Fab

[Image: “The Sphere” by Oliver Tessman, Mark Fahlbusch, Klaus Bollinger, and Manfred Grohmann].

The Bartlett School of Architecture has made all three volumes of Fabricate, their excellent series of books and conference proceedings dating back to 2011, free to download.

[Image: Matter Design’s La Voûte de LeFevre, Banvard Gallery (2012)].

More than 700 pages’ worth of technical experiments, speculative construction processes, new industrial tools, and one-off prototypes, the books are a gold mine for research and development.

[Image: Greg Lynn’s “Embryological House,” Venice Biennale (2002)].

3D printers, buoyant robots, multi-axis milling machines, directed insect-secretion, cellular automata, semi-autonomous bricklaying, self-assembling endoskeletons, drone weaving—it’s hard to go wrong with even the most cursory skimming of each volume, and that doesn’t even mention the essays and interviews.

[Image: “Custom forming tool mounted on the six-axis robotic arm,” via Fabricate 2014]

Download each book—from 2017, 2014, and 2011—and be prepared to lose a few days reading through them.

Future Silk

[Image: Neri Oxman’s otherwise unrelated “Silk Pavilion” at MIT; photo by Steven Keating via Wired].

Research published last month in the journal Nano Letters suggests that silkworms fed a steady diet of carbon nanotubes can produce structurally stronger silk:

Silkworm silk is gaining significant attention from both the textile industry and research society because of its outstanding mechanical properties and lustrous appearance. The possibility of creating tougher silks attracts particular research interest. Carbon nanotubes and graphene are widely studied for their use as reinforcement. In this work, we report mechanically enhanced silk directly collected by feeding Bombyx mori larval silkworms with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and graphene. We found that parts of the fed carbon nanomaterials were incorporated into the as-spun silk fibers, whereas the others went into the excrement of silkworms.

Using animals as living 3D printers is thus more of a reality every year.

It’s also worth noting here that the resulting super-silk exhibited “enhanced electrical conductivity,” implying some strange new world in which conductive textiles and other flexible, wearable electronic circuitry could be woven in space by augmented silkworms.

(Spotted by Benjamin Bratton).

“Building with metals not from Earth”

I missed the story last month that a company called Planetary Resources had successfully 3D-printed a small model using “metals not from Earth”—that is, metal harvested from a meteorite. “Transforming a chunk of space rock into something you can feed into a 3D printer is a pretty odd process. Planetary Resources uses a plasma that essentially turns the meteorite into a cloud that then ‘precipitates’ metallic powder that can be extracted via a vacuum system. ‘It condenses like rain out of a cloud,’ said [a company spokesperson], ‘but instead of raining water, you’re raining titanium pellets out of an iron nickel cloud.’ (…) ‘Everyone has probably seen an iron meteorite in a museum, now we have the tech to take that material and print it in a metal printer using high energy laser. Imagine if we could do that in space.’”

In the Garden of 3D Printers

[Image: Unrelated image of incredible floral shapes 3D-printed by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg (via)].

A story published earlier this year explained how pollinating insects could be studied by way of 3D-printed flowers.

The actual target of the study was the hawkmoth, and four types of flowers were designed and produced to help understand the geometry of moth/flower interactions, including how “the hawkmoth responded to each of the flower shapes” and “how the flower shape affected the ability of the moth to use its proboscis (the long tube it uses as a mouth).”

Of course, a very similar experiment could have been done using handmade model flowers—not 3D printers—and thus could also have been performed with little fanfare generations ago.

But the idea that a surrogate landscape can now be so accurately designed and manufactured by printheads that it can be put into service specifically for the purpose of cross-species dissimulation—that it, tricking species other than humans into thinking that these flowers are part of a natural ecosystem—is extraordinary.

[Image: An also unrelated project called “Blossom,” by Richard Clarkson].

Many, many years ago, I was sitting in a park in Providence, Rhode Island, one afternoon reading a copy of Germinal Life by Keith Ansell Pearson. The book had a large printed flower on its front cover, wrapping over onto the book’s spine.

