual turbulence field that is traversed within, it became evident that separating such a small space physically was detrimental to the collective vantage of discrete graduated elements and severed a connection to the Handley Page plane from within the gallery. We instead looked for means to demarcate zones of space through exhibition case groupings and floor patterning and by using benches as elements of rest between zones to reflect upon exhibits and the gallery globally. In truth, I don’t recall ever being asked specifically to make a bench; it proceeded as a matter of course.
Geometrically the benches extend our research in ruled/developable surfaces and take advantage of robotics rather than milling to fabricate the formwork for casting. Anyone who has milled with a CNC knows just how long a router takes. Machine time equates to cost. Using robots, the forms for the benches are cut using a hot wire through foam in a fraction of the time a CNC would take to make the same shape. The tradeoff with the robot in this case is that the hot-wire method of cutting constrains the type of geometries possible to a select set of geometries known as ruled surfaces, for example, a straight wire is always cutting through the foam; this can never change. The geometries are specifically designed with this constraint in mind and are more articulate of the process of making because of it.
Images copyright Zaha Hadid Architects, http://www.zha-code-education.org/What-We-Did-Winter-2014-Chennai
How much can be accomplished in 10 days on limited resources in a remote destination with a dedicated group of individuals? Quite a lot. It is a symbiotic relationship we hold with the Visiting School in which we are able to test some aspect of co|de research, in this case curve-folded formwork for cast, compressive skeletons, and students are able to develop design and fabrication skills in real-time. This platform also serves us professionally to publish the research development process, findings during deployment of a prototype, and potential trajectories for future research. These workshops are intensely challenging, demanding, and rewarding for everyone involved.
Chennai was our first attempt to reconcile the idea of integrated formwork in a concrete shell and continued prior research from compression-only structures and curve-folding theory. I remember David [David Reeves, ZHA co|de] looking over his laptop at me and saying, “These [curve-fold forms] are going to be really shallow guys.” Due to the only slight global curvature of the shell form, the curve-folded flanges of the moulds allowed for a smaller cross sectional depth than anticipated. This posed geometric and construction issues, such as the compression thrust network (Block ETHZ) falling outside of the geometry and how to practically achieve clear concrete cover in thin casts. We worked through each of these problems as they arose in turn, one by one, sketch by sketch, fold by fold, and finally cast by cast.
Q: What advice do you have for current students and recent graduates seeking to work in design research?
Over the years Christin and I have been fortunate to travel often, to see and explore places, and to meet people. Traveling alone is useless if we are not critical of our surroundings and ask how, if at all, what is in front of us might be better.
- Be naively fearless to a fault. As a design researcher, we often do not have a direct application for a technique, process, or simulation method. This can be frightening at times! Working open-ended with boundaries (a lot like bowling with the kids’ rails up) is not for everyone. I “fail” often; it can be trying at times. It takes focus, independence, a responsibility to argue for your actions, and a confidence in yourself to know you are asking the right questions even if the answers remain elusive.
- Do it once; then do it again. As a computational designer, I assume change is a given. I embrace it; I prepare for it. Make the best version of which you are capable, then make a more intelligent version based upon what you learned making the predecessor. You can learn something from what you create, and the next one will be better.
- Do more; talk less. Instead of discussing the merits of an idea, put it to the test immediately by producing something tangible and visual. To quote a former tutor at LSU: “Put soup in the can.” When we do an AA visiting school, I see firsthand the lengths to which students go to bestow meaning upon hypotheticalswhich never make it to canvas. Entirely too much time is engrossed in rhetoric instead of what is tangibly presented. To quote Patrik Schumacher, “Architecture is communication.” No one will narrate your creation’s intentions once erected. If executed articulately and with precision, no explanation is needed. You will know to turn left when it is time, not because of signage.
- Stop talking about software; it changes again next year. I am surrounded by such a concentration of talent at ZHA. That talent is not stifled by one particular delivery method or software. Software enables communication, but it is merely a tool.
Bibliography of Cited Research
Akbarzadeh M, Van Mele T, and Block P. On the equilibrium of funicular polyhedral frames and convex polyhedral force diagrams. Computer-Aided Design 2015; 63: 118-128.
Block, P. Thrust Network Analysis, Exploring Three-Dimensional Equilibrium < http://www.block.arch.ethz.ch/brg/files/Block_PhD_2009.pdf> 2009.
Bhooshan, S. et al., 2015. Curve-folded form-work for cast, compressive skeletons,. In Proceedings of the SIMAUD 2015 Conference, Alexandria, USA. Available at: http://simaud.com/proceedings/download.php?f=SimAUD2015_Proceedings_HiRes.pdf.
Chandra, S., Bhooshan, S. & ElSayed, M., 2014. Curved-Folding Convex Polyhedra through Smoothing. In Proceedings of the 6th International Meeting on Origami in Science, Mathematics and Education. Tokyo(Accepted).
Demaine, E.D., Demaine, M.L. & Koschitz, R.D., 2011. Curved Crease Folding a Review on Art, Design and Mathematics Curved Creases in Art and Design. Proceedings of the IABSE-IASS Symposium: Taller, Longer, Lighter (IABSE-IASS 2011).
Demaine, M., Portfolio. Available at: http://erikdemaine.org/portfolio.pdf.
Frei Otto Film, Frei Otto – Modeling with Soap Films. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IW7o25NmeA>
Huffman, D. a., 1976. Curvature and Creases: A Primer on Paper. IEEE Transactions on Computers, C-25(10), pp.1010–1019.
Lagrange. “Essai d’une nouvelle méthode pour déterminer les maxima et les minima des formules intégrales indéfinies.” 1776.
Nerdinger, W. (Ed.), Meissner, I., Möller, E., et al. (2005). Frei Otto. Complete Works. Lightweight Construction – Natural Design. Berlin, Basel: Birkhäuser.
Resch, R. The Works of Ron Resch. <http://www.ronresch.org/ronresch/>
Schumacher, P., 2016b. Parametricism 2.0: Gearing Up to Impact the Global Built Environment. Architectural Design, 86(2), pp.8–17.
Sigmund, O. 2001. A 99 line topology optimization code written in Matlab. <http://www.topopt.dtu.dk/files/matlab.pdf>