Architecture: breaking the mould

A fantastical 3D-printed grotto uses computer algorithms to challenge traditional notions of design

One wall of the printed grotto in the Zurich studio of Michael Hansmeyer

At his TED talk last year, the German computational architect Michael Hansmeyer asked his audience to throw their preconceptions about architectural design out of the window. What would happen, he asked, if designs were liberated from the influence of education and experience, freed from references, imitation and bias. “What would those unseen forms look like?”

Well they might look like this. Amid all the excitement about the potential of 3D printing, Hansmeyer and his colleague Benjamin Dillenburger, both based at the Computer-aided Architectural Design Department at the Swiss Federal Institute (ETH) in Zurich, have produced their first full-scale 3D printed room. A 20 sq m modern interpretation of a grotto made from millions of grains of sand bound with a resin to form a new type of sandstone, it will go on exhibition at the FRAC Centre (Fonds Régionaux d’Art Contemporain), in Orléans, France in September. Its construction was made possible by their use of a huge printer developed by the German company, Voxeljet, to create moulds for machine parts. “They are the only company, so far,” Hansmeyer says, “able to do 3D printing at anywhere close to this scale and resolution. After the metal parts were cast, the moulds were thrown away. Now the sandstone can be used to make architectural components whose shape, size and density is dictated by the data set produced by the computer.”

Hansmeyer and Dillenburger use algorithms to create complex computer-generated architectural forms. The forms go through none of the conventional stages of architectural design: no front and side elevations; no plans. They are not drawn by hand, nor can they be fully realised on a computer screen.

“A simplified version can be made on the screen,” Hansmeyer says, “but some have up to 300 million surfaces, which even the most sophisticated computer would find hard to represent.” The data set is uploaded to the printer and – perhaps a day later – out come the completed sandstone segments.

A computer screenshot showing the algorithmic variables that were used to create one of Hansmeyer’s columns

The grotto is one further step in Hansmeyer’s experiments with computerised design. In 2011 he produced a series of columns for the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. These were created by algorithms in the same way as the grotto, but fabricated from thousands of layers of milled ABS plastic sheets aligned around a steel core.

An earlier project which applied the theory of L-systems, an algorithm for modelling plants and their growth processes, to the production of architectural forms

Currently he and Dillenburger are working on load-bearing columns made out of 3D-printed woven stone threads. The prototype is 2.7m (9ft) high and about 60cm in diameter. The initial idea, he says, came from the programmable Jacquard loom, arguably the first automated fabrication process.

Visitors to an exhibition of columns produced by Hansmeyer for the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea in 2011

“The appeal to us is twofold. First, to show the potential of this fabrication technology for an actual building element rather than just a small-scale model. Second, to question traditional notions of materiality: nowadays, even stone can be treated as a fabric and it can be woven.”

All their work, he says, is part of “an attempt to incorporate tools and technologies that can expand the scope of what is possible and what is imaginable – and in the best case to create something that is, as yet, unimaginable.”

The grotto will be exhibited at the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France from September 14; www.frac-centre.fr

Michael Hansmeyer, right, with his colleague Benjamin Dillenburger

Bio

Michael Hansmeyer, born Germany, 1973. Currently based at the Computer-aided Architectural Design Department at the Swiss Federal Institute (ETH) in Zurich

Background

Masters in architecture at Columbia, NY, followed by MBA at Insead, France. Previously worked for JPMorgan, McKinsey and Herzog & de Meuron

www.michael-hansmeyer.com

www.benjamin-dillenburger.com

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