Today, 3D Printing technology lives in the realm of small plastic tchotchkes. But economists, theorists, and consumers alike predict that 3D printers will democratize the act of creation and, in so doing, revolutionize our world. Which poses an interesting quandary: what will happen when we can print houses?
Last week, I discussed the incredible capabilities of 3D Printing in the not-so distant future: to quickly create homes for victims of disaster/poverty; to allow the architect the freedom to create curvy, organic structures once only dreamed of. But, if we look a little further afield, the possibilities are even more staggering.
In the next few paragraphs, I’ll introduce you to Neri Oxman, an architect and MIT professor using 3D Printing technology to create almost-living structures that may just be the future of sustainable design. Oxman’s work shows how 3D Printing will turn our concept of what architecture – and the architect – is, completely on its head.
Why? While Van der Rohe was inspired by industrial materials, isolating each one to “honestly” express its function (steel beams for structure, glass for environmental regulation), Ms. Oxman is inspired by the multi-functionality of materials that exist in nature.
Take, for example, a palm tree. Its trunk, made of one material, contains a natural density gradient (thick on the outside, porous on the inside) that makes it strong and flexible at the same time. If you’re Ms. Oxman, you use this material composition as inspiration. You create a concrete with the varied density properties of a tree trunk.
With just one cost-saving material, you could theoretically create a structure that is simultaneously dense and sturdy in parts (for load-bearing walls), lightweight and porous in others (for non-load bearing walls), and even near-translucent in others (to allow the inflow of natural lighting).
But Oxman’s goals go far beyond flexible concrete. She’s already designed objects made from composite materials that, like living things, actually respond to their environment. Take Carpal Skin, for example: a pair of skin-tight gloves, made for the Carpal Tunnel sufferer, that responds to the individual pain profile of the wearer. How? The gloves are designed with a varied dispersement of softness & stiffness, arranged like the spots of pigmentation on a cheetah.
Or “Beast,” Oxman’s answer to Le Corbusier’s famous chaise longue: a sensually curvy chair made of one synthetic material, which shifts and hugs you according to the dispersion of your body weight, “kind of like a really excellent lover,” as one magazine put it.
Oxman represents a reversal: rather than designing a structure, and subsequently analyzing its structural strength or environmental optimization (via engineers, specialists, etc.), she suggests beginning from the analysis of material properties and then generating a single, multi-functional form.
So what does this have to do with 3D Printing Technology? Or the future of architecture for that matter?
The physical results of Ms. Oxman’s work, which often manifest themselves in fantastic shapes and complicated structures, could only come to being through 3D Printing technology, which is an additive (formative) rather than a subtractive process. 3D Printing does not wastefully chip away at existing material, it forms impossible materials in “impossible geometries.”
When you combine Oxman’s biomimetic approach with large-scale 3D Printing technology you begin to see a future where homes themselves respond naturally to the environment around them, whose energy-efficiency and sustainability are a natural consequence of their form. Printed homes designed to respond, breathe, live.
As Oxman says: ““Forget about the way [the design] looks. Think about how it behaves.”
The Architect as Digital Tinkerer
So what does 3D Printing mean for the future of the architect?
In the short-run, the freedom to experiment. As Shiro Studio’s Andrea Morgante, the architect who designed the world’s largest printed structure, shared with me, the most immediate advantage of 3D printing is how quickly and accurately 3D Printers produce a model, meaning that “going back to the drawing board” (or the CAD file, in this case), is no great labor. And as the technology improves, it won’t just be the model that’s easily created, but the house itself.
The increased ease and decreased cost of construction could mean that the design itself will determine the value of the home, which the customer could purchase online and download.
But, on the other hand, since 3D Printing technology, and its cousin 3D scanning, are democratizing tools (as well as inherently difficult to copyright), it stands to reason that customers could then assume the role of designer themselves, copying, “tweaking,” and customizing existing designs. If they can easily wield the software to modify an openly shared design, where’s the incentive to purchase an original one?
In the long-run, then, the Architect will have to evolve. Into something far more interesting.
If Neri Oxman is anything to go by, the architect, and the architecture, of the future is a hybrid creature – influenced by science as much as art, the environment as much as the human inhabitant, form as much as material.
The 3D Printer, like the Gutenberg Printing Press, is not just a technology, but a paradigm shift. In many ways, it’s difficult to understand it as of yet – we are in the eye of the hurricane, if you will. In its wake, it will undoubtedly destroy much that we know, but it will also force us to evolve, to rethink and reshape our world in unimaginable ways.
As Ms. Oxman so eloquently explains it, 3D Printing will beget a future that allows “the possibility of dreaming, and the possibility that one might really turn into physical material form any poetry that resides in the mind.”