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Beauty On the Cheap: Architecture Catches Up With Big Oil

Houston, your next big advance in architectural design is here; brought to you by...the petrochemical industry?

University of Houston Professor Andrew Vrana has teamed up with other Texas academics to sponsor a competition that uses technologies from automotive, aerospace and oil and gas manufacturing to design and build structures that are at once way cooler, and way cheaper, than the hand-designed variety.

Vrana's also a principal of the digital design-and-fabrication studio METALAB, construction managers of the freshly completed, Houston Arts Alliance-funded Radiant Fountains installation, which has been perplexing visitors to IAH as they were installed in recent months.

Houston's home to "one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the country. It's immense," said Vrana. "All these fabricators are working for the energy industry, making really large stuff" for refineries and offshore drilling rigs--and now architects and artists are poised to take advantage of those resources.

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"Architecture is way behind the curve," Vrana said. "For a long time, things have been made in the air and space and automotive industries by digital models that communicate directly with machines. Now architecture is catching up."

This fall, Vrana's TEX-FAB nonprofit sponsored the REPEAT competition to entice more young practicioners into the digital fabrication game. The winner, London-based Vlad Tenu's entry Minimal Complexity, will be built this winter and exhibited when TEX-FAB hosts a conference on digital fabrication at UH College of Architecture in February 2011.

According to Vrana, digital fabrication is fast becoming "the cost-effective way to work, and once that happens, it'll take off and the market follows. Things are getting better, more beautiful and cheaper at the same time. Elegance: That's a good thing."

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