New Ways to Use a Pencil

In a recent conversation with a colleague, we broached the subject of the future potentials for digital fabrication.  Certainly a topic de rigueur, but both of us were of the opinion that as a venue for architectural innovation, it is, if not dead, then we might begin to sound its death knell.

What we observed is that, over the last decade or so, the use (abuse) of digital fabrication technologies in architecture, or more specifically, architectural education has ossified into a seemingly closed set of formal and material expressions that betray the promise of both the tools that exist, and the radical experimentation with digital technologies that preceded it.  It’s made worse by online tutorials that, while necessary, often encourage laziness in students.  We are all too familiar with the grid of laser-cut flat materials representing a complex surface, or contoured models.  Worse, while I was at ETH, I saw perhaps the best equipped digital fabrication facility in a school deployed to churn out the endlessly repeated elements of that school’s renewed fascination with Rossi and that branch of post-modernism.  I might be controversial, but a somewhat analogous practice is Marc Fornes/The Very Many, where we see the same practice of repetition over a geometric element.  In Fornes’ work, certainly a rigorous practice too be sure, we see highly expressive pieces, but in each case, it amounts to the repetition of a singular geometry.  Visual complexity is achieved with a single algorithm, as a substitute for programmatic complexity.

Also at ETH Zurich, though in a different chair, we see what might be the death knell of 3d printing, as if the media circus around the technology wasn’t enough to impress most people, if at all, with the banality of 3d printing.  At the chair for CAAD, Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenberger realized the fabrication of an architectural-scale, algorithmically derived 3d printed room, which they call Digital Grotesque.  This object contains millions of facets, reaching scales only visible with microscope technology or computer-aided vision, and is fabricated out of similarly scaled material, but whose 78 GB of production data make a sufficient impression at the macro scale that, excepting some research in various optimization techniques (topology, materiality), we seem to have reached an inflection point, after which everything else is a repetition of this basic premise, albeit with multiple materials,  and more optimal surfaces.

Hansmeyer and Dillenberger, Digital Grotesque

If this were not enough to convince me, the recent Staples commercial advertizing 3d printers and the emerging trend to buy and reproduce existing (shit) pieces endlessly, rather than designing bespoke objects, should be enough to convince one of the technology’s end. Thingiverse, from this vantage, seems no different from Walmart, both are full of useless plastic.

So where can digital fabrication take us? Of course, as a teacher of this technology, I’m personally invested in its future. I hope that after the initial euphoria of the technology,  and its utter ubiquity, it would take a more considered view.  Rather than celebrated for its speed, efficiency or complexity, it needs to return to the toolkit of designers, where, as with the pencil, it is subject to the rigours of use in a critical mode of practice that encompasses a broad approach to the social art that is design.

Although Digital Grotesque might be the death knell of 3d printing,  it is also one of 3d printing’s greatest achievements, one of a few early experiments to reach the architectural scale, being a room one could inhabit, and at the same time, using a completely new and expressive vocabulary.

Hygroscope. Menges in collaboration with Steffen Reichert

Other encouraging avenues emerge from Achim Menges’ work at the ICD in Stuttgart, such as the Hygroscope, in collaboration with Steffen Reichert, that used the geometric specificity of digital tools as well as the computational power of the material itself to react to changes in climate.

All this is not to say that digital fabrication is dead or useless subject to study and invest time into.  Instead, I’m arguing that the initial euphoria has worn off, and that it’s time that digital fabrication not be treated as a separate field, but as a part of the essential toolkit for every designer.  I’ll add, as I’m personally invested, it should be a part of the early literacy for every new design student.  That way, when a design student has matured, they have been able to engage with the technology critically, rather than just frantically follow online tutorials in the final remaining months before they graduate.

There are more projects worth noting, certainly, and as I come across them, I’ll make note of them in this venue.

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joel letkemann

Sometimes I make things, sometimes I think about making

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