Printing 3D Buildings: Five tenets of a new kind of architecture / Neri Oxman

As a designer, architect, artist and founder of the Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media LabNeri Oxman has dedicated her career to exploring how digital design and fabrication technologies can mediate between matter and environment to radically transform the way we design and construct our built world. In this article, which was first published by CNN, Oxman discusses the future of buildings with five tenets of a new kind of architecture. 

In the future we will print 3D bone tissue, grow living breathing chairs and construct buildings by hatching swarms of tiny robots. The future is closer than we think; in fact, versions of it are already present in our midst.

At the core of these visions lies the desire to potentiate our bodies and the things around us with an intelligence that will deepen the relationship between the objects we use and which we inhabit, and our environment: a Material Ecology.

A new model of the world has emerged over the past few decades: the World-as- Organism. This new model inspires a desire to instill intelligence into objects, buildings and cities. It is a model that stands in contrast to the paradigm of the Industrial Revolution, or the World-as-Machine.

’s five tenets after the break…

While I believe that the new model will eventually become the new paradigm, it coexists for the time being with the old model: our minds are already at home with this new view of the world, but we still employ the building practices and design traditions that we inherited from the industrial era.

For instance, today’s buildings are made up of modular parts and components that are mass-produced and interchangeable. A furniture piece can easily be replaced by a ready-to-assemble kit of parts while a damaged tooth-root or bone can be replaced by the design of a titanium implant.

This model actually works in the same way that a machine does, where transposable parts make a whole. Awesome design machines have been created in this spirit such as composite cars, planes and steel buildings (Le Corbusier’s homage to modern industry by shaping Villa Savoye’s driveway using the exact turning radius of a 1927 Citroen comes to mind.)

But are these complex machines a true reflection of how Nature works? I do not think so. The new sensibility that views the world as an organism challenges us in completely new ways to propose innovative ways of making things. The World-as-Organism implies a continuous living system where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, and parts can grow into other parts. To paraphrase Goethe: “All is Leaf.”

In this spirit, I attempt to characterize this shift by sketching a design credo in five tenets.

1. Growth over Assembly

In contrast to industrial production and the logic of assembly lines, Nature grows things. Think of your own bones and their smooth transition from solid to spongy tissue, from bone into tendons, ligaments and muscles.

Or consider the tree. It is made of a root system that transforms into a trunk that in turn unfolds into branches and leaves, flowers and fruit all by way of differentiating its cells and prescribing different functions to each entity: roots and trunk are structural support, leaves convert light into sugar, fruits give birth. We are learning from trees how to grow buildings.

We are considering the next generation of printers no longer just 3D, but 4D – in other words, in the future we will be able to print objects that will respond to their users, adapt to their environment and even grow over time after they have been printed.

2. Integration over Segregation

The typical facade of a building, like the typical body armor, is made up of discrete parts fulfilling distinct functions. Stiff materials provide a protective shell, soft materials provide comfort and insulation, and – in buildings – transparent materials provide connection to the environment. In contrast, human skin utilizes more or less constant material constituents for both barrier functions (small pores, thick skin on our backs) and filtering functions (large pores, thin skin on our face).

Barrier and filtering functions are integrated into a single material system that can at any point respond and adapt to its environment. Why should a building’s skin be different? We are now considering ways of printing breathable building skins whose pores also contract and expand in relation to the environment.

3. Heterogeneity over Homogeneity

Industrial products are typically made up of a single material property or an assembly of several materials. Cars are made of sheet metal, airplanes of composites, and buildings of concrete and steel. In contrast, homogeneity is something you will never find in the natural world. Take the bone again. It is made up of calcium that varies its distribution according to the load exerted upon it. Inspired by the bone, we are exploring ways to control the spatial distribution of building materials, like concrete, to find intelligent form.

4. Difference over Repetition

Industrial products generated out of the machines that make them consist of repeatable parts with identical properties. In Nature, however, repetition exists only through variation and difference, and every cellular unit is unique: it is due to the bone’s variation of cellular organization that we can conceive of its repeatable elements. Comprehending difference enables us to design repetitive systems – like bone tissue – that can vary their properties according to environmental constraints. As a consequence of this new approach we will be able to design behavior rather than form.