Incredibly, at one point in the afternoon a small bee seemed to become confused by the image, as the bee kept returning over and over again to land on the spine and crawl around there—which, of course, might have had absolutely nothing to do with the image of a printed flower, but, considering the subject matter of Ansell Pearson’s book, this was not without significant irony.

It was as if the book itself had become a participant in, or even the mediator of, a temporary human/bee ecosystem, an indirect assemblage created by this image, this surrogate flower.

In any case, the image of little gardens or entire, wild landscapes of 3D-printed flowers so detailed they appear to be organic brought me to look a little further into the work of Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, a few pieces of whose you can see in the opening image at the top of this post.

Their 3D-printed floral and coral forms are astonishing.

[Image: “hyphae 3D 1” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Rosenkrantz’s Flickr page gives as clear an indication as anything of what their formal interests and influences are: photos of coral, lichen, moss, mushrooms, and wildflowers pop up around shots of 3D-printed models.

They sometimes blend in so well, they appear to be living specimens.

[Image: Spot the model; from Jessica Rosenkrantz’s Flickr page].

There is an attention to accuracy and detail in each piece that is obvious at first glance, but that is also made even more clear when you see the sorts of growth-studies they perform to understand how these sorts of systems branch and expand through space.

[Image: “Floraform—Splitting Point Growth” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

The organism as space-filling device.

And the detail itself is jaw-dropping. The following shot shows how crazy-ornate these things can get.

[Image: “Hyphae spiral” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Anyway, while this work is not, of course, related to the hawkmoth study with which this post began, it’s nonetheless pretty easy to get excited about the scientific and aesthetic possibilities opened up by some entirely speculative future collaboration between these sorts of 3D-printed models and laboratory-based ecological research.

One day, you receive a mysterious invitation to visit a small glass atrium constructed atop an old warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of New York City. You arrive, baffled as to what it is you’re meant to see, when you notice, even from a great distance, that the room is alive with small colorful shapes, flickering around what appears to be a field of delicate flowers. As you approach the atrium, someone opens a door for you and you step inside, silent, slightly stunned, noticing that there is life everywhere: there are lichens, orchids, creeping vines, and wildflowers, even cacti and what appears to be a coral reef somehow inexplicably growing on dry land.

But the room does not smell like a garden; the air instead is charged with a light perfume of adhesives.

[Image: “Hyphae crispata #1 (detail)” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Everything you see has been 3D-printed, which comes as a shock as you begin to see tiny insects flittering from flowerhead to flowerhead, buzzing through laceworks of creeping vines and moss—until you look even more carefully and realize that they, too, have been 3D-printed, that everything in this beautiful, technicolor room is artificial, and that the person standing quietly at the other end amidst a tangle of replicant vegetation is not a gardener at all but a geometrician, watching for your reaction to this most recent work.

Liquid Quarries and Reefs On Demand

[Image: Micromotors at work, via UCSD/ScienceDaily].

Tiny machines that can extract carbon dioxide from water might someday help deacidify the oceans, according to a press release put out last week by UCSD.

Described as “micromotors,” the devices “are essentially six-micrometer-long tubes that help rapidly convert carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate, a solid mineral found in eggshells, the shells of various marine organisms, calcium supplements and cement.”

While these are still just prototypes, and are far from ready actually to use anywhere in the wild, they appear to have proven remarkably effective in the lab:

In their experiments, nanoengineers demonstrated that the micromotors rapidly decarbonated water solutions that were saturated with carbon dioxide. Within five minutes, the micromotors removed 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from a solution of deionized water. The micromotors were just as effective in a sea water solution and removed 88 percent of the carbon dioxide in the same timeframe.

The implications of this for marine life are obviously pretty huge—after all, overly acidic waters mean that shells are difficult, if not impossible, to form, so these devices could have an enormously positive effect on sea life—but these devices could also be hugely useful in the creation of marine limestone.

As UCSD scientists explain, the micromotors would “rapidly zoom around in water, remove carbon dioxide and convert it into a usable solid form.” A cloud of these machines could thus essentially precipitate the basic ingredients of future rocks from open water.

[Image: A Maltese limestone quarry, via Wikipedia].

At least two possibilities seem worth mentioning.

