Glass Architecture Is About To Undergo A 3D-Printed Revolution

The MIT Mediated Matter Group’s 3D glass printer is slowly morphing from a conceptual tool to something designers could use one day.

Design’s wonder material is also one of its most common: glass. Over the years, manufacturers have found ways to improve the fragile material’s physical properties to tune its strength, clarity, and form. Artisans can blow glass into brilliant sculptures. Mass production gave rise to intricate pressed glass. Sheets of glass for super-tall skyscrapers can be more than 22 feet wide, thanks to nanotechnology. And the fabrication techniques are becoming more advanced, still.


In 2015, the Mediated Matter group at MIT–a research group led by Neri Oxman that focuses on digital fabrication, computational design, and synthetic biology–debuted a 3D printer that uses molten glass as a medium. Last month at Milan Design Week, the team debuted an installation that shows what the next iteration of the tool–a one-ton printer that can create objects up to 66 pounds and is named Glass II–can do.

Commissioned in honor of the Lexus Design Award, the installation was composed of sculptural glass columns with a motorized light in its core. As the light slowly moves up and down, the column acts like a shade, casting shadows that look like pulsing waves. This was a by-product of the textured surface of the glass and different thicknesses throughout the structure–something that can only be achieved through digital fabrication.

“Unlike a pressed or blown-glass part, which traditionally has smooth internal surface features, a printed part can have complex surface features on the inside as well as the outside,” Oxman tells Co.Design via email. “And because we can design and print components with variable thicknesses and complex inner features–unlike glass blowing where the inner features reflect the outer shape–we can control [how light is transmitted] by designing unique surface features for the inner and the external surfaces of the object. . . . What we’re really printing are optical lenses.”

Top and bottom modules of the five-lobe glass column (H200mm X R300mm) with a local curvature range of R45.0mm-R22.5mm. [Photo: Paula Aguilera and Jonathan Williams]
The goal is to eventually print at the architectural scale.

“Peter Houk, director of the Glass Lab at MIT who serves as project adviser and collaborator, shared with us a lovely experience while in the space, of how, during the exhibit, he observed a couple that kissed while the glass columns were dimmed, and, as the light became brighter and the caustics more intense, they separated and walked side by side,” Oxman writes. “The quality of the light inspired their intimacy. It’s when structures can affect human behavior through and in space that you know you’re operating at an architectural scale.”


View of columns, caustics and reflections. [Photo: Paula Aguilera and Jonathan Williams]
Glass II also has potential for new functions. For example, the technology could be used to create glass facades that catch sunlight in highly specific ways. Glass II can print “pockets” into a structure so that it can create spaces for growing light-sensitive organisms for biofuels. “[C]onsider a single and continuous transparent building skin–a filter that is also a barrier–that can integrate multiple functions and be shaped to tune its structural and environmental performance,” Oxman tells Co.Design. “[It’s] not unlike the human skin, which serves at once as both a barrier and a filter. The prospect of this design approach, considering the building not as a machine but as an organism, a structure that’s made of a single material system that can act, at once, as structure and skin–this thrills us.”

Glass II remains an experimental tool and MIT doesn’t plan to commercialize it anytime soon. Next up for the group? Experimenting with the chemistry of the glass to incorporate color and investigate its effect on absorbing light and heat. Oxman says she’s also interested in “various dimensions of novelty,” which almost certainly means that we’ll be seeing some very cool stuff from this technology in the future.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.