5. Material is the New Software

Our ability to design and fabricate intelligent materials and objects will no longer depend on patching materials with electronics, but rather on our ability to turn material itself into software. Animal hair, a primary source of insulation, provides for a good example.

It responds to low temperatures by causing the hair to stand up, forming a heat-trapping layer above the skin. This sensing function is localized, distributed, and controlled by muscular tissue. It inspires us to embed material with distributed intelligence rather than attach it to an on-off switch.

Beauty Beyond Utility

Beauty is not Number 6 in the credo outlined above. It is the spirit that infuses life into everything.

By this I mean that there is more to printing bones or folding cars than the endorsement of sustainable design. Making things more efficient, faster and cheaper in time is not entirely the point here. Indeed, in most cases the search for utmost beauty will translate into creations of utmost efficiency, revealing the order of Nature.

I propose that learning from Nature, as understood by Leonardo Da Vinci (“… because in her [Nature’s] inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous”), will yield efficiency and sustainability as by-products. It is not a matter of surrendering truth to beauty in design: more often than not we find that they are inextricably linked.

Yes, there is more to the future than printing buildings or growing chairs. Rather, the future lies in questioning what an inhabitable structure is. When we consider printing concrete with variable density as in bones, we do not mean to do this simply to reproduce the same old buildings.

These technologies will enable us to create buildings that are entirely different than the ones that we inhabit today: buildings that will respond to all our physical, animal needs, and also to our spiritual needs. In other words, the aim of printing buildings is not a matter of pouring “new wine into old wineskins” but rather of re-conceiving the entire quest for creating habitat and expressing form.

New technologies will come of age, as has always been the case throughout history. 3D- printing will give way to 4D-printing and it, in turn, will be replaced by synthetic growth, and so on. To me, what will endure beyond the technology-of-the-day is the paradigm of the World-as-Organism. There is nothing new under the sun, stated Ecclesiasts.

Ancient civilizations also perceived the world as an organism. Yet there is newness under the sun: rather than mimicking Nature, we can now actually design Nature.

Written by Neri Oxman.

For more on the subject, check out How 3D Printing Will Change Our World (Part 1) and (Part 2).

Cite: Rosenfield, Karissa. "Printing 3D Buildings: Five tenets of a new kind of architecture / Neri Oxman" 18 Jan 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=320986>
  • http://www.feasibility.pro Feasibilitypro

    This sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  • John Seward

    There is a lot to unpack and parse through here, and many ideas that are headed in the right direction. Learning from natural systems in order to better integrate our built environment with the world and itself, methods of creating materials and the performance thereof, can all benefit from this forward thinking, experimental attitude. It is absolutely necessary that a certain percentage of people think and develop these hypothetical ideas as they are the genesis of tomorrows actionable and realized systems.

    On the other hand, there are many pitfalls the biggest of which is getting trapped into god/creationist navel-gazing. Bottom line, humans need to accept that for the foreseeable millennium, what we design and create will be artificial. We can certainly improve upon our consciously designed things (whether physical or pure data) by studying similar analogues in natural systems, but because those things we create will reside in our built, synthetic environment, and because their performance requirements must handle quite a multitude of very disparate inputs many of which have nothing to do with natural systems, and because scale doesn’t always translate universally up or down, we will not be able to synthesize the way Nature functions.

    Another important note, nature is not necessarily efficient or even sustainable for any single generation or entity. There are plenty of living systems with superfluous components or that lack something necessary to survive. Nature is only efficient over the long haul, over many generations of uncontrolled, undesigned, modification. Nature is brutal on the individual level. So its important to explore, discover, and understand natural systems, but its equally important to know that we can’t simply import wholesale the natural world into our synthetic world. Its a very careful balancing act, finding specific natural examples that can be of benefit to specific human issues, and then implementing it in a nuanced manner, and taking the long view of letting go of some of our control of our creations and fundamentally accepting incremental, generational change.