One is the creation of a kind of liquid quarry out of which solid rock could be extracted—a square mile or two of seawater where a slurry of calcium carbonate would snow down continuously, 24 hours a day, from the endless churning of invisible machines. Screen off a region of the coast somewhere, so that no fish can be harmed, then trawl those hazy waters for the raw materials of future rock, later to be cut, stacked, and sold for dry-land construction.

The other would be the possibility of, in effect, the large-scale depositional printing of new artificial reefs. Set loose these micromotors in what would appear to be a large, building-sized teabag that you slowly drag through the ocean waters, and new underwater landforms slowly accrete in its week. Given weeks, months, years, and you’ve effectively 3D-printed a series of new reefs, perfect for coastal protection, a new marine sanctuary, or even just a tourist site.

In any case, read more about the actual process over at UCSD or ScienceDaily.

Abandoned Mines, Slow Printing, and the Living Metal Residue of a Post-Human World

“High in the Pyrenees Mountains,” we read, “deep in abandoned mines, scientists discovered peculiar black shells that seem to crop up of their own accord on metal surfaces.”

[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Joan Santamaría, via Eos].

No, this is not a deleted scene from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy; it’s from research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, recently reported by Eos.

It turns out that, under certain conditions, subterranean microbes can leave behind metallic deposits “as part of their natural metabolism.” Abandoned mines are apparently something of an ideal environment for this to occur within, resulting in “a rapid biomineralization process that sprouts iron-rich shells from the surface of steel structures.”

These then build up into reef-like deposits through a process analogous to 3D-printing: “Electron microscopy revealed small-scale, fiber-like crystals arranged into lines growing outward from the steel surface. The shells appear to be formed layer by layer, with crystal size and composition varying across layers.”

There are many, many interesting things to highlight here, which include but are not limited to:

Slow Printing

We could literalize the analogy used above by exploring how a controlled or guided version of this exact same process could be used as a new form of biological 3D-printing.

To put this another way, there is already a slow food movement—why not a slow printing one, as well?

Similar to the project John Becker and I explored a while back, using genetically-modified bees as living printheads, damp, metal-rich environments—microbial ovens, so to speak—could be constructed as facsimile mines inside of which particular strains of microbes and fungi would then be cultivated.

Geometric molds would be introduced as “seed-forms” to be depositionally copied by the microbes. Rather than creating the abstract, clamshell-like lumps seen in the below photograph, the microbes would be steered into particular shapes and patterns, resulting in discrete, recognizable objects.

Boom: a living 3D-printer, or a room of specially cultivated humidity and darkness out of which strange replicant tools and objects could be extracted every few years. At the very least, it would make a compelling art project—an object-reef sprouting with microbial facsimiles.

[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Nieves López-Martínez, via Eos].

Dankness Instrumentalized

Historian David Gissen has written interestingly about the idea of “dankness” in architecture.

In an article for Domus back in 2010, Gissen explained that “dankness”—or “underground humidity,” in his words, a thick atmosphere of mold, rot, and stagnation usually found inside closed, subterranean spaces—was even once posited by architectural historian Marc-Antoine Laugier as a primal catalyst for first inspiring human beings to build cleaner, better ventilated structures—that is, architecture itself, in a kind of long-term retreat from the troglodyte lifestyle of settling in caves.

Dankness, to wildly over-simply this argument, so horrified our cave-dwelling ancestors that they invented what we now call architecture—and a long chain of hygienic improvements in managing the indoor atmospheric quality of these artificial environments eventually led us to modernism.

But dankness has its uses. “While modernists generally held dankness in suspect,” Gissen writes, “a few held a certain type of affection for this atmosphere, if only because it was an object of intense scrutiny. The earliest modernist rapprochements with dankness saw it as the cradle of a mythical atmosphere, an atmosphere that preceded modernity.” The “atmospheric depths of the cellar,” Gissen then suggests, might ironically be a sign of architectural developments yet to come:

Today, in the name of environmentalism, architects are digging into the earth in an effort to release its particular climatic qualities. Passive ventilation schemes often involve underground constructions such as “labyrinths” or “thermosiphons” that release the earth’s cool and wet air. The earth that architects reach into is one that has been so technified and rationalized, so measured and considered, that it barely contains mythical or uncanny aspects. However, this return to the earth’s substrate enables other possibilities.

