From Maya at AA to Blender at Work: An architectural journey

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Zaha Hadid’s Grand Rabat Theatre modeled in Blender
Zaha Hadid’s Grand Rabat Theatre modeled in Blender

I have been using Blender since 2007, during my fourth year of undergrad, as I was very curious about what was out there beyond what we were being taught at the time. I was also excited that Blender is free and has animation capabilities. The user interface was quite different, more rudimentary, and difficult to use. Since then, the popularity of Blender, its usefulness, its tool set, and its application to architecture and design has grown exponentially.

My experience in the DRL program at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) made me decide what is essential for design. Co-founded by Patrick Schumacher (who continues to teach there), DRL has a strong affiliation with Zaha Hadid Architects. We learned how to use Maya from designers working at Zaha.

Once I was comfortable enough with Maya and with my previous knowledge of Blender, I realized that everything that I was learning with Maya could be done with Blender! So, I started using Blender and haven’t looked back since. In fact, I am really committed to learning more about its potential, and since it is free, I have been using Blender in all offices I have worked in, including Adjaye Associates and HOK, for over 12 years.

Blender’s Non-destructive modeling paradigm

Example of parametric architectural concept setup with modifiers

Easy-to-use modifiers: Blender is useful for modeling all types of designs, not only for Zaha Maya-style subdivision modeling. Since it has modifiers, it is inherently procedural and much easier to pick up non-destructive workflows than Grasshopper, as each modifier would require its own node setup to replicate. Modifiers can be stacked together with multiple instances of each type. Mirror, Array, Curve Deform, Lattice deform, and Simple Deform are the most useful modifiers.

An example of an organic subdivision-based parametric pavilion designed and rendered in Blender
An example of an organic subdivision-based parametric pavilion designed and rendered in Blender

Subdivision Modeling: Subdivision is technically used as a modifier in Blender as well, so its placement and number of instances can be adjusted, further adding to the parametric potential for design.

Geometry Nodes: Blender also includes Geometry Nodes, which is also technically a modifier, so multiple Geonodoes trees can be stacked together. Geometry Nodes is similar to Houdini and Grasshopper. It doesn’t have all the VFX, Simulation, or CAD features of the other tools, yet combined with the rest of the modifiers and the wider modeling toolset, Blender is the most flexible program for conceptual architectural and parametric design. Setups can be as simple or complicated as required without spending countless hours creating large node trees. Yet, at the same time, if a project requires it, there is the potential for a high level of parametric complexity.

A procedural tower done with Geometry Nodes.
A procedural tower done with Geometry Nodes.

The interface of geometry nodes outside of the node’s environment is part of the modifier stack. Variables can be exposed in the modifier panel as instance based, so that multiple instances using the same Geometry Nodes modifier can have different properties.

Rendering: Beyond Blender’s procedural capabilities, the software comes with its own Cycles rendering engine and Eeevee, its real-time rendering engine. Cycles is equivalent to V-Ray and Corona, while Eevee is similar to Unreal and Unity. Materials are created in a node editor and can contain industry-standard PBR maps or be completely procedural and built all within the Material Node Editor. Unique to Blender is that Both Eevee and Cycles use the exact same material setups, so at any point, the user can switch between the two engines. I find that Eevee is highly useful for flythrough animations, whereas Cycles can be utilized for industry-standard realistic renderings. Modelling, rendering, and if required, creating an animation in the same environment saves a significant amount of time.

Examples of designs and renderings produced in Blender with Cycles.
Examples of designs and renderings produced in Blender with Cycles.

Since graduating from the AA, I have used Blender on all professional projects that I’ve worked on, ranging from complete conceptual design, facade design, urban design, and for rendering purposes.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use Blender for architecture and learn hints about the tool, join Parametric Architecture with Blender – Studio Dimitar Pouchnikov!

My favorite projects are done with the help of Blender

Example of a concave double-curved surface subdivided into planar panels that step out, based on a gradient that preserves verticality for a tapering tower. This is completely non-destructive and done with the help of the Tissue Addon.
Example of a concave double-curved surface subdivided into planar panels that step out, based on a gradient that preserves verticality for a tapering tower. This is completely non-destructive and done with the help of the Tissue Addon.

My favourite project done with the assistance of Blender is a competition entry for the tallest tower in the world, but I can’t comment much at this time yet. What I can say is that Blender’s fast and inherent proceduralism was extremely useful for the team, and we tested more than 60 possible designs for the tower in a fraction of the time that would have been required to set them up either with Rhino or completely procedurally with Grasshopper. This allowed us to get deeper into the unique design features of each iteration, which allowed us to evaluation the design progress more efficiently and with a higher level precision.

