Computational Design at UNSW: Innovation at the intersection

Residing in the murky borderlands between technology, art, media, nature and the social sciences, Dr Yannis Zavoleas is seeking to construct and promote a new agenda for architecture in the 21st century.

Some of the world’s most startling discoveries have emerged from deep within the crossroads – a place where ideas from different fields meet and mutate, detonating an explosion of the extraordinary. Few scholars enter, and even fewer use it to their advantage. Dr Yannis Zavoleas, a celebrated, practising architect since the mid-1990s, is one of the latter.

“My research is very interdisciplinary,” he acknowledges.

I study biological organisms and how their behaviours and interactions with the environment give way to thoughts of physical spaces as dynamic entities.

At the same time driven by a need to understand and respect the integration of technology into these principles of nature, Yannis is seen to be challenging the traditional methodologies of design. Armed with an array of digital devices, he’s looking to open the floodgates of creativity in all phases of architectural production as well.

“With sophisticated software and machinery like 3D printers, Robotics, AR & VR, I am able to manipulate structure and shapes and produce new design agendas,” the bilinguist affirms.

“A deliberate focus on late modernism has additionally allowed me to set the foundation for a complete review of the actual making of products.”

“I advocate for an architecture that is environmentally, socially and culturally sensitive, applicable to large-scale habitation at varying scales and generally adaptable to varying parameters.”

Dually encouraging and supporting synergies between the computer and the drawing table, Yannis’ work is a scrupulous mixture of novelty and familiarity.

“My discipline is neither solely about pure form-finding, nor broad theoretical issues,” he maintains.

“Innovation is the result of exploring and experimenting, also of stepping outside of our comfort zone and becoming familiar with a feeling of creative anxiety.”

The sacred ‘in-between’

Yannis completed two Master’s degrees in the United States of America, in Architectural Design from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA, 2000) and in Comparative Media studies from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, 2004) before undertaking a PhD at Greece’s National Technical University (NTUA) between 2007 and 2011. The accomplished researcher also worked in film postproduction at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Los Angeles, California.

“During this period I played around with 4D animation tools – time being the fourth dimension,” he recalls.

“They afforded me the opportunity to survey relations between different physical phenomena, fields and forces.”

A continuation of his research at Master’s level, which fabricated the idea of “space as a dynamic medium,” Yannis’ candidature sought to trace the recent history of architecture.

“I followed it from the middle of the 20th century right through to the beginning of the 21st century,” he specifies.

“This is when I first linked the discipline to the concept of ecosystems in biology too.”

“Everything in life is connected in some way, feeding off energy flows and exchanges.”

Jumping from stepping-stones to building blocks, Yannis looked to tease out notions about physical spaces and dynamic entities. Helping to form the kernel of his own methods of creative thinking, this doctoral work simultaneously saw the prolific publisher dabble in the digital arts.

“It’s taken years to properly formulate.”

All things great and small

Yannis relocated to Australia in 2013 after teaching and researching at Greece’s universities since 2004. After a four-year experience at The University of Newcastle and a short visiting academic position in Cyprus, he is currently Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Now the chief coordinator of advanced research and design courses for Computational Design program, the passionate educator is striving to challenge the limits of this place by also keeping pace with what is happening overseas.

“I’ve taken a new approach to schooling,” he comments.

“Having worked together with distinct colleagues such as A/Prof Hank Haeusler, Professor Michael Ostwald, Professor Mark Taylor and Lecturer Nicole Gardner, I am stepping outside of the constraints of prescriptive course structures.”

“Students are asked to establish their own aims and develop their own study briefs.”

“It’s a big departure from the conventional university experience.”

Space dynamics

A loyalist when it comes to research topics, Yannis is pursuing the concepts of bio-structures and bio-systemic thinking. Faithful to his origins in biology and design theory, he is currently penning a piece on architectural dynamism as well.

“This biological analogue, simulated using advanced computational instruments, has become a core research theme.”

Drawing on references from biological themes in order to create resilient organisational patterns and “highly efficient” archetypal 3D structures, the multitasking scholar is aiming to solve problems related to physical space at various sizes.

“Observing and simulating the interactions and relationships of core elements making space enabled me to see them as breathing archetypes of physical spaces, and expand on their potential as dynamic responses to the phenomena they support,” he explains.

“They are not fixed, separate parts of a stagnant whole.”

“A wall, for example, can become completely interactive when it combines activity from both sides.”

“These experiments have led to the formation of many objects, such as patterns interacting with a variety of environmental constraints, stratified shells capable of taking any shape, fluid-based structures that merge supporting systems with elements defining regions of actions and self-supporting skin façades acting as adaptable membranes to provide spatial continuity and competency.”

“This work won me several awards such as the Best Paper Award at Mongeometrija  Conference at Novi Sad Serbia (Serbian Society for Geometry & Graphics, 2018) and the Vice-Chancellor’s Excellence in Research Creative Works award within the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment (The University of Newcastle, 2014).”

Make and model

Yannis has given over 50 lectures as invited speaker and researcher at universities and conferences internationally including Lisbon, Novi Sad, Cambridge, Loughborough, Birmingham, Edinburgh, London, Copenhagen, Goteborg, Umea, Lisbon, Porto, Nicosia, Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, Dortmund, Munster, Koblenz, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle, Milan, Fribourg, Barcelona, Kyoto, Wellington, Athens, Salonica, Volos, Florina and Chania. Research refers to a broader area that challenges enduring assumptions in architecture such as the notion of ‘drawing’ and the processes of ‘making’ this time approached under the digital influences.

“I’m disengaging from the aesthetic aspects and focusing on the behavioural aspects and functions seen as interactions among different entities” he clarifies.

“In this view, models are a means for testing as opposed to a means for describing beautiful objects.”

Faithful to his origins in biology and design theory, Yannis is currently penning a piece on architectural dynamism as well.

“I see architectural components and other references and patterns as living elements and breathing archetypes of physical spaces,” he elaborates.

“They are not fixed, separate parts of a stagnant whole.”

“A wall, for example, can become something completely interactive when it combines activity from both sides.”

You may find more about Dr Zavoleas’ research at his profile University page:


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