In any case, I am not only quoting this essay because it is interesting and deserves wider discussion; I am also quoting all this in order to suggest that dankness could also be instrumentalized, or tapped as a kind of readymade industrial process, an already available microbial atmosphere wherein metal-depositing metabolic processes pulsing away in the dankest understructures of the world could be transformed into 3D-printing facilities.

The slow printheads for long-term object replication, mentioned above, would be fueled by and dependent upon Gissen’s spaces of subterranean humidity.

Heavy Metal Compost

If it is too difficult, too unrealistic, or simply too uselessly speculative to consider the possibility of 3D-printing with microbes, you could simply eliminate the notion that this is meant to produce recognizable object-forms, and use the same process instead as a new kind of compost heap.

Similar to throwing your old banana peels, coffee grounds, apple cores, and avocado skins into a backyard compost pile, you could throw metallic waste into a Gissen Hole™ and wait for genetically-modified microbes such as these to slowly but relentlessly break it all down, leaving behind weird, clamshell-like structures of purified metal in their wake.

Cropping teams would then climb down into this subterranean recycling center—or open an airlock and step inside some sort of controlled-atmosphere facility tucked away on the industrial outskirts of town—to harvest these easily commodified lumps of metal. It’d be like foraging for mushrooms or picking strawberries.

[Image: An “ancient coral reef,” illustrated by Heinrich Harder].

The Coming Super-Reef

Finally, this also seems to suggest at least one fate awaiting the world of human construction long after humans themselves have disappeared.

Basements in the ruined cores of today’s cities will bloom in the darkness with ever-expanding metallic reefs, as the steel frames of skyscrapers and the collapsed machinery of the modern world become source material—industrial soil—for future metal-eating microbes.

Quietly, endlessly, wonderfully, the planet-spanning dankness of unmaintained subterranean infrastructure—in the depths of Shanghai, London, New York, Moscow—humidly accumulates these strange metallic shells. Reefs larger than anything alive today form, crystallized from the remains of our cities.

A hundred million years go by, and our towers are reduced to bizarre agglomerations of metal—then another hundred million years and they’ve stopped growing, now hidden beneath hundreds of meters of soil or flooded by unpredictable shifts of sea level.

Clouds of super-fish unrecognizable to today’s science swim through the grotesque arches and coils of what used to be banks and highways, apartment blocks and automobiles, monstrous and oyster-like shells whose indirect human origins no future paleontologist could realistically deduce.

Flywheel Landscapes, Energy Reserves, 3D-Printed Urban Caves, and the British Exploratory Land Archive

Last week, over at the Architectural Association in London, a new exhibition opened, continuing the work of the British Exploratory Land Archive, an ongoing collaboration between myself and architects Mark Smout & Laura Allen of Smout Allen.

Although I was unfortunately not able to be in London to attend the opening party, I was absolutely over the moon to get all these photographs, taken by Stonehouse Photographic. These show not only the models, but also the show’s enormous wall-sized photographs and various explanatory texts.

The work on display ranged from cast models of underground sand mines in Nottingham, based on laser-scanning data donated by the Nottingham Caves Survey, to an architectural model the size and shape of a pool table, its part precision 3D-printed for us by Williams, of Formula 1 race car fame. Williams—awesomely and generously—also collaborated with us in helping come up with a new, speculative use of their hybrid flywheel technology (more on this, below).

From the bizarre environmental-sensing instruments first seen back at the Landscape Futures exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art to landscape-scale devices printing new islands out of redistributed silt—a kind of dredge-jet printer spraying archipelagos along the length of the Severn—the scale and range of the objects on display is pretty thrilling to see.

I should quickly add that the exhibition is, by far and away, the work of Smout Allen, who burned candles at every end to get this all put together; despite being involved with the project, and working with the ideas all along, since last summer’s Venice Biennale, I am fundamentally an outside observer on all of this, simply admiring Smout Allen’s incredible tenacity and technical handiwork whilst throwing out the occasional idea for new projects and proposals.

In any case, a brief note on the collaboration with Williams: one of the proposed projects in the exhibition is a “flywheel reservoir” for the Isle of Sheppey.

