Alan Tai is an associate at Front Inc, a design consulting firm comprising over fifty professionals with backgrounds in architecture and structural, mechanical and environmental engineering. He received a Master of Science in Architectural Studies from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. His façade experience at Front includes initial system design through the construction phase. Alan applies his prior background in engineering and computation to the creation of custom software tools to solve design problems efficiently, improving Front’s building information modeling work process for projects with high levels of complexity. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Alan’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
I grew up in Taiwan and studied there until undergrad, then I came to the US for graduate school. In Taiwan, architects and designers aren’t the most favorable professions; people value lawyers, doctors or engineers more. For undergrad, I studied electrical engineering because Taiwan at the time was one of the leading countries in electronic manufacturing. Electrical engineer became a very popular profession when I was growing up. I was also doing a lot of programming at school. I’m inherently a programmer and I get interested into the visual aspects of computation. I can remember the first time I saw Toy Story and I was totally amazed by its 3D animation and the endless possibility that it can create. I also played online video games like EverQuest where a lot of real people interact in the same virtual environment, consisting of fictional landscapes and cityscapes. The first time I ever touched a 3D model software, 3D Studio Max, was in high school. I saw my friends pulling out a cool lamp model, which you can see in the intro of Pixar movies, and I started to imagine all the things that I can create in the virtual world.
During undergrad I became more and more interested in the relationship between the virtual environment and the physical world and how they interact. I like architecture because it establishes a connection between them- you design things virtually and your design gets build in the real world. This is the connection that I’m very interested in. After I graduated from undergrad I decided to go into architecture. At that time I didn’t know much about it but I still picked this route. I came to the US and went to the University of Pennsylvania for the three year Master of Architecture program. It is a traditional type of studio setup, where I receive my formal architectural training. My third year studio instructor, Cecil Balmond, is a famous structural engineer and one of the pioneers of algorithmic design in architecture. I was exposed to computational design ideas and tied my interests in programming and architecture together. After I graduated, I worked in New York for Morphosis Architects and then went back to school again to join MIT Design ad Computation Group to pursue another Master’s degree. I would call myself a computational designer- that’s how people describe what I am doing. However, I still consider myself an architect because of my background training in architecture. It’s a good mix of different roles.
On discovering his voice as a designer
Before studying architecture I admired a lot of different architects — for example, many Japanese architects, such as Toyo Ito and SANAA, partly because the affinity and proximity between Japan and Taiwan. I was also fascinated by the work of Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. After going to school, I realize the complexity in architecture. I still appreciate the work of these architects, but I think about deeper things of the profession — not only the building but also the process and the team behind it. When I went to MIT, there were a lot of great minds and professors in the school, such as Patrick Winston in artificial intelligence and Neil Gershenfeld in digital fabrication, which inspires different types of work.
On the evolution of his role at Front Inc.
Front Inc is a façade consultancy firm consisting of architects and engineers. I worked at Front as a summer intern when I was studying at MIT, through the introduction of my colleague who worked there before. They were capable of using cutting edge technologies and innovative ideas to approach design, especially in the applications of building envelopes. There are different opportunities for computational design in an architecture firm, but most are focused on the creation of form and pattern. Most of the work do not go deeper into the field of construction or fabrication. At Front, they provide these opportunities for me to work with new technologies in a way that can actually make things happen. I am able to apply my expertise in computation to help design and deliver large scale and complex project. More of our projects got built comparing to an architecture office.
On his design process and projects that represent his unique approach
There are several major projects that I worked on after I joined Front. One of them is a conference hall in Gabon designed by WorkAC. We had quite a large scope which covered all the way from design to production, including providing fabrication tickets to the fabricator. This is the kind of scope that I’m interested in. We started by designing together with the architects using parametric tools, mainly Grasshopper in Rhino. This process involves in a back and forth model exchanging and design collaboration. After that we take these models to further develop system details and embed different kinds of information using our own software plugin. Most people are using Revit for BIM, but it is not the most useful software for us for several reasons. The main reason is that Revit is geared towards producing architectural drawings, but our deliverables are not limited to architectural drawings, which includes fabrication tickets, G-code, datasheets, 3d model in different formats and etc. In our previous Barclays Center project, we sent out 3D models directly instead of traditional 2D drawings. In my current project, we even deliver G-code to the fabricators. We generate the G-code using a program that I developed and pass it along to the fabricators, who directly plug it into their CNC machine to route aluminum composite panel. We also developed our own software plugin, which is called EleFront, in order to support an open ended and automated production process. It can be described as a generic BIM plugin for Grasshopper. This plugin and process have been used on multiple projects in our office. We are interested in the reuse of knowledge on projects of different types.
At Front, we have both architects and engineers. We mainly focused on four different aspects while working on a design: detail, geometry, structure, and performance. Detail and geometry are more in the architectural scope, while structure and performance are more in the engineering scope. In our company, we integrate architecture and engineering. At every stage of the project we always consider them together because a facade system is more complex than other systems in the building. You cannot ignore one and go with the other, and they must be developed together at the same time. We need to have an industrial designer’s mentality that help us to carry a project through design, prototyping and mass customization.
On his aspirations for the next 5–10 years
The workflow that we developed is trying to streamline the process from design to production based on computation. In the next 5–10 years, I would imagine this type of workflow gets implemented more in the architectural industry. Currently, architects are still bounded by the traditional scope of work — from Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Document to Construction Administration. Architects mainly produce drawings and play a smaller role in the actual construction and fabrication. I imagine in the future that architects will take more responsibility through collaboration with other parties and expanding their roles. Architects will have more control from the start to the end either by themselves or through a consultancy model.
On his view of the profession
I wouldn’t say there are a lot of surprises because architecture is a profession with a long history. There are a lot of restrictions when you actually get into practice. When you are in school, you can be a little bit more creative in doing things without too much restriction. In the real world of professional practice, there are always liability issues. Things need go through a rigorous engineering process before you can actually build them. You need to understand the constraints when you are designing. This is also what makes this profession interesting. How do you actually work within these constraints but at the same time keep your creativity and push the boundary?
On advice he would give to his younger self
Reach out more to other disciplines and learn from other people. Try to be creative in a way that you connect to people outside of architecture. This is also the core value that I learned from MIT- do more interdisciplinary work and make good use all the resources that you can find. As an architect, you cannot do everything by yourself and you need the help from other people. This is what makes you a better architect.