Ian Ritchie Architects

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Man has been very interested for a long time in the idea of creating intelligent beings or machines.

“Robots: Facts Fiction + Prediction” by Jasia Reichardt was published in 1978, the year after the film Demon Seed (Donald Cammell) was released. This film’s central character is a sentient super computer with several remote physical peripherals. Whose ultimate sensory objective is to produce within a human being a brainchild.

The twentieth century did not produce a sentient robot. IBM’s Deep Blue did finally defeat Gary Kasparov at chess, and the emergence of expensive robotic toys (dogs) which are trained to react to signals from their owners appeared.

Three Laws of Robotics, By Issac Asimov
A robot may not injure a human being or,
through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given by human beings
except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with either the first or the second law.

The impact of computers upon our work, as in all areas of work and play in developed countries, has been phenomenal. However, the exploitation of the creative use of computers, as against using them for repetitive tasks was much slower.

Combining computational power with mechanics, electronics and hydraulics is the basis of robotics. They come into their own in environments not suited to man – notably deep sea and outer space. The replacement of menial tasks by robots is dictated by economy of production. The development of prosthetic surgery has been rapid. In this field mimetic engineering has true value.

The evolution in the processing speed and capacity of computers, using non-electronic information handling systems, will accelerate the use of robotics in many fields – and most likely at the molecular level – nanotechnology.

However, the dream of imparting consciousness to a robot depends first of all on man being able to determine what creates consciousness in the first place. Research is a very long way from understanding this phenomenon and many scientists believe that consciousness will prove impossible to construct.

There is of course the possibility that an alternative, “robot consciousness”, could be defined one day. The idea of civil rights for robots should be placed in this context together with our success or otherwise of establishing equality and human rights.


Our earliest attempts at robotics began during the design concept stages of work on the Cité des Sciences, Techniques et de l’Industrie at la Villette.

In 1982, Ian Ritchie wrote a programme on a Sinclair ZX home computer to predict the rotational and translational position of a set of mirrors within a horizontally rotating dome, in order that they would reflect the sun’s rays, at all times of the year, perpendicular to the ground plane of the building. Following on from this initial geometric analysis, the scale, structure and dynamic of the mirrors was evolved. The mechanical and computing development was undertaken by the company Réel in Lyons, in collaboration with Martin Francis and Ian Ritchie of RFR. Prototype mirrors and specially extruded aluminium profiles capable of supporting the mirrors, integrating toothed tracks and two step motor assemblies were constructed and tested for mechanical and geometric precision prior to production of the final elements.

Each mirror, 2m high x 1m wide, was made of mylar®, glass fibre and aluminium frame and weighed 2kg. Each of the two domes within the roof contained a central array of 12 mirrors, each one autonomous in translation and rotation – although each movement was controlled relative to the adjacent mirror. The outer mirrors were grouped in bays and rotated together.

The budget did not allow them to have translation. The performance of these mirrors is described under the project La Villette Roof.

ROBOTIC CLEANERS: LEIPZIG GLASS HALLIn 1994, we proposed to the client that a modest investment into establishing the feasibility of an external cleaning robot would be justified. The external glass skin of the vault had an area of 26,050m2. The Leipziger Messe agreed, and we approached Magdeburg University.

The particular method of suspending the glass enclosure beneath the structural grid shell meant that any robot would have to overcome the fixing points with adjustable mechanical arms, either through geometric programming, or the use of physical sensors – acoustic, visual or tactile.

The Fraunhofer-Institut für Fabrikbetreib und-automatisierung at Magdeburg University demonstrated the potential and were awarded a contract in January 1995 to develop working prototypes.

Two robots were installed in 1998 – one for each side of the vault. Cables from cradles at the vault’s apex suspend them beneath the main grid shell.. They have mechanical arms with brushes that operate between and round the cast steel suspension arms and glass fixings. They also contain cleaning agents. Early in the design of the glass hall, we decided to include the potential for evaporative cooling of the glass skin. De-ionoised water is supplied to the apex of the vault, and released via nozzles along the length of the building. This water provision facilitated the cleaning operations using the robots.

It is believed to be the first installation of robotic cleaning operating over the entire surface of the building, and not simply limited to vertical walls.