For years, the world wasn’t quite ready for the mind-meltingly complex architecture dreamt up by computational architect-designer Michael Hansmeyer. In fact, neither were computers, which couldn’t handle the hundreds of millions of surfaces that comprise Hansmeyer’s structures. 3-D printers couldn’t handle the intense demands the designs made of them without botching painstaking details, and fabrication times were near intolerable.
But the complications seemed to resolve themselves in 2013. Along with collaborator Benjamin Dillenburger, Hansmeyer has finally printed and built a piece of his bespoke brand of architecture. Dubbed Digital Grotesque, the 11-ton installation, the designers say, is the world’s first 3-D printed room, one packed with details that purportedly push the limits of human perception.
The room, which is actually more of an elaborate threshold or altar piece, measures 3.2 meters tall and 16 square meters wide. It was printed in large pieces over the course of a month and assembled in just one day. The structure is gonzo Baroque, filled with countless crevices and polished protuberances. The walls swell with the grace of tulip bulbs, while the plaster clouds of yore have metamorphosed into Giger-like alien heads.
Hansmeyer hesitates to call the process simply parametric, insisting that the project’s algorithms operate "procedurally" at both universal and local scales. "Thus a single algorithm can produce not only the overall form of the room, but also it's local curvatures, concavities, convexities, folds, and creases," he tells Co.Design. This same algorithm, he adds, "can then go on to develop the surface patterns with its micro-textures." The coding is hard at work where certain elements of the design become thinner or more porous and transparent, or conversely, become denser and wider.
If Hansmeyer and Dillenburger had attempted to print these intricacies using normal printing materials like polymer plastic, they would have had a mess on their hands. The infinitesimal details would have been washed out, and the forms would have lost some of their smooth luster. Not too mention that the overall dimensions would have been necessarily diminished. "Up until very recently, 3-D printing involved a very restrictive trade-off," he says. "One could print high-resolution forms in attractive materials—yet only at a small scale. Or one could print large forms, yet in a very low resolution with limited materials."
Having learned this with previous installations—which were done in laser-cut cardboard and CNC-milled styrofoam iterations—Hansmeyer opted instead for sand that, when aggregated with a binding agent, formed a workable sandstone capable of expressing extreme sculptural depth. He and Dillenburger developed a sand printing process that virtually eliminated all constraints exhibited by all other 3-D printing techniques. (The two tested the process earlier this summer.) The process could yield a very large object with highly refined details equal in measure to the sand corns the material came from.
Unfortunately for Hansmeyer, no such breakthroughs came in the area of computer rendering. The design and refinement process took upward of a year, mostly because 3-D modeling engines couldn’t render or visualize the whole room at once. The installation’s quarter billion surfaces would have crashed the program in no time. "We can only render fragments of it or simplified versions," Hansmeyer laments. "Naturally, this slows down the design process."
In the end, the project spanned 78 GB of production data. The headaches that come with such large files are readily evident, but Hansmeyer won’t be swayed from pursuing and expanding the project. Eventually, he wants to get to a point where the scale of architecture is measured not by bricks but by sand corns. Let's hope computing firepower catches up with him.