Process, a new role for the architect: Michael Hansmeyer at TEDGlobal 2012

Posted by: Ben Lillie

Michael Hansmeyer

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

As an architect, Michael Hansmeyer asks, “What is the origin of the forms we design?” And he asks: “What kind of forms would we design if we had no bias, if we had no preconception? What kind of forms would we design if we could free ourselves from our education?”

“How,” he says, “Would we go about creating something truly new?” His idea is to look to nature. Not to copy it, but to use the processes of nature to design something new.

The main process of nature, according to Hansmeyer, is the splitting of one cell into two. Abstracting this, he starts with a single sheet of paper and makes folds. He is free to choose where to fold, and with that can create an astounding array of forms. But, even more excitingly, he can also encode that folding as an algorithm.

In that virtual world, he starts with a cube instead of a sheet. A simple process of folding the cube 16 times produces 400,000 surfaces, and dazzling designs. Because he’s doing the folding in the computer, he is free of any constraints, says Hansmeyer. “Surfaces can become impossibly small. They can stretch. They can tear.” But in each case he doesn’t direct the process, he just creates the algorithm.

Now, most settings for this simple algorithm simply produce noise. It takes trial and error to find interesting forms. But Hansmeyer can use information already present in the simple forms — mathematical information that isn’t visible to the eye. So that, instead of specifying a simple ratio, he specifies a whole family of numbers to produce a whole family of forms. “These forms look complex,” says Hansmeyer, “but the process is a very simple one.”

Michael Hansmeyer

Photo: Ryan Lash

The next step is to move from an abstract cube to architecture. He’s done this in the form of a column. Starting with four cylinders, he evolved them with his techniques into wonderfully complex forms that still function as a column. “These forms are un-drawable,” he says. “You can only create something like this with an algorithm.” But even more, he asks, “Are these forms imaginable?” He doesn’t think so. They are too complex to imagine ahead of time. That puts the architect into a new role.

The hardest problem, though, was how to really see them. Or, more important, how to bring the column out of the computer. His solution was to use a 3D printer, which could print the column in layers. “The column we ended up with, after a lot of work, looked remarkably like the one inside the computer,” he says, displaying a photograph of the physical, fantastic-looking column. The physical column contains 2700 layers, weighs 680 kg, covers 2,620 square meters of area, 21.5 kilometers of cutting path, and took 2 hours to print.

“If we can think about not the object, but the process of creating the object,” then he says, “in short, we have no constraints. We have processes in our hands that allow us to create structures at all scales that at one point we couldn’t even have dreamed of.”

Michael Hansmeyer

Photo: Ryan Lash