This would be an energy-storage landscape—in effect, a giant, island-sized, semi-subterranean field of batteries—where excess electrical power generated by the gargantuan offshore field of wind turbines called the London Array would be held in reserve.

This island of half-buried spinning machines included tiny motor parts and models based on Williams’ own hybrid flywheel technology, normally used in Formula 1 race cars.

It was these little parts and models that were 3D-printed in alumide—a mix of nylon and aluminum dust—for us by engineers at Williams.

The very idea of a 3D-printed energy storage landscape on the British coast, disguised as an island, whirring inside with a garden of flywheels, makes my head spin, and a part of me would actually very much love to pursue feasibility studies to see if such a thing could potentially even be constructed someday: a back-up generator for the entire British electrical grid, saving up power from the London Array, brought to you by the same technology that helps power race cars.

Briefly, I was also interested to see that the little 3D-printed gears and pieces, when they first came out of the printer and had not yet been cleaned up or polished, looked remarkably—but inadvertently—like a project by the late Lebbeus Woods.

Finally, thanks not only to Williams, but to the Architectural Association for hosting the exhibition (in particular, Vanessa Norwood for so enthusiastically making it happen); to the small but highly motivated group of former students from the Bartlett School of Architecture, who helped to fabricate some of the exhibition’s other models and to organize some the British Exploratory Land Archive’s earlier projects; to the Nottingham Caves Survey for generously donating a trove of laser-scanning data for us to use in one of the models, and to ScanLAB Projects for helping convert that laser data into realizable 3D form; to UCL for the financial support and facilities; to Stonehouse Photographic, who not only was on hand to document the opening soirée but who also produced the massive photos you see leaning against the walls in the images reproduced here; and—why not?—to Sir Peter Cook, one of my own architectural heroes, for stopping by the exhibition on its opening night to say hello.

The exhibition is open until December 14 at the Architectural Association. Read more about the project here.

Printheads in Space

[Image: The International Space Station, courtesy of NASA, via PopSci].

Space offers a quick look at the possibility that we might someday print space stations into existence in orbit.

A seemingly website-less company called Made in Space “wants to launch 3-D printers into orbit and use them to make parts for spacecraft and space stations, which would be assembled in zero gravity.” They would do this using “thin layers of ‘feedstock,’ which can be metal, plastic or a variety of other materials.” Even better, when parts break down, they’d simply be recycled back into future printed components: “Rather than shuttling a replacement part from Earth to a space station, 3-D printers aboard the station could simply crank out whatever’s needed. And the broken part could be recycled into feedstock.”

Of course, this is not entirely different from earlier visions of using radically exported 3-D printers to construct bases in situ on the moon’s dusty surface (using “lunar concrete“)—albeit, here, there is even less gravity to work with and a much more urgent need to plan for the availability of future construction material.

As it happens, a few years ago I was speaking with a concept artist who had worked on some of the earliest (and eventually unused) design proposals for Avatar; these included, he explained, plans for elaborate 3-D printers that would be used by the military in order to establish a rapid forward-operating base architecture on that alien world.

In a way, though, this is simply the microgravitational realization of BLDGBLOG’s earlier proposal for permanently installing 3-D printers inside perpetually incomplete works of architecture so that they can self-expand and internally reorganize over time.

[Image: Mars rover and its gadgets, courtesy of NASA].

This would seem to lead to the question of why 3-D printers, even absolutely tiny ones, aren’t already being included on Mars rover missions in order to test the validity of these architectural ideas; why pack only cameras and chemical sensors and their like on these offworld robots when you could add some kind of robust printhead assemblage? If you could put enough printheads on Mars, say, scattered around like totem poles, some of them could even be rented out as design studio equipment for experimental classes at Georgia Tech or the AA. What, then, would be the implications for the future of Mars archaeology, when the impulse toward heritage management will include artificial constructions on other worlds?

Having said all this, of course, architect Mark Hogan pointed out on Twitter this morning that “3d printing sounds so promising but the printed objects often still look like real-world low-res 3d bitmaps”—sobering, to be sure, but the idea of lo-fi, dot-matrix-quality space stations orbiting the planet, passing over continents and tropical island chains and glinting with distant starlight at 2 in the morning as insomniacs gaze up at the sky, actually seems even more endearing. And, I’ll admit, I have something of a mystical attachment to the possibilities of 3-D printing.

