BIM and Robotics: A Modern Twist on Classical Architecture
Erin Green posted on January 08, 2016 |

First, there were skyscrapers. When those weren’t tall enough, we turned to supertall skyscrapers, which encompasses anything over 984 ft (300 m). Now these structures populate big cities the world over. Their designs have become common and predictable—but Manhattan may soon see a new twist on an old favorite.

A new project proposal for the city’s “Billionaire’s Row” (which is West 57th Street, in case you weren’t sure) hopes to see something a little different soaring over Central Park.

A rendering of 41 W. 57th St., a mammoth residential tower proposed for the Central Park area of Manhattan. The project is currently awaiting approval. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)
A rendering of 41 W. 57th St., a mammoth residential tower proposed for the Central Park area of Manhattan. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)

The tower design proposed for 41 W. 57th St. doesn’t yet have an official name. Its designers have dubbed it the “Khaleesi Tower,” a reference to the Mother of Dragons on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Its other nickname, given by members of the media, is the “Michelangelo Tower.”


Bringing Design Back to Architecture

Both monikers reference the incredibly detailed carvings lining the entire height of the tower and the temple-like observation area at the top. Together, these elements stand in stark contrast against the tower’s relatively plain neighbors.

“I think that many of the supertall buildings being built in New York City are virtually free of architectural design,” said Mark Foster Gage, founder of the tower’s designer Mark Foster Gage Architects. “Design is thinking of a great many things like how a building appears from different distances or in this case, how to make each floor unique to the owner.”

To accomplish this, the tower is defined by massive Art Deco-style carvings. The designs, which were chosen specifically for their level of detail, vary over the height of the building. Have a look:


High-Resolution…Architecture?

A downward view of the tower’s architectural details. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)

A downward view of the tower’s architectural details. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)

The level of detail in the carvings allows for what Gage refers to as high-resolution architecture. This affects how the building appears from various distances.

The concept of affecting how a building looks from a distance is by no means novel. This idea has been around since the mid-400s BCE, when the ancient Athenians designed the Parthenon to look perfect from afar.

In this particular case, think of the level of detail in the carvings as similar to a photograph. From one view, you see the main subject of the photograph—but as you zoom in, you may notice details not previously apparent.

For example, a viewer on the street would be able to tell that the tower had balcony-like protrusions about two thirds of the way up. The feather details on the wings would only be apparent from a closer point of view.


Combining Robotics with BIM for Architecture

At 1,492 ft high, the so-called Khaleesi Tower isn’t on the same scale as supertall skyscrapers such as the Shanghai Tower. However, it will certainly hold its own in Manhattan.

Gage, a professor and assistant dean at the Yale School of Architecture, led a research project on CNC machining and stone-carving. This process would be used to create the tower's elements. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)

Gage, a professor and assistant dean at the Yale School of Architecture, led a research project on CNC machining and stone-carving. This process would be used to create the tower's elements. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)

Like most towers, the main structure is constructed from glass and concrete. The stylized architectural details are to be carved out of limestone-tinted concrete panels and hydroformed sheet-bronze. These accents will be supported by structural extrusion enclosures and cantilevers made from a brass-tinted alloy.

Traditionally, this type of highly detailed carving would be a massive project for stonemasons that could span decades. Instead, Gage plans to bring the idea of Gothic cathedral-style architectural accents into this century (and to keep the project timeline in check) by carving them using computer numerical control (CNC) machining and robotics.

“Boxes clad in steel and glass are so last century,” said Gage. “Computers and robotics are giving architects access to levels of complexity [that] we haven’t had in centuries.”

There aren’t any set plans for construction yet—the tower is a design commissioned by a local developer. However, as the project progresses from design toward realization, building information modeling (BIM) will have the chance to showcase its talents at project coordination.

Gage plans to introduce the popular design and construction process into the project in order to prevent crossed wires and miscommunications—especially with the volume of detail work required for the robot-machined art pieces.

The tower's high level of detail is evident when compared to its neighbors in this rendering. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)
The tower's high level of detail is evident when compared to its neighbors in this rendering. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)

A Little Bit of Controversy

The structure, which towers over the rest of the buildings surrounding Manhattan's Central Park, has raised concerns that it could cast shadows on the green space. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)

The structure, which towers over the rest of the buildings surrounding Manhattan's Central Park, has raised concerns that it could cast shadows on the green space. (Image courtesy of Mark Foster Gage Architects.)

Of course, a design like this will have its share of naysayers. Even among the writers here at ENGINEERING.com, opinions were split as to whether or not the structure is appealing.

However, Gage believes this is the strength of the tower’s design.

“It […] gives the people viewing it the right to develop their own narratives,” said Gage. “I’ve had people say the project was a steampunk art deco fantasy, or that it looked like Michelangelo had designed it, or it was for the new Ghostbusters movie, or it was Mordor, or it was all about eagles (and therefore patriotic).”

The tower’s height has also stirred controversy. For as long as developers have been trying to build towers of this height near Central Park, citizens have been protesting. Cities with skylines like Manhattan’s are prone to this issue—while it’s nice and bright at the penthouse levels, tall buildings cast shadows on the ground below which could spoil the appeal of having a downtown park.


The Future of Architecture in Big Cities?

Gage’s unique design stems from his belief that modern architecture often places too much focus on economy and not enough on artistry. His tower has the potential to make quite a statement in the middle of a global city and as such could have an impact on the future of design in big cities.

Should we expect to see buildings like this cropping up across the globe? Share your opinion below.

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