Maria Yablonina featured in Azure Magazine as one of six global design talents

Feature originally published in Azure Magazine by Elizabeth Pagliacolo

Maria Yablonina’s robots will help buildings last longer

“I want to not build a single other building ever again.” That is how Maria Yablonina, an assistant professor at the Daniels Faculty at the University of Toronto, describes the core emphasis of her paradigm-shifting work at the intersection of architecture and digital fabrication. Beginning with her PhD thesis at University of Stuttgart, she has been engineering climbing robots that build spaces — changeable interiors and morphing installations — for many years now. But more recently, she has evolved her practice to focus on how robots can capture information that can be useful in renovating or preserving an existing building. “Can we imagine a scenario in which it’s actually cheaper to re-use than it is to demolish? Because right now, it’s always easier to demolish.”

A case in point is a collaboration with Zahner, a manufacturer of highly crafted architectural metalwork for artists and architects, on a research project for possible application in the renovation of the SOM-designed Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. Yablonina has helped develop a ferromagnetic robot designed to clamp onto and climb up pipes, the building’s core structure. “It’s a little koala that almost hugs the pipe, and then it can go up and down and around it,” she explains. Equipped with a sensor, it records its positions as it moves, all the while communicating with the total station on the construction site. The measurements it takes could inform the design files for a new facade system, which would require custom clamps that are friction-fixed onto the pipe. Since the facade is made of flat sheets, the clamps must be positioned precisely, an especially difficult task because of the clamp’s angular orientation around the cylindrical pipe. The second iteration of the robot could feature a little Sharpie marker holder that marks all the positions in which the clamps need to be installed on its second trip up the facade. And then a human would go up and install the clamps.

For a gallery in Ljubljana, her robots wove a structure that continuously changed throughout the duration of the exhibition.

While the project is still in case-study mode, it shows how Yablonina approaches the robot– human dynamic. “It was really important to us to integrate as smoothly as possible into existing workflows on construction sites,” Yablonina explains. “For me and for my collaborators, it’s really important to think about this: Yes, it is a robot, but at the same time we can call it a tool. And we can imagine that in the long-term future, it could be carried in a tool case, along with other construction worker tools. It ends up in the hands of that part of the labour force, rather than automating that part of the labour force.”

This consideration for human labourers is part of the critical eye on technology (and its potential misuse in exacerbating the inequities of capitalism) that informs all facets of Yablonina’s work, from her research and teaching to the art practice she runs with Mitchell Akiyama, a fellow assistant pro­fessor at Daniels. Together, they developed a technology that recognizes high-frequency sounds like those emitted by the Mosquito, a device typically used in malls to fend off teenagers, who are especially sensitive to its output. Integrated into a portable music player with headphones, their innovation picks up on those frequencies and transposes them into a musical composition. “For an adult, it acts as a detector of something that one cannot experience or see or hear — so it finds layers of technological inequity and makes them visible or hearable. On the flip side of that, in the more jokey way, for a teenager it becomes a muffler of the Mosquito device. It’s a good example of how our practice operates. We make a lot of physical objects as jokes, but also as critiques of capitalism and politics.”