A relief wall that’s a window onto architecture’s future

A public library relief wall is a novel approach to architectural design and robotic fabrication from the Weitzman School and the Robotics Lab.

A two-story relief wall recently installed at Middletown Community Library is a foam construction designed using artificial intelligence and fabricated by a robot in the Penn’s Robotics Lab at Meyerson Hall, part of the Advanced Research and Innovation Lab (ARI) in the Department of Architecture at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

A large two-story wall inside a library beside a staircase.
The wall is a foam construction designed using artificial intelligence and fabricated by a robot in Penn’s Robotics Lab at Meyerson Hall. (Image: Jay Kan)


The wall is a creation by Andrew Saunders, associate professor of architecture and director of the Master of Architecture program, who led and managed the project over the course of two years as part of his research on autonomous design, and students in the Master of Science in Design: Robotics and Autonomous Systems (MSD-RAS) program. For those who created the relief, it expresses a novel approach to architectural design and fabrication. For Middletown Free Library, it’s both an eye-catching object of curiosity and a representation of what’s possible with technology and design for community members who use the library’s makerspace.

It came into being partly through happenstance. When Middletown was looking to move its library into an abandoned school building that it had bought, it engaged architect Scott Erdy, a lecturer in architecture at Weitzman and principal at the firm Erdy McHenry. Erdy, a Middletown resident, enthusiastically took on the renovation project. He planned a relief wall for the stairway area, which leads from the main floor of the library to the second floor near the makerspace. But Erdy’s design, an abstracted, floor-to-ceiling book wall, had to be cut from the project because of budget. Hoping to give the library’s central atrium a showpiece, he asked Saunders if he could use a few of the foam remnants left over from hot-wire cutting by the robots in the lab at Meyerson.

As it turned out, those scraps were the early byproducts of research that Saunders was conducting on AI and robotic fabrication. Rather than donate the foam pieces, he told Erdy, he would make a new installation. He knew that whatever the computer designed would need to be built using the robot, which has certain limitations. Most importantly, because it uses a single wire to cut foam, it can only create ruled surfaces.

Saunders and students refined the design and experimented with fabrication over the course of two years, working around the course-intensive demands on the lab during the fall and spring semester and the summer sessions.

“A lot of people are working and speculating on AI in architecture, and a lot of people are working with the potential of industrial robotic fabrication in architecture. There’s nobody that’s really put the two together,” Saunders says. “So it’s truly novel in that sense.”

Read more at Weitzman News.