Beyond Glass and Steel

In the Magazine
3D printed room Hansmeyer and Dillenberger

The rock city of Petra in Jordan, the still-unfinished Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona, the façade of the Grand Central Terminal in New York - these are all testaments to architecture at its finest, graceful rebukes to the banal steel-and-glass creations that have come to dominate skylines the world over, from Manhattan to Dubai.

It is all very sad. We used to make buildings beautiful. When I stand in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, its green and gold nearly as resplendent as they must have been in the age of the czars, I am capable of having no other thought. Meanwhile, buildings like the World Financial Center in Shanghai tell a cautionary tale of too much money and not enough imagination.

A project called Digital Grotesque does not promise much in the way of aesthetic enjoyment. But that would be a grotesque misjudgment, based on name alone, of what is one of the more exciting developments in architecture today. One that, though helped along by computer tools, springs clean from the human mind.

The creation of two Zurich-based architects, Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger, Digital Grotesque is, according to their project manifesto, "the first fully immersive, solid, human-scale, enclosed structure that is entirely 3-D printed out of sand." A 3-D printer that probably wouldn't fit into your living room created the entire thing using sand grains and adhesive. The intricate 172-square-foot room ("the Grotto") is enclosed within a plain cubic structure, almost as if it were a jewel inside a box - which, actually, is sort of is. The whole thing required 11 tons of sand.

Hansmeyer and Dillenburger spent a year crafting the algorithms that would create 260 million surfaces that are less grotesque than naturalistically baroque. These products have a mathematical intricacy that, until recently, could have only come from a hand's meticulously repeated movements. The printer, designed by the German company Voxeljet, can etch with accuracy up to .13 mm layer resolution, meaning that it can essentially replicate the handiwork - if not the divine inspiration - of a master Renaissance craftsman. Hence the Grotto's ubiquitous folds, curves, and contortions, which look like the ancient growths of an alabaster cave.

As Hansmeyer emphasized in conversation with Newsweek, Digital Grotesque - which has been on display at the FRAC museum in Orléans, France, since September, in an exhibit that will run through next March - is primarily a product of the imagination, not the semiconductor.

"It's all human input," he says laughingly. "The computer is just a tool." But it's a powerful one, eventually coming to hold 78 gigabytes of production data for the Digital Grotesque project. The Voxeljet large-format printer, charmingly named VX4000, then took a month applying successive layers of sand and glue. Taking its orders from Hansmeyer and Dillenburger's algorithms, it could just as easily make a solid wall or one of the countless flourishes and folds that decorate the interior of Digital Grotesque.

Paradoxically, the automated process is meant to restore the handcrafted grace that has largely disappeared from architecture since Louis Sullivan erected his first skyscraper in Chicago more than a century ago. Hansmeyer says that "we've kind of lost ornament in architecture. It has become so expensive to hire a craftsman to chisel away something."

John V. Maciuika, who teaches art and architectural history at Baruch College in New York City, agrees, calling the project "incredibly evocative." He says that the Digital Grotesque "generates the sense of strangeness and the uncanny that have long been a part of the avant-garde."

For now, the kind of large-scale 3-D printing that's featured in Digital Grotesque is quite costly - and, as Hansmeyer acknowledges, will likely remain so for some time. And while the project has been an artistic success, that doesn't mean 3-D habitations are looming. Always slated for a museum, Digital Grotesque was not tested to withstand fire, rain, or earthquake. You can walk into the Grotto, admire the art. Whether you could actually live in it remains a question.

Certainly, 3-D printing holds allure for those seeking to house the hundreds of millions of people without adequate shelter. As Behrokh Khoshnevis, who directs a graduate program in industrial engineering at the University of Southern California, pointed out at a recent TEDx talk, we've automated the manufacture of food, clothes, and virtually all other consumer goods. Why not housing, too, since we so desperately need it?

Calling the current construction model "slow, labor intensive, and inefficient" - not to mention dangerous and prone to corruption - he is developing a process called contour crafting, which involves a moving robotic arm that can pour concrete and lay down a roof, among other tasks. Khoshnevis's design is based less on artistry than practicality; but like Hansmeyer and Dillenburger, he hopes for a future architecture that automates what can be automated while leaving the best stuff to flourish in the frontal cortex.

While he is enthusiastic about 3-D-printed architecture, Mark Foster Gage, the assistant dean of the Yale School of Architecture and the principal of the firm MFG+A in New York, says the innovation, for now, is "mostly aesthetic." Building a house, he explains to Newsweek, requires thousands of different materials, and today's 3-D printers are not yet capable of such meticulous differentiation. Nevertheless, he welcomes the development as a riposte to prevailing trends.

That assessment is widely shared. "I don't think that complete houses will be 3-D printed for the general public in the next couple years," Bart Van der Schueren tells Newsweek. A Belgian engineer whose Materialise studio helped make a printed dress for Lady Gaga, Van der Schueren says that 3-D printing will have more impact on interior design elements like lamps than outright construction.

Maciuika similarly cautions that "we may not be ready to print entire cities on Mars." But he is encouraged by what Hansmeyer and Dillenburger have done, calling their Digital Grotesque project "a peek over the technological horizon." And what an auspicious view it is.

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