  • Wyatt

    Yes, interesting indeed and I agree with John, but good luck finding a client who will even consider this idea. The new Apple headquarters was constructed from specialized pre-cast concrete sections which housed all Plumbing, Electrical, Fixtures, etc. – awesome idea but only the richest company in the world can pull something like that off. I mean it’s hard enough to convince a client to add any “extras” (nicer materials, green systems or other) to our projects which have the potential to actually save them money over time. I have a hard time seeing the practicality of this other than for Architects/Designers to be able to “create anything imaginable” – It’s great to theorize and dream, but don’t expect everyone to 100% buy into your visions. Look what happen to Paolo Soleri… an amazing visionary but his ideas in the real work failed miserably.

    Also, something about this woman drives me kind of of crazy. Can’t put my finger on it…. pretentious.

  • Wyatt

    Yes, interesting indeed and I agree with John, but good luck finding a client who will even consider this idea. The new Apple headquarters was constructed from specialized pre-cast concrete sections which housed all Plumbing, Electrical, Fixtures, etc. – awesome idea but only the richest company in the world can pull something like that off. I mean it’s hard enough to convince a client to add any “extras” (nicer materials, green systems or other) to our projects which have the potential to actually save them money over time. I have a hard time seeing the practicality of this other than for Architects/Designers to be able to “create anything imaginable” – It’s great to theorize and dream, but don’t expect everyone to 100% buy into your visions. Look what happen to Paolo Soleri… an amazing visionary but his ideas in the real work failed miserably.

    Also, something about this woman drives me kind of crazy. Can’t put my finger on it…. pretentious.

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  • Craig Purcell

    Nice manifesto & faith in technology but in the terra firma of trade & commerce another dynamic takes place that is as basic as wars, abandonement and creation.

    Neri, I suggest you go and interface with the building trades who will have to change and adapt if you want to make progress and bring this to fruition. Connect with a mega costruction firm that is forward looking and serious about next generation constructions.

    Perhaps bringing 3d printing to market is for others to actualize. Where does man/woman fit in this intellectual construct besides being an occupant of the 3d/4d web you weave ?

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  • jim

    Interesting concept but i dont understand the connection between nature and a 3d printer as a fabricafion tool for something organic it is a machine not a cellular organism. Yes if we had endless budgets we could push these ideas but spaces we create are manmade not organic like nature so this hopeful idea could truly never exist unless we began using organisms for buildings. Which ultimately is not appealing to me. If i ever become one of these people help me cause it sounds crazy. CNN show the real architects who help design our world we live in and not a lady who works at mit and is fascinated by a 3d printer

    • Julieta

      Jim… you’ve no idea

  • Brett

    Its really the biomimicary argument which along with the algorithms abstraction argument fails as an imposition on the built environment which is not the natural environment it is shelter for people from it. To Design is to control the environment.Certainly the technologies change as do functions but the overall goal is environmental control.

  • Nigel Reading RIBA | ASYNSIS

    “Ancient civilizations also perceived the world as an organism. Yet there is newness under the sun: rather than mimicking Nature, we can now actually design Nature.”

    “I propose that learning from Nature, as understood by Leonardo Da Vinci (“… because in her [Nature’s] inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous”), will yield efficiency and sustainability as by-products. It is not a matter of surrendering truth to beauty in design: more often than not we find that they are inextricably linked.”

