How 3D Printing Will Change Our World (Part II)

  • 19 Jul 2012
  • by
  • Editorial
Rapid Craft, designed by .

Today, 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 worldWhich 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.

Glass Skyscraper Project Mies Van Der Rohe 1922. Photo via The Lying Truth.

The Anti-Modernist

Neri Oxman has an arch-enemy, or, in her words, an “antithesis.” Mies Van Der Rohe’s glass skyscraper.

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).

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Living-Synthetic Design

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?


Beast, a chair designed by Neri Oxman, that responds to the individual’s body weight.

Designing Behavior

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.”

Neri Oxman cites Buckminster Fuller, who championed a “hands-off,” natural form of design, as one of her heroes.

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.

Neri Oxman. Photo © Tim Allen for Interview.

Hybrid Creatures

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.”

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "How 3D Printing Will Change Our World (Part II)" 19 Jul 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 May 2015. <>
  • Kiril

    What a woman !!!

    • wpgmb

      She is exotic.

  • Goody2x

    Reminds me of fractals.

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  • barbara ann spencer

    wow!! thank you neri!

  • suti

    Experimentation of possible futures is great
    However idealism and naivety go hand in hand
    and to “grownups”, this experimentation is like children playing games, nothing more.

    I’ve seen this chick present before, she is not a scientist and it is obvious the “designs” are designed to garner attention, she has an ego and wants fame, its so obvious.

  • Roberto etcheverria

    somehow, everytime i look a video of neri oxman , i think , what a beautiful woman, how interesting the topic of the presentation. but at the end, always there’s a bitter feeling… i just don’t buy it… i dont perceive a deep theory behind this…. because nature does it right , we must do the same?, i know 3d printing is a trendy cool thing, but the concepts explained by oxman are week , the theory seems simple in a bad way. if you look others researchers , including people from mit, eth, sttutgart, etc, you can seriously see a strong theoretical background that i always missed in neri’s papers, presentations , or any publication about her work. i would really like to see a deep discussion between oxman and other researchers, because , for instance, when i saw last live feed at mit , where oxman did a presentation(it was in april , dont remember the name, maybe I/O body? ), it was almost inconsistent. i love the theme , the investigation path , but i repeat, it always leave me with a really bitter taste, a emptyness, somethings dont match. i agree that 3d printing brings to architects, or designers in general a new broad range of posibilities, its like the ultimate technologycal democracy, but i dont see clearly the “why?”, when i read oxman’s work….

  • JL

    interesting article,
    raises a lot of questions and thoughts.

  • 50crowley

    This article is guilty of the same logical flaws that made the futurist predictions of the 1910-1930’s so egregiously inaccurate. They imagined the city of the future to be filled with blimps and humanoid robots, but instead we got the iPhone and the internet. You cannot simply scale up a contemporary technology and arrive at a realistic vision of the future.
    3D printing technology has been around since the 80’s, but the size of these machines (and their creations) has remained fairly consistent. The reason we will never see a “house” come out of a 3D printer is because it just isn’t feasible. It is (and will continue to be) MUCH faster to use rapid prototyping technologies to manufacture the individual parts of a home and assemble them like an erector set (like the architects at SHOP [] are famous for doing).
    Contrary to what students are taught in their freshman year architecture courses; every wall contains numerous “skins” that regulate temperature & moisture, “veins” that carry water & waste, and “bones” that hold everything up. With the added complexity of windows, doors, millwork, and finishes; you really need humans to play an active role in the production & assembly of these parts.
    3D printers are great for small scale prototypes and creations, but they are primarily a DESIGN tool, not a construction tool.

    Lastly, I challenge this notion of “democratized design”. Nobody would champion the “democratization of health care” because nearly everyone recognizes that they haven’t the slightest idea how to diagnose and treat their own ailments. Similarly, the average person is pretty clueless (whether they realize it or not) when it comes to design, sustainability, and construction. Do everyone a favor and leave the design work to the professionals. Your children will thank you.


    • Vanessa Quirk

      Hi BC –

      You raise many interesting points here. First of all, it’s true that most 3D printers are small – the immediate use of this technology has much more of a consumerist application (I want new sneakers, I’ll “buy” the design online and print them here, rather than having to go to the store). For this application, it makes sense that they’re small – the average consumer will want to be keep them easily in their homes.

