As a speculative practice, New York-based Ruy Klein experiments with almost every kind of digital fabrication technique available, studying a range of media from banana plant fibers and plywood to aluminum-nylon composite. Though the body of physical work they produce is very small, this approach to architecture is gaining more value as fabrication techniques and materials continue to evolve exponentially in the ways they are integrated into spaces. “There are other fields where work is engaged without a client, investments are made without having a buyer,” said David Ruy, who started the practice with his wife, Karel Klein, in 2000. “We are forecasting where we think things will go—we won’t be able to do it all of a sudden.”
The couple met in graduate school at Columbia and started out designing renovations. “We quickly discovered it wasn’t the type of practice we wanted to have,” said Ruy. Both soon moved to academic positions and began creating digital experiments in 2004. Their Klex series, part of the Matters of Sensation exhibition at Artists Space in 2008, was a breakthrough. Drawing inspiration from Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots, the team approached German fabricator EOS, a pioneer in metal joint and implant manufacturing, to create 3-D printed Alumide bricks that tile seamlessly into one gleaming panel, yet never read as a single object. The piece is visually captivating, but also a leading-edge example of digital modeling’s possibilities when paired with the right techniques, in this case subdivision surfaces in place of NURBS (non-uniform rational basis spline).
Now, the team is on the cusp of a new phase as it begins its first large residential project, a 7,500-square-foot house on a seven-acre site in Bedford, New York. “They’re going to be incorporating everything we’ve learned in terms of digital fabrication,” said Ruy. “The project is fairly adventurous in terms of tectonics.” On a larger scale, Ruy and Klein are also planning experiments for high-density housing in emerging economies.
The changing focus brings some uncertainty about their future relationship with fabricators, who by necessity are integral to the firm’s finished product. “With the fabricator, we might very closely work out how to achieve a particular result on a milled panel. We do it by talking with them every day. When we succeed, how do we feel when they use that technique for another architecture project?” asked Ruy. Along with copyright and intellectual property issues, the firm must consider who bears the risk of liability should a design fail. Larger projects will likely result in more traditional relationships with fabricators, but “as another generation of fabricators comes into play, there will be a greater willingness to take risks,” said Ruy. He reasons that the same companies that have taken a chance on small, experimental pieces for an emerging firm will be willing to take on similar risks for projects large enough to sustain an entire fabrication shop. “You have the most freedom with the smallest projects and with the largest,” he said.