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What new tools will architects be using in the near future? Fabio Gramazio’s answer is: “robots.” It may sound like science fiction, but Gramazio is already exploring the potential for robotics to transform architectural design and construction. He will participate in the Architecture + Industry in the Future → of Cities session of “Foundations and Futures,” chaired by Kevin Klinger.

Gramazio studied at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he is now a full professor in the Department of Architecture. After discovering a shared interest in digital architecture, he formed a practice with fellow ETH professor Matthias Kohler in 2000. Gramazio Kohler Research has an international portfolio of architectural projects ranging from private residences to the recently completed EMPA Nest, an innovative research lab and guesthouse complex for the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in Dübendorf, Switzerland.

Gramazio and Kohler explore new ways of translating digital design into material architecture. Robots, long used in industry to manufacture complex products like cars, are the next logical step in architectural construction, according to Gramazio. Gramazio and Kohler opened the world’s first architectural robotic laboratory at ETH Zurich to explore this new field and presented their pioneering research in the book The Robotic Touch: How Robots Change Architecture.

In their installation work, the robotic construction processes they have developed take center stage. At the inaugural Architecture Biennial in Chicago in 2015, where the theme was “The State of the Art of Architecture,” Gramazio Kohler Research used a robotic arm to assemble an imposing four-legged column out of pebbles. In their 2011 installation “Flight Assembled Architecture,” computer-guided flying quadcopter robots built a tower out of more than 1,500 modules at a contemporary art museum in Orléans, France. The tower is a scale model of a proposed 600-meter-tall residential complex, suggesting the future potential for robotic construction on an enormous scale.

Gramazio and Kohler don’t see their architectural robots as replacing humans—they believe that robotics will actually return creative power to the architect. Gramazio explains, “For a long time, the architect has been pushed back from the building of things into the role of pure designer. He is not taking real responsibility any more because he is not in charge of the ultimate building process.” Architects already use digital tools at the design stage. If they learn to use the digital tools that guide robotic systems, they can participate more directly in the construction phase of their projects. The direct line between digital design and material architecture is the frontier that Gramazio and Kohler are exploring in their research, art installations, and architecture.

Gramazio will share his vision of architecture’s robotic future at the Architecture + Industry in the Future → of Cities session. “I hope that our session will show that robotics can bring the architect closer to the project instead of distancing them from it,” said Gramazio.