Goldman Sachs Auditorium in London HQ

Photo of the auditorium highlighting the integrated concentring slatted ceiling designed to look beautiful while controlling acoustics and providing technical space above for services, and gaps for theatre equipment that is mostly concealed
Photo of the auditorium highlighting the integrated concentring slatted ceiling designed to look beautiful while controlling acoustics and providing technical space above for services, and gaps for theatre equipment that is mostly concealed

Of the projects that I can talk about, there are two that stand out. One is an auditorium for Goldman Sachs’ London Headquarters that I worked on as lead designer while at Adjaye Associates. This was a proper parametric project, which equally went through more than twenty design iterations. While the seating layout was designed in Grasshopper, the initial auditorium wall wrap and ceiling concepts were done with Blender. Once we found a design direction that we were happy with, we proceeded to build the auditorium ceiling in Grasshopper for documentation purposes. This was prior to Geometry Nodes, so if I were to do this today, I might try to refine the design to the level I did with Grasshopper in Blender.

Oceanna Mixed-Use Development

Facade design of chunks with Blender
Facade design of chunks with Blender
Facade design setup with Modifiers. Much quicker with Blender than Grasshopper and allows for more manual control, while keeping the overall design non-destructive
Facade design setup with Modifiers. Much quicker with Blender than Grasshopper and allows for more manual control, while keeping the overall design non-destructive

Another favorite project of mine is the Oceanna Mixed-use towers in Lagos, Nigeria, which are currently under construction. I was the project architect while working at HOK. The towers were designed and prepared in a more traditional and typical manner manner with Rhino/GH and Revit.

Blender was utilized for the facade design. Since the building’s footprint is non-standard, and each side is different, a uniform design strategy required refinements for each side and each level. This was set up in Blender with Modifiers and without complex node trees. This type of workflow allowed me to spend more time focusing on the design instead of creating a node setup. I am as experienced with Rhino and Grasshopper as I am with Blender, hence I am well aware for which parts of the project which tool would be the most appropriate and efficient.

For Oceanna, the visualizations were delivered in Blender with Cycles. As is typical for visualisation projects, the renderings we post-processed in raster-based program Affinity Photo.

PAACADEMY Workshop

Examples of non-destructive workflow approaches from previous courses, where you learn each step in detail. The final output is always completely parametric.

In my upcoming workshop, I will be teaching how to use Blender for parametric and architectural design. We will first focus on getting started quickly with some of the basic setups and procedural workflows. I will be going into more depth into some of the workflows for the projects mentioned above and some additional ones. Then, we’ll jump onto a project of creating a full-scale design project. To wrap up, you will also learn how to create conceptual presentation-quality images of the project.

The primary goal of the course is to help you become a more effective designer by understanding some key non-destructive workflows that would allow you to easily take a sketch to a 3d concept and to quickly and procedurally refine the designs further. You will learn how to apply these workflows to the specific architectural concept that we will be going through in the course, while at the same time, the workflows will be applicable to any type of project, including your own.

With a non-destructive conceptual design approach, it becomes as fast as AI, but naturally more precise to create variations based on the original design. Over the years and working on numerous medium-to-large international projects, I have found that working with Blender in the early design phases has been the quickest and the most effective way to iterate through the design process to get to the desired result.

Precision vs. imprecision

Examples of precise vertex coordinates available to understand and also to modify in the user interface,

Another highly useful feature of Blender is that you can be as precise or imprecise as you would like to be. What does that mean in the early design stages? We don’t need to model in cm or mm. Unfortunately, most of the common architectural programs like AutoCAD, Revit SketchUp, and even Rhino demand that level of CAD precision from us, even while blocking out some basic concepts. This is unnecessary initially and may make the design process more tedious than it needs to be. In the early design stages, we want to think about the dimensions to the extent of understanding the proportions of the space and the necessary program that will go into the project. Millimetre precision is required only when we get to construction documentation.

Since Blender is a mesh-based program, it is very easy and intuitive to move vertex points, edges or faces around with the gizmo to create concepts and set up important proportions quickly. Yet, when the project demands it, each mesh element can be moved precisely, and its coordinates are fine-tuned through the properties sidebar. Hence, Blender provides the best of both worlds – quick modeling and an easy-to-see precise coordinates input.

My passion is to show more designers that we have a choice regarding software tools and that using Blender can significantly improve our effectiveness as architects. I am looking forward to sharing my knowledge on using Blender with you.

Parametric Architecture with Blender – Studio Dimitar Pouchnikov
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