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This Is The Most Complex Architectural Structure In History

It would “probably take thousands of years” to draw, and its architects needed a supercomputer to visualize just a fraction of it.

Technology has always shaped architecture. The Romans built an empire on the back of the arch, while paving their roads in concrete. But the computer, which has already transformed architecture since its invention, has the potential to shake the very foundation of the discipline.

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[Photo: Michael Lyrenmann]
At least, that’s what architect-programmer Michael Hansmeyer believes. Along with fellow architect-programmer Benjamin Dillenburger, Hansmeyer has been building increasingly complex structures using algorithms for the last five years, from cardboard columns with 16 million facets to the world’s first 3D-printed room.

But his latest project for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Digital Grotesque II, takes the concept of algorithmic architecture beyond the scope of human–or even computer–comprehension.

Created by an algorithm that uses the properties of subdivision to create intricate details down to the level of a grain of sand, Digital Grotesque II has 1.3 billion individual surfaces that were fabricated using a sandstone 3D printer. Resembling one of the manmade grottos that used to grace the pleasure gardens of 16th-century royalty (or perhaps Hugh Hefner), the seven-metric-ton artwork is so complex that ordinary computers couldn’t visualize it during the design process.

“We hear so much about AI these days and it’s leading to the discovery of medicine or leading to certain solutions in traffic management,” Hansmeyer says. “What kind of architecture can a computer propose that we weren’t able to think of either?”

[Photo: Fabrice Dall’Anese]
The project’s predecessor, Digital Grotesque I, was created in 2013 using a sandstone 3D printer. The resulting structure has a single surface that had been deformed and folded in such a way that it brought to mind baroque architecture on crack. Yet that project still required the duo to make decisions about the structure’s shape and form. The new piece, Digital Grotesque II, was designed completely through an algorithm, to which the architects gave a set of formal parameters–a mandate to create a form that was as different from a plain white box as possible. They asked that the software design a structure that had layers, that didn’t reveal itself at first glance, and that forced the viewer to look in different directions to discover new aspects of its shape.

The result looks like a coral reef, with a porous quality and branching forms, and it adds up to 1.3 billion separate surfaces. That makes the structure virtually impossible to capture by analog or simpler digital means. “In a way nothing is un-drawable, but it would probably take thousands of years to really draw this form and attach measurements to it if one used a pen and paper, or even if you used a simple AutoCAD program,” Hansmeyer says.

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[Photo: courtesy Michael Hansmeyer]
Once the architects let the algorithm do its work, the only way they were able to visualize the outcome was to process separate pieces of it using a supercomputer at ETH Zurich, the university where Dillenburger is a professor. “We never saw the whole thing together,” Hansmeyer says. “We would stitch the pieces together in Photoshop to get an impression of what the entire thing would look like, but we didn’t know until it was printed. We can print stuff we can’t visualize.”

One main goal of the project was to see just what a computer was capable of designing. “I think we’re at the point where we’re using the computer to extend our imagination, to try to let the computer find things that perhaps we wouldn’t have thought of, to use the computer as a tool that can surprise us,” Hansmeyer says.

[Photo: Hyunchul Kwon]
Another goal was to test what the 3D printer was capable of–especially since it costs the same amount of money to print a solid cube or the most complex form an algorithm could generate. But your average 3D printer wouldn’t do; a sandstone printer was crucial to the level of granularity the architects were able to achieve with Digital Grotesque II because it could print down to the level of a grain of sand.

“It has absolute geometric freedom, and it costs just as much as if you did the simplest, most minimal, Donald Judd-like box,” Hansmeyer says. “If the rules have changed so much for production, this must bring about some sort of new architecture.”

Using sandstone has practical implications as well–cathedrals and churches of old were built of it, making it a much more likely material for architecture than the flimsy plastic most 3D printers use. Of course, the reality of generating buildings with this kind of technology remains unfeasible for now. Hansmeyer says that while the sandstone printer would provide the kind of precision that would be needed for actual buildings, the problem of what type of glue to use to bind 3D-printed segments together remains a crucial obstacle–it needs to withstand compression and tension, it must be weather and fire resistant, and it would need to meet environmental standards.

But buildability isn’t the point. Digital Grotesque II’s central focus is that the two architects ceded complete control of the final structure to the algorithm they designed. “Traditionally architects hate surprises. They’re these control freaks. It’s a new notion for the architect to seek out a surprise,” Hansmeyer says. “But you know, there can be good surprises in life.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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