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Benjamin Dillenburger created a room as intricate as one built over hundreds of years, in a matter of days. His tool? A 3-D printer. Matthew Hague talks to the architect about pushing the boundaries of digital design and his dream of one day printing an entire house

(Hansmeyer/Dillenburger)

The operatic curves of baroque architecture are enthralling to visitors of Europe’s 17th-century cathedrals, palaces and grottoes. But in a modern world obsessed with efficiency and expediency, enthralling isn’t good enough to justify the mountain-high price tag and years of manual labour required to erect such structures.

Which is why Benjamin Dillenburger’s designs are such a revelation.

In 2013, the German-born, Swiss-educated architect unveiled a room that is as dynamic and intricate as something built over hundreds of years. But the space, called Digital Grotesque, took days, not eons, to fabricate. And it didn’t involve a single stone chisel. The architecture was conceived using algorithms. It was then spat out by a 3-D printer (a massive one that uses layers of crushed quartz to make sandstone).

It was the first time that an entire room had been printed. Since then, Dillenburger has moved to Canada where, as an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, he is continuing his research into the possibilities of digital design and fabrication.

He’s dreaming of how to use laptops to creative more beautiful, romantic, rich buildings; and how he can, one day, print a whole house.

Here, Dillenburger’s thoughts on the future (which might look like the past) of buildings.

(Hansmeyer/Dillenburger)
(Demetris Shammas/Achilleas Xydis)

Tell me about your project, Digital Grotesque.

Digital Grotesque was a collaboration with [architect] Michael Hansmeyer. We put together two research topics: computational design, or designing architecture by using the computer, and digital fabrication, or fabricating architecture with a computer. With computational design, we can design forms that we can hardly imagine. Or at least, not at all draw manually, by hand. Then with 3-D printing we can actually build them. That’s the most special thing about Digital Grotesque. That we were able to envision and build forms that we could not draw manually, which we could never do before.

What was the process of creating the shape of the room?

It’s algorithmic. But the process itself is very simple. We started with a relatively simple form. A cube. You can imagine its flat surfaces. We simulated a folding or splitting process, with a computer, over and over, folding the surfaces. We ended up with millions of small facets. That’s how the geometry was initially derived. Once we had this geometry in the computer, we then created variations on it. Then we picked the variations we liked, and let the computer combine them to create new iterations. It’s like we bred the design.

That sounds like the computer is more like a partner in the process, not just a tool?

Yes, that’s a good formulation. At the beginning of the process, we can hardly foresee the outcome. It’s a feedback loop. You create a set of parameters. The computer gives you a result. You evaluate the result, then adapt the parameters. Then the result will change. It’s not like envisioning something in your mind and constructing it. There’s always a moment of surprise when working with a computer in such a set-up.

Digital Grotesque was a conceptual project. But is there a practical application for this technology?

There’s a really high demand for free-form architecture. Architecture that is not defined by orthogonol, flat panels. But it’s still very expensive and complicated to fabricate. That might be one of the reasons that architects are still limited to the paradigms of modernism, where everything is standardized and rectangular. But with these 3-D printers, the complexity doesn’t matter. You might be able to fabricate complex building elements for the same cost as standardized ones. I think this could change architecture dramatically. We might be able to free ourselves from standardized components, which could result in better buildings. Visually more complex, more attractive buildings.

(Demetris Shammas/Achilleas Xydis)

How long did Digital Grotesque take to print?

About one week total printing time. One year to design and compose it. To print is only one week.

How does that compare to if you had carved it out of stone?

It would take hundreds of people a very long time. It has a baroque quality to it, as though it had hand-carved surfaces. No one would do that any more. But I think it could become possible again. That’s a very good way to use digital technologies.

Do you ever see a day when giant 3-D printers dot a city’s skyline, the way cranes do now?

Of course, that would be fantastic. That’s a nice vision. There are people researching printers that print walls, and climb on the printed walls, higher and higher, in order to print. But the closer vision, I think, would be that we have a print room, on-site, where these components are fabricated, then assembled next to it, directly.

Do you think this is a major change moment in design?

Changes in technologies are often drivers for innovation in architecture. It was the same with cast iron, reinforced concrete. Even glass. But at the same time, I think the idea of the architect sending data directly to the machine would be interesting. It would be a more direct way of designing and creating buildings. Architects could design and build houses themselves. This could give them a greater degree of control.

(Demetris Shammas/Achilleas Xydis)

Could this also mean that people could print their own houses?

That’s possible, but I’m not sure that people would even want that. Usually people need an architect to transfer their vision or ideas into built forms. It’s not easy to design a house. For people, it’s often difficult for them to formulate exactly what they want in the first place.

So you don’t see a day in the future when architects are made redundant by these machines?

Not really. As long as architects concern themselves with creating special experiences and engaging spaces, they will be always needed.

What are your next steps?

I’d like to enlarge the scale. To not only print a room but to print a full house.

(Demetris Shammas/Achilleas Xydis)

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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