Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

1 minute read

The World's Most Complex Architecture: Cardboard Columns With 16 Million Facets

Michael Hansmeyer uses algorithms invented by Pixar and painstaking handicraft to generate columns with dizzying detail.

  • <p>Hansmeyer developed his concept by taking a traditional Doric column and feeding the form into his computer where his subdivision algorithm could go to work on it.</p>
  • <p>This is Hansmeyer’s first physical prototype, fabricated out of 2700 stacked cardboard slices, each 1mm thin. "Most people think it’s a computer rendering," he says.</p>
  • <p>Hansmeyer estimates that his column contains between 8 and 16 million faces, or distinct surfaces -- so many that even professional 3D printers would choke on the data. So how could such apparently bottomless depths of fractal-like detail be made in real life?</p>
  • <p>Seeing is believing: here’s the column in progress, with the wooden cores and individual cardboard slices clearly visible. "It doesn’t even require glue," says Hansmeyer. "You just slip the slices over the cores and it all holds together."</p>
  • <p>Hansmeyer began his fabricating process by feeding his digital model into another program that could "slice" it into thousands of individual cross sections. Since each of these sections was not computationally difficult to render, he could output them in cardboard with laser cutters.</p>
  • <p>This is what one of the "raw" computational cross sections looks like, before Hansmeyer’s team translated it into laser-cuttable form…</p>
  • <p>…And here’s what the slice looks like when it’s ready to be laser-cut. "Many of these had to be edited by hand," says Hansmeyer. "You can set your algorithm to remove some of the self-intersecting surfaces automatically, but then you’ll lose a lot of exterior detail as well."</p>
  • <p>Despite the staggering amount of detail, it only took about 15 hours to laser-cut all the slices (Hansmeyer had three cutters working in parallel overnight). And the materials only cost $1500. "This would have literally taken months of 3D printing at considerable expense," he says.</p>
  • <p>"Our method of fabrication also makes the column very easy to transport: just unstack the slices," says Hansmeyer. "Even though they’re just cardboard, they’re very rigid and easy to handle. We probably only broke two or three little corners during the whole process of putting it together."</p>
  • <p>Each of Hansmeyer’s slices left an identical "negative" version behind in the laser cutter. "It’s an interesting side effect of the fabrication process," he says. Stacking these together would create an empty-space version of the column, with the same amount of staggering detail.</p>
  • <p>The subdivision algorithm that Hansmeyer used was co-invented in the 1978 by Edwin Catmull, now president of Pixar. "They use it to create smooth forms out of polygons, which is essential for realistic-looking character animation," Hansmeyer explains. "I added different weights to some of the values to make the forms bend in on themselves. It’s not literally self-similar like a fractal, but the recursive mathematical processes are similar."</p>
  • <p>Hansmeyer says his next step is to fabricate the column out of durable plastic so it can be displayed outdoors. He’d also like to fully automate the process to avoid having to hand-edit the slices.  Assuming he can pull that off, "I’d like to use these same processes to generate an actual 3D architectural space: like a cupola, or some vaulting."</p>
  • 01 /12 | Initial Concept

    Hansmeyer developed his concept by taking a traditional Doric column and feeding the form into his computer where his subdivision algorithm could go to work on it.

  • 02 /12 | Prototype Column

    This is Hansmeyer’s first physical prototype, fabricated out of 2700 stacked cardboard slices, each 1mm thin. "Most people think it’s a computer rendering," he says.

  • 03 /12 | Prototype Column - Detail

    Hansmeyer estimates that his column contains between 8 and 16 million faces, or distinct surfaces -- so many that even professional 3D printers would choke on the data. So how could such apparently bottomless depths of fractal-like detail be made in real life?

  • 04 /12 | 2700 Slices

    Seeing is believing: here’s the column in progress, with the wooden cores and individual cardboard slices clearly visible. "It doesn’t even require glue," says Hansmeyer. "You just slip the slices over the cores and it all holds together."

  • 05 /12 | Slicing the Column Model

    Hansmeyer began his fabricating process by feeding his digital model into another program that could "slice" it into thousands of individual cross sections. Since each of these sections was not computationally difficult to render, he could output them in cardboard with laser cutters.

  • 06 /12 | Slice 1165: Initial intersections

    This is what one of the "raw" computational cross sections looks like, before Hansmeyer’s team translated it into laser-cuttable form…

  • 07 /12 | Slice 1165: Interior offset

    …And here’s what the slice looks like when it’s ready to be laser-cut. "Many of these had to be edited by hand," says Hansmeyer. "You can set your algorithm to remove some of the self-intersecting surfaces automatically, but then you’ll lose a lot of exterior detail as well."

  • 08 /12

    Despite the staggering amount of detail, it only took about 15 hours to laser-cut all the slices (Hansmeyer had three cutters working in parallel overnight). And the materials only cost $1500. "This would have literally taken months of 3D printing at considerable expense," he says.

  • 09 /12

    "Our method of fabrication also makes the column very easy to transport: just unstack the slices," says Hansmeyer. "Even though they’re just cardboard, they’re very rigid and easy to handle. We probably only broke two or three little corners during the whole process of putting it together."

  • 10 /12 | Detail of Column "Negative"

    Each of Hansmeyer’s slices left an identical "negative" version behind in the laser cutter. "It’s an interesting side effect of the fabrication process," he says. Stacking these together would create an empty-space version of the column, with the same amount of staggering detail.

  • 11 /12

    The subdivision algorithm that Hansmeyer used was co-invented in the 1978 by Edwin Catmull, now president of Pixar. "They use it to create smooth forms out of polygons, which is essential for realistic-looking character animation," Hansmeyer explains. "I added different weights to some of the values to make the forms bend in on themselves. It’s not literally self-similar like a fractal, but the recursive mathematical processes are similar."

  • 12 /12

    Hansmeyer says his next step is to fabricate the column out of durable plastic so it can be displayed outdoors. He’d also like to fully automate the process to avoid having to hand-edit the slices. Assuming he can pull that off, "I’d like to use these same processes to generate an actual 3D architectural space: like a cupola, or some vaulting."

When people mistake photographs of your physical prototypes for computer renderings, you know you've achieved something amazing. That's exactly what happened when Michael Hansmeyer showed off his "computational architecture" column, created by iterating a subdivision algorithm over and over again and then fabricating it out of cardboard.

Hansmeyer's column stands nine feet tall, weighs about 2000 pounds, and is made out of 2700 1mm-thin slices of cardboard stacked on top of wooden cores. It contains somewhere between 8 and 16 million polygonal faces — too complex for even a 3D printer to handle, according to Hansmeyer. "Every 3D printing facility we spoke to turned us down," he tells Co.Design. "Typically those machines can't process more than 500,000 faces — the computer memory required to process the data grows nonlinearly, and it also gets tripped up on the self-intersecting faces of the column."

But Hansmeyer's prototype is very real — in fact, it can even support weight, and the designer wants to experiment with more robust materials so that he can actually start building real structures with his "computational" architectural forms. So how did Hansmeyer actually get this thing out of his computer and into the real world? Take a look at this slideshow to find out.

Slideshow Credits: 01 / Michael Hansmeyer; 02 / Michael Hansmeyer; 03 / Michael Hansmeyer; 04 / Michael Hansmeyer; 05 / Michael Hansmeyer; 06 / Michael Hansmeyer; 07 / Michael Hansmeyer; 08 / Michael Hansmeyer; 09 / Michael Hansmeyer; 10 / Michael Hansmeyer; 11 / Michael Hansmeyer; 12 / Michael Hansmeyer;

loading