Well, some of you think that perhaps is about time I disclose why this sudden interest in columns and computer generated imagery. Besides the obvious fact that I’m an architect that happens to have an eye for urban planning, a broad field, but is still interested in the physical shape of things, there is also a series of increasingly repetitive references around me to 3d printing as the next big think. Which I happen to agree with, even if my knowledge of the field is quite limited.
I will stick to the basics: 3d printing (or additive manufacturing, in a more technical jargon) allows the production of nearly anything that can be described in a 3d object description language, even if it is a composite object with multiple materials or even moving parts (or regardless of other qualities of the object itself). The cost of production is still unknown in the long term, as it is still developing as a technology; I do not know how it compares in economic and environmental terms with other manufacturing systems (will there be superfund sites associated with future 3d printing mills or their supply chains? Chances are, as with almost any other industrial system). But I think it can change many things depending on some elements:
There is much talk about how much market share 3d printing will grab in overall manufacturing. From a massive point of view, in terms of architecture, I think we are again facing the problem of prefabs, only from a different perspective. Some decades ago, people thought that prefabrication would be the future of architecture, but the current reality is rather mixed: sure, you have standard building elements in all advanced countries, but some things are simply not that convenient to prefab, as foundations. On the other side, prefab housing has got a negative image (at least in parts of Europe) as it is associated to social housing that has problems enough. The fact is that being able to use what is seen as a better technology will not always translate into effective use. Some will contend that 3d printing allows to just do what prefab could not: give specific answers to each problem, and a better quality.
And therein lies the rub. I do not know how much market share 3d manufacturing will capture, but there is what I would call an “intelligence cost” in architecture (or in any other production system) that probably will work against personalized elements from becoming the norm. Just assume you are to buy a home and you are on a tight budget: you will probably like customized architecture, but chances are that if you are offered an affordable price, you will go for a standard solution. Sure, you can use an algorithm to make each home different from the ones on each side, but getting a pleasant result requires a hard work, that has to be paid (well, architects have been doing it for centuries). So probably the incremental improvement of the industrial products we have come to be used to relating to computing will extend to material stuff, but in a subtle way. I can think of better I-beams, in which you can have, for instance, variable thickness flanges, increasing the efficiency in the use of steel, but this is something that will be invisible to the lay man. Right now it seems less likely to see in a near future every home being totally personalized (unless in some posh suburbs). And I’m not sure to see building sites as large scale plotters printing whole buildings at a rate of 1 mm per minute (in fact, concrete structures are already rather additive…), or as sets of robots moving from column to column building each to a specific design. Putting something in contact with the ground, which will deform under pressure, has complexities that seem hard to address with this kind of manufacturing.
A column is a structural element. Hansmeyer’s experiments are to be followed as morphogenesis is always interesting, but they are sometimes far from structural efficiency. That is not bad in itself, but just means it will somehow be for a niche market.
Given a chance to put a personal touch on your home, would you build something with your own hands (Christopher Alexander said architects should always put that touch on their buildings) or with a 3d printer? For most people, 3d software will be awkward. But some will make interesting contributions; or just think of what Ferdinand Cheval or Justo Gallego would have done with a 3d printing machine
Let’s go back to Djuma mosque in Khiva. What is interesting there is that you have all the intelligence you need to produce that outstanding building, integrating the production systems and the technological knowledge. Columns are different, and I suspect that it is, among other things, for the same reason that stones have mason signs in European churches: a carver was paid for the elements he produced, so they had to be somehow recognizable. From a structural point of view, the elegance of the basis of the column comes from the fact that the surrounding walls are quite thick; I have never been there, but a wood post with this configuration is clearly unable to transfer lateral loads to its base, so this is a logical conclusion. Can 3d printing give us a better architecture? Just if the architecture is better, construction is just a part of it.