fractals workshop series :: brief

Introduction to Design Thinking: Pre-Second Semester Workshop

A fractal is a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole. This quality is called self-similarity, and fractals display self-similarity on all scales.Fractals exist abundantly in nature and in outer space. The human body contains fractals, too: an atom is a miniature cell, a cell is a miniature organ, our bodies are scaled-up versions of organs.Fractals have also been used in architecture and planning since prehistory.Refer:


repetition at different scales in an African village structure: enclosure, group house, village

A cell, which contains a nucleus and is the smallest unit of life, can be used as an analogy for an atom, which also contains a central nucleus and is the smallest building block of matter. It is this kind of analogy that we will apply during the course of this workshop.


Stage 1: Material Research

The workshop will begin with an exploration of components and relationships between them through scaleless physical models. This is an unstructured and intuitive exploratory exercise.

Students will choose modeling materials first, and carefully. The chosen material must be considered an analogy for actual building material which exhibits similar properties that can later be translated into full scale. Initially, more than one material may be explored. Using fractals as a reference, students will develop basic structural components by joining, connecting and combining material in any desired form or configuration. These components will be considered the basic unit of matter, and can be combined in similar configurations into larger aggregations, such that local interaction between components will produce a global effect.

At the end of this stage, students must be able to select a single material and provide reasoning for the selection, be it structural, spatial, aesthetic or performative.

Stage 2: Aggregation

As exploration progresses, students must be aware of the combinational logic and relationship between basic units, and be able to present different options which work from the different points of view. The combinational logic acts as a simple formula (algorithm) by which any component may be connected to the next. This logic can be replicated at different scales: as scale becomes larger, the evaluation criteria for combination must change.

Stage 3: Application

The space to be designed is a canopy, the smallest unit of public-use space. A small-scale context (eg a courtyard) will be provided into which this canopy can be fitted. The canopy need not be structurally self-supporting, and will rest on perimeter walls.

The design is now driven by external parameters: structure, program, light, water runoff, wind, heat, etc. The aggregation and tweaking of components in the canopy must be done for performative reasons. This stage will result in a resolved canopy design over the given context, different parts of which make it work on different designer-defined levels (eg seating areas, differing heights, growing of plants, water harvesting, free space).



Basic Design, physical model-making skills, basic understanding of scale and space, basic geometry

Additional plus: basic 3D modeling skills (no rendering required)


Material Suggestions

Versatile and scalable materials, or modeling materials which have scaled equivalents in building materials are ideal. Material may be, but not limited to, paper, metal wire, plastic/PVC, cane, etc. Materials should be chosen not on the basis of their appearance or workability but on the basis of their internal behavior/ performance.


Teaching Aims

This workshop does not aim to produce beautiful, sculptural results (though aesthetics could be a by-product of the process!). It aims to inculcate in budding designers the compulsion of thinking in 3D right from the conceptual stage rather than being confined to 2D sketching of initial concepts. Oftentimes, it is only after making a physical 3D model that design flaws become starkly evident. The aim is to prove that if a design can be modeled physically, it can be built, whilst practically, the look and feel of the material, component or space is closely linked to scale. Working in the physical realm is more relevant than working in virtual space, which lacks gravity, sunlight, wind, landscape, built environment, ie context, as well as scale. It is a warning to students not to rely solely on digital models to extract three-dimensional information about their designs, or as a way of testing them in reality.

Skills: Material analogy & basic structural understanding, three-dimensional thinking & translation from 2D to 3D and 3D to 2D, contextual relevance, general understanding of fabrication/realization process, self-documentation


Further Exploration

This workshop could serve as the basis for a full-fledged design problem in which students carry forward their material and structural research done in the workshop to develop full-scale structural models using real material. The most successfully resolved design could be used in a design-build program where the entire studio fabricates the canopy in a part of the school. This would be an exercise in understanding what stages a concept needs to go through to be buildable.