      However, there are engineers who have been working on large-scale 3D Printers for the purpose of making houses. In Part One, I mentioned Behrokh Khoshnevis, director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) at the University of Southern California. There are also similar engineers at Loughborough University in the UK and of course at MIT. You are absolutely correct that, as the technology exists right now, it makes far more sense to use it to make assembled parts or models (indeed Khoshnevis admits that even when his 3D printer is printing houses, it will still make more sense to have humans assemble the windows); however, I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of reason that this technology could one day progress to houses themselves. Whether it actually will or not, of course, I can’t say.

      Thirdly, and looking back I suppose I didn’t make this point very clear, I don’t believe that the “democratization” of design will kill design or designers. Of course the potential ability to “download” standard designs will be appealing to some laymen (how many non-architects are perfectly content with standardized, traditional homes?). But that’s not to say that designers will cease to be relevant. On the contrary – I think that the technology will allow innovative designers to evolve and improve their craft. As you say, in the end, the printer is a design tool, not a construction tool – the printer just permits you to physically construct what would otherwise have stayed firmly in the mind.


  • Skeptical

    Nobody wants to live or work in a tree trunk. There is no super material that can be printed to control heat/moisture and be structural and be transparent and be opaque. They can do little more than print something skin to a pavilion.

  • charles boyd

    i think i’m in love

  • matt

    Regarding optimising the structure of concrete with varying density: you don’t have to look at a palmtree, because the Romans already knew that when they built the dome of the Pantheon 2,000 years ago – the mixture of the concrete gets lighter towards the top. And they did that without the help of 3D digital printers…

    I believe 3D printers will only change way architecture is designed, and not constructed. Despite the industrial revolution and the modernist’s effort to industrialise construction, buildings are still being erected in much the same way they’ve always been built: namely by the human hand, even taking into account mechanisation and advances in material science.

  • Grand Master Flash

    This will be the “easy” button for Architects. No longer will they need to be able to design constructable buildings (which most can’t do anyway these days), just hit print and away you go. The death of skilled labor!

  • logan

    Beautiful work. What an amazing and beautiful woman.

    • Mardani

      Hi,Thanks for you Comments.Lines from Verses for Self-Fulfilment’ are really nice.I think the story says a lot more than just ஊக்கம். Lets see what they talk about duirng the next lunch session and discuss more!!Cheers,Saravanan.

  • jessica Glen

    How unbelievably irritating. Is Neri was a middle aged man, no way would there be a photo of him. Nor would the entire conversation generate around what he looked like.

  • dimi

    What is more interesting about Ms Oxman? Her models or her face?
    (Btw she is not as beutifull as most of you believe)

    P.S. I am wondering why this “I am a model” photo is part of the post.

  • archy1

    For those insecure responses, if you cannot say anything nice, do not say anything at all.

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  • FRM

    I have to question whether she understands Mies’ glass skyscraper or a tree trunk. The point of the glass skyscraper wasn’t structural clarity (he would arrive at this later), it was the potential of reflection through ambiguity. A palm tree trunk derives its strength and flexibility from its material consistency, not any gradient property.

  • bLogHouse

    “In the next few paragraphs, I’ll introduce you to Neri Oxman,…”
    Introduce us?! This is the third article about the same person and the same research. The same video as in the May 29th article, the same image (“Rapid craft”) as in the March 14th material…Don’t you read Archdaily, Vanessa? This looks like a publicity stunt, which gets more and more personal with every new article. Why? Why do we need to see a photograph of a beautiful woman inserted in a text on a supposedly serious research topic? There’s a confused, contradictory message here – as if Ms Oxman is uncertain of the intellectual power of her ideas, so she borrows from the superficial power of her looks. But isn’t her ambition to show the world that there’s substance behind the package?! Not surprisingly the message gets the appropriate response – the equivalent of male whistling on the street.

    • Vanessa Quirk

      Hi bLogHouse –

      When I said “introduce,” I was speaking to the general public, most of whom are probably not as attentive to our postings and thus have not been exposed to Neri Oxman. Moreover, I was presenting her in a different light; this was not a straightforward discussion of her research (as the previous posts) but an editorial discussing the relevance of her work within the context of 3D Printing, and what that could mean for the future of architecture and design.

      As for my decision to include a picture of Ms. Oxman, I don’t believe that it’s irrelevant to include a picture of a person when I am discussing his/her work. You can see examples of posts where I have done just that at these links: ; ; and here Of course her beauty calls attention, but I don’t believe that’s an adequate reason to suggest that the photo confuses the message of her research.