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OSA REVIEW: Toby Burgess, OxArch Talk

In the final OxArch talk of the year, architect and design tutor Toby Burgess speaks on the themes that permeate his practice and research projects, styled the Architecture of Joy

Toby Burgess Design is a multidisciplinary design practice based in West London, specialising in innovative architectural designs and installations of the highest quality. Speaker Toby Burgess showcased his extensive project management experience, whilst implementing environmental design and sustainability throughout his projects. As well as being a leader in the field of modern software tools for all phases of project delivery, from formal generation through to advanced digital fabrication methods, Burgess is a renowned leader of three Architectural Masters courses at London Universities. Across the spectrum of tutoring, the themes of environmental design, digital analysis, formal generation and fabrication are his main areas of research. As the recipient of the Baylight scholarship to study at the Architectural Association, his research focused on the potential of utilising digital technologies in the generation and fabrication of environmentally and culturally responsible architecture.

Burgess presented the notions of system and technique led design: material research, and identification of the systems of natural materials, informs the underlying rules of essential, mathematical and structural patterns. Identifying the technique involves taking those systems and transforming them into an architectural technique. The manifestation of a system forms the technique; creating a technical system of structure, design and form.


“The joy of architecture is about details and logistics”


Burgess believes in working through digital and physical modelling in parallel, throughout all stages of the design process. This became apparent through the explanation of the Burning Man festival projects. Believing that “Architecture should be fun”, he encourages students to build projects in the real world. From building live projects, the students gain curiosity and enthusiasm; encouraging them to think like makers and to act like entrepreneurs. It was clear that he was very passionate about all the projects he took to the festival, stating that “Burning Man is the playground for dreams.”

One Burning Man project which stood out in the lecture was the Infinity Tree. With a poetic concept, this project explored the growth of a sapling, as a symbol of what can never be lost, what will always be found, and what makes us who we are. Scorched, dry and barren, the site in the desert wilderness is silent, still, soundless, lifeless. The concept explored the effects that would happen if a small stream began to flow in the desert, filling the cracks of the dry lake or playa. The desert would be brought back to life. A sapling would emerge from the stream, “twisting and winding it grows high above the ground, encircling itself, entwining itself”. The sapling, a figure of our memories, “a myriad of our existence”, its infinitude transcends time and like the stream to the tree breathes life into the playa. The structure was conceived as a “rest for the mind, a shelter, a place to remember and never forget”. The project also referenced and responded our society, stating that as our day to day existence becomes more complex, diluted by materialistic culture, we find ourselves “absorbed in the external forces placed upon us”. It can sometimes be easy in a world of “fake ideals and counterfeit culture to forget” what is really real to us, what is truly important. Above the consumerist sphere exists a timeless space, our memories, our joy, our loved ones, and an eternal, unbreakable, everlasting chain. The Infinity Tree is symbol of what makes us who we are. With such a poetic concept, it was a real shame that, in Burgess’ words, “the project was doomed from the beginning”. The complexity of the entwining structure ensured a myriad of problems. With the thousands of laser cut components being delivered without any indexing or numbering on each, the painstaking task of identifying each unique piece from the CAD model, proved nearly impossible. Armed with only a permanent marker, the team labelled the pieces as best they could. However all this effort was to waste when, on site, an almighty sand storm appeared and stripped the components of their labels. Perhaps referencing and in opposition with the concept, the desert was indeed alive in its own right, the team not only faced a battle with construction, but against nature itself. The team was back to square one. Despite this, the truly complex and often frustrating project was well worth the effort of the hardworking team. A beautiful structure which appears to be growing from the very crack of land itself; a truly stunning representation of new life.


"The inherent form and structural capacity of the natural tree is transferred and exploited within the truss structure using 3D-scanning techniques and robotic milling to form the connection"


Toby Burgess discussed a project which was part of an annual programme at the AA's forest campus in Hooke Park. Completed in 2015, the students constructed the barn using timber harvested from the surrounding trees. The structure provides long-term storage for wood chip to fuel the Biomass Boiler House. The barn’s arching structure was formed from forked beech branches directly sourced from the surrounding woodland. The inherent form and structural capacity of the natural tree was transferred and exploited within the truss structure using 3d-scanning techniques and robotic milling to form the interlinking connections with a robotic arm.

Having surveyed Hooke Park’s beech trees, a database of potential forked components was established, and thus the structural concept was developed. Based on the criteria of this structure, 25 forks were harvested from the forest, brought back to the campus and scanned in 3D. An organisation script was used to generate a final arrangement of forks in collaboration with engineers from Arup. This digital model was then translated into fabrication information with which Hooke Park’s new robotic arm transformed each fork into a finished component. After being pre-assembled in Hooke Park’s Big Shed, the building’s pieces were assembled on site.


“The Woodchip Barn explores an alternative vision of digital age wooden building"


While complex and irregular trees are considered a nuisance by conventional forestry practices, forks and other curved timbers were traditionally understood as a valuable and strong building component – used intelligently to construct more efficient wooden boats and building. Used on materials in this near raw state, “digital tools might help to recapture some of the depth of knowledge lost to industrialisation”; and in doing so “elicit, exciting, unpredictable architectural forms derived directly from nature”. It is a stunning project, exploring the idea of celebrating aspects of the trees, which are often considered worthless.

There was a real sense of passion in the way in which Burgess reflected on these key projects. He appears a revolutionary through his adoption of new technology and his focus on bringing

forward often nuisance materials to the forefront of design.

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