Code Builder: A robotic choreography by Mamou-Mani at Sir John Soane’s Museum
Walking through the extraordinary sculpture gallery of the Sir John Soane’s Museum in the mysterious morning twilight, an incongruous sound can be heard from the end of the room: a rhythmical mechanical noise of electronic information travelling along wires, of reels of wire unrolling by degrees.
The source of the sound is the “Polibot”, a robotic “universal construction machine” designed by architecture firm Mamou-Mani. An automated robotic grabber suspended from cables uses instructions from an algorithm to pick up wooden bricks from a pile and place them one by one to form a free-standing dome (an architectural form much loved by Sir John Soane). Once it has put it together, the machine proceeds to disassemble it again in a continuous cycle of creation and destruction.
It takes an impressive degree of curatorial innovation to put a robot into the Sir John Soane’s Museum, which is otherwise known for being nearly untouched since the early 19th century and for holding events lit only by candles. In this context, the Polibot effectively points to how cutting-edge engineering relies on a foundational heritage of architectural design and experimentation.
This theme continues in the second part of the exhibition, which allusively uses the construction and subsequent deconstruction of Soane’s design for the Bank of England as a touch stone for exploring innovative architectural materials, the necessity of flexibility in urban design and the idea that architecture is limited by conventional requirements for it to be permanent.
Mamou-Mani’s designs – both realised and theoretical – sit surprisingly effectively alongside Soane’s drawings and plans, while also offering radically new ideas. Their sustainable wooden structure designed for Burning Man festival utilises a “leave no trace” approach to construction, for instance, while in the centre of the room a 3D printer builds an organic-looking structure from biodegradable material before visitors’ eyes.
These ideas are visionary, aspirational and would often be almost impossible to negotiate in the real world: how would planning permission be granted for a building that could expand and contract according to need, for example? And yet the exhibition also demonstrates that there is an ecological urgency here. The increasing pressure being put on the planet by human inhabitants is not sustainable; Code Builder emphasises that solutions like those offered by Mamou-Mani are necessary because we need to fundamentally change our relationship with the land we build on and the materials we use in the process.
Photos: Tom Ryley
Code Builder is at Sir John Soane’s Museum from 5th December 2018 until 3rd February 2019. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.