Embracing the disciplines of both traditional architecture and new technologies, Co-Founder of Architecture Intelligence and Research Lab (AirLab) in Singapore and Partner at Subarquitectura in Spain, Carlos Bañón is addressing a range of design challenges across continents and scales.
“I co-founded Subarquitectura in 2004 as an exploratory and forward-thinking design practice. Our work is in challenging the typology of buildings by turning old typologies into new opportunities; redefining public spaces as well as houses. Then, in 2014, I was invited to take a faculty position at Singapore University of Technology and Design which gave me the opportunity to set up AirLab with the goal of integrating new technologies, advances in architecture and provocation into meaningful designs. We love exploring the possibilities of using new technologies in sustainable design: upcycling, recycling and trying to build lighter or less materially-dense structures all while challenging new aesthetics.”
Carlos’ professional and academic practices are closely linked, he says. He describes his teaching, research and professional practice as a 3-legged table that gives him the balance that he needs as an architect. “It’s quite synergistic. At SUTD I teach design studios which highlight the fundamentals of geometry and form as the drivers of architecture and at Subarquitectura we really work closely with form and how the form can determine certain behaviours in people. At AirLab I use the same rationale, but even more research-driven. We test the boundaries. We do prototypes. The Lab allows us to look into the future by experimenting with new ideas that at some point can be implemented in actual buildings.”
Growing up in Alicante on the east coast of Spain, Carlos became attracted to coding from a very young age. He stayed up at night learning to code on an old computer that his parents got for him when he was only 6 years old. “It was super challenging and fun to learn. I moved from basic to assembly language to C# but I lost interest when Windows mainstreamed. I started becoming interested in more spacial and graphical skills and 3D modelling. When I eventually had to decide what to study, I was focusing on physical attributes and how technology could be used as a tool to draw and model physical structures.”
After spending all of his formative and university years in Spain, Carlos’ relocation to Singapore was a big adjustment, with a very different way of living, a different culture and a magnified scale. Excited by Singapore’s newness and its lush, green surroundings, he has worked extensively with his students on projects which highlight its natural landscape. “I focus a lot on natural energies and also utilising the ground as a substrate of the architecture; the ground as a material that the architecture needs that absolutely can be a texture in itself. In my first year studio, I give my students a sense that they need to plant the buildings on top of a piece of land. They need to integrate and weave the spaces with the ground. Especially in Singapore, the city was planned with some interventions but more often with one section of flat ground where development has all happened in one place. There’s not much articulation or integration between the interior of the building and the ground. I’m interested in how we can make those transitions and thresholds more connected to the city. Creating topographies that blend building and landscape expands the limits of buildings to make cities more liveable and more connected.”
Marina Bay Sands
The newness or novelty of emerging and innovative projects has always been a driver for Carlos’ work, he says. “Beginnings are always exciting because you have all the potential of starting something new. You have fresh ideas or the integration of old ideas into new places. Every project for me is an opportunity to invent something new or to go beyond what we’ve done before.” A well-known example of this is the fabrication and creation of his 2019 project AirMesh, the first architectural structure ever made from 3D printed stainless steel components. Manufactured by AirLab in conjunction with SUTD, AirMesh is an ultra-lightweight pavilion located at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. “It was the manifestation of many years of research. There were many steps before we were even able to conceptualise it. Our goal was to dematerialise as much as possible and to make it as light as possible. It was designed to be something really well planned in the natural landscape that doesn’t create a disruption. It creates a local nuance. It’s a space that almost disappears when you are far away.”
The innovative construction of AirMesh’s polyhedron structure spreads the load into thinner components, rather than using beams and columns. Carlos and his team also managed to create the structure within existing building codes and with an approved weight loading of up to 11 tonnes. “We wanted to prove that this kind of structure could withstand standard loads like any other building. AirMesh showed that this was just the first of many opportunities that this technique is creating.”
Carlos is excited by Singapore’s forward-thinking approach to construction innovation and how industry partners and clients are shifting their focus toward sustainable ways of building. “Society is really becoming aware of the scarcity of building resources and we’re seeing an increasing demand for recycled and upcycled materials. There’s a need for change in both the way we conceive spaces and the way we build spaces.”
One of the ways that Carlos is directly addressing this shift toward sustainable design is through 3D printing with biopolymer materials repurposed from recycled plastic bottles, a process that he acknowledges has not been straight-forward. “It took months to adjust that printer before it was able to run quite smoothly. Sometimes you need to do lots of iterations until a material is actually treatable but we’re confident now that it can deliver lots of different designs.” He has explored many of these concepts in detail in his new book, 3D Printing Architecture, which he recently released with AirLab Co-Founder, Felix Raspall. “The research and the trial and error is the way that we go beyond. We face the difficulties with complex geometries and we learn and then we can actually implement the learning in new projects.
AirLab has good traction now in Singapore and Carlos is eager to connect its research activities even more closely with professional practice. “I want to better integrate what we study in AirLab into buildings; not just in research pieces but in new structures and developments. I want to bring the design thinking that we use at Subarquitectura to AirLab and, by the end of the year, to begin to merge these two parts of my work into an extended practice... As for my work with SUTD, my goal is to nurture students’ passion and enthusiasm for new technological tools while also keeping the fundamentals of architecture alive. It’s important to educate architects in a way that we can keep the values of what architecture is and integrate new tools without getting too fascinated and neglecting core principles.
“We can’t just ignore the fundamentals of the practice because then the design gets cold. The replacement of that historical sensitivity and intuition is dangerous. We need to develop a new kind of sensitivity which integrates the technology with the fundamentals.”
To connect with Carlos and his work, please visit https://airlab.sutd.edu.sg/ and http://www.subarquitectura.com/, follow Carlos on Instagram and purchase your copy of his book 3D Printing Architecture here.