    Vers un nouveau architecture 2.0 – this will be as important a Domino & RC in time…
    As a geometrical relationship of relationships (and taking a Platonic view), the Golden Ratio exists beyond time and space as it can be viewed as a logical system of information, like Godel’s incompleteness theorem. It needs no matter nor energy expression or substrate to exist independently as a Platonic archetype. This is the power of geometry – of which mathematics is just a code, like html is to this graphic webpage.
    Explicit reference can be traced to Plato and Euclid but since it is often attributed to Pythagoras (and since Plato and Euclid are intellectual followers of Pythagoras), and the symbol of the Pythagoreans is the Pentagram or Five-pointed star that inspired Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, which is Golden Ratio proportioned, it’s reasonable to assume he first popularised it.
    Interestingly, he was a cross between John Cage, Spinoza, Newton and Julian Assange in fusing music, philosophy physics-mysticism and political resistance to tyranny, a true renaissance man before his time. It’s said that he went to Egypt and leant geometry from the Priest-Architects there, who as mathematicians and surveyors, used simple triangular geometry with ropes & pegs to remap the temple farm lands each year after the seasonal Nile floods. They perhaps would have shown him the Golden Ratio in the proportions of the Great Pyramid as well. So we could say it’s likely the Priest-Architects of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia first codified the Golden Ratio in a cultural-economic and agricultural measurement response to the seasonal vagaries of the flooding Tigris, Euphrates and Nile.
    The wealth generated from the exploitation of those lands allowed the construction of the magnificent temples and tombs we can still see there to this day,
    All this measurement history however – is statics, it’s spatial.
    For the temporal manifestation of the Golden Ratio and it’s role as the signature of the new Constructal design law of nature and culture – of how nature evolves flows of energy, matter and information optimally, analogically from entropy, please refer to this seminar given late last year in Shanghai:
    Cosmomimetic Design in Nature&Culture – Asynsis Principle-Constructal Seminar:
    ShanghaiUniNantesEcoledeDesign http://wp.me/p1zCSP-1S via @ASYNSIS
    http://asynsis.wordpress.com
    http://constructal.org
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/anthonykosner/2012/02/29/theres-a-new-law-in-physics-and-it-changes-everything/

  • gerald

    Neri Oxman’s intention is the right direction – her position to get interesting research going looks promising – all that remains is her defining the right targets. That now seems still a little muddled and contradictory: both robots and concrete are very much inventions that stem from the mechanical age mindset and need (in time) intelligent replacement. Using a robot to print organic matter does indeed seem a bit like a horse pulling a car. DNA does copying a lot smarter and the oysters still beats the entire global concrete industry in energy efficiency and material performance. So these are not very sharp examples.

    The Meta focus is to develop ourselves to the point of true balance between human usage and its natural regeneration. Sustainability is a bit like being pregnant either we reach this point of balance or we don’t. The challenge is directing our energy into a transformation process to get there. Technology is the relatively easy part of this integral challenge. To be able to build upon each others shoulders it would be helpful if Neri Oxman would try and position her research within this greater framework.

  • zizzou

    There are ideas in this article that have been floating around for a long time that are exciting, but I’m left feeling empty – again. This is not a new idea, and to say the 3d printer is going to make truly “organic” architecture now possible……let’s see it! It is an exciting old concept, but no connection between the rhetoric and fabrication is made. We are still stuck in the theoretical realm with the words and the dreams of many who passed before. Printing concrete is hardly the innovation that printing a building skin that would function like human skin would be. So we are left with poor mimicry, which is what we have been doing for generations. MIT should be paying for results, not repackaging theories that have already been out there into a feel good public relations show. I would challenge Neri and her lab to focus the work, create one thing that works as stated, and then come out with a grand revealing………..that would be so nice. We’ve all been waiting, and you are funded! So enough quoting Da Vinci. Go and be Da Vinci. I encourage the research 100% but look forward to seeing results.

  • Nguyen Gia Huy

    Can we emerge this ideas with cyberpunk? I don’t mean the city at doomsday, I mean we can put the house printer in the street like lampspot and it will print every building in the city , people can pay for printing as payfone.

  • http://parametric-art.com/ Peter Szabo

    I really like this new innovational way of architecture, 3D printing allows architects to design buildings with composite materials and integrated structures which can make a building or an urban revitalization more sustainable for the future. Material behavior and optimization are living aspects of the digital designs of nowadays, smart materials are already used in contemporary project, especially in Neri’s works. Thanks for sharing this great text of her!;)

  • http://parametric-art.com/ Peter Szabo

    Nice article! I really like this new innovational way of architecture, 3D printing allows architects to design buildings with composite materials and integrated structures which can make a building or an urban revitalization more sustainable for the future. Material behavior and optimization are living aspects of the digital designs of nowadays, smart materials are already used in contemporary project, especially in Neri’s works. Thanks for sharing this great text of her!;)

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  • Andrew E

    I am in the industrial and consumer goods industry and am definitely making us of 3D printing technology. I even see the implications for the furniture and medical device industry. But using in architecture and buildings had not occurred to me.
    First the building itself can eventually be 3D printed – but that’s likely a long way off.
    No, in the meantime this will be very useful for the design and client presentations.
    Thanks for sharing,
    -Andrew E, producracy.com

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