Fast, cheap, and out of control—and coming soon to a sky or offworld near you—these 3-D printers, like tubes of semi-sentient toothpaste, will extrude their low-res geometries, where 8-bit objects meet outsider art, as platforms for the future of human exoplanetary civilization.

(Via Popular Science).

Concrete Honey and the Printing Room

[Image: “Beamer Bees” by Liam Young and Anab Jain].

I had an interesting and long conversation last week with John Becker, one of my students at Columbia’s GSAPP, about everything from the future of 3D printers, the possibility of permanently embedding such machines into the fabric of a building, and even the genetic manipulation of nonhuman species so that they could produce new, architecturally useful materials.

A few quick things about that conversation seem worth repeating here:

1) Famously, groups like Archigram proposed using construction cranes as permanent parts of their buildings. The crane could thus lift new modular rooms into place, add whole new floors to the perpetually incomplete structure, and otherwise act as a kind of functional ornament. The crane, “now considered part of the architectural ensemble,” Archigram’s Mike Webb wrote, would simply be embedded there, “lifting up and moving building components so as to alter the plan configuration, or replacing parts that had work out with a ‘better’ product.”

[Image: Plug-In City by Archigram/Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton; courtesy University of Westminster].

But 3D printers are the new cranes.

For instance, what if Enrico Dini’s sandstone-printing device—so interestingly profiled in Blueprint Magazine last month—could be installed somewhere at the heart of a building complex—or up on the roof, or ringed around the edge of a site—where it could left alone to print new rooms and corridors into existence, near-constantly, hooked up to massive piles of loose sand and liquid adhesives, creating infinite Knossic mazes? The building is never complete, because it’s always printing itself new rooms.

In fact, I think we’ll start to see more and more student projects featuring permanent 3D printers as part of the building envelope—and I can’t wait. A room inside your building that prints more rooms. It sounds awesome.

2) Several months ago, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, as part of their exhibition Actions: What You Can Do With the City, put up #77 in its list of things “you can do with the city”: they phrased it as Bees Make Concrete Honey.

My eyes practically fell out of my head when I saw that headline, imagining genetically modified bees that no longer produce honey, they produce concrete. They’d mix some strange new bio-aggregate inside their bellies. Instead of well-honeyed hives, you’d have apian knots of insectile concrete. Perhaps they could even print you readymade blocks of ornament: florid scrolls and gargoyle heads, printed into molds by a thousand bees buzzing full of concrete. Bee-printers.

Alas, it had nothing to do with apian concrete; it was simply a play on words: urban bees make urban honey… or concrete honey, if you want to be poetic. But no matter: using bees to create new forms of concrete—perhaps even new forms of sandstone (whole new geologies!)—is ethically horrific but absolutely extraordinary. After all, there are already bugs genetically modified to excrete oil, and even goats that have been made to produce spider silk.

What, though, are the architectural possibilities of concrete honey?

[Images: The Rosslyn Chapel hives; photos courtesy of the Times].

3) Last month, over at Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, it was announced that “builders renovating the 600-year-old chapel have discovered two beehives carved within the stonework high on the pinnacles of the roof. They are thought to be the first man-made stone hives ever found.”

It appears the hives were carved into the roof when the chapel was built, with the entrance for the bees formed, appropriately, through the centre of an intricately carved stone flower. The hives were found when builders were dismantling and rebuilding the pinnacles for the first time in centuries.

As the article goes on to point out, “Although human beings have collected honey from wild bee colonies since time immemorial, at some point they began to domesticate wild bees in artificial hives, made from hollow logs, pottery, or woven straw baskets. The Egyptians kept bees in cylindrical hives, and pictures in temples show workers blowing smoke into the hives, and removing honeycombs. Sealed pots of honey were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.”

But, combining all these stories, what about bees that make concrete honey, artificially bred and housed inside hives in the spires of buildings? Hives that they themselves have printed?

High up on the roof of St. John the Divine sit six symmetrical stone hives, inside of which special bees now grow, tended by an architecture student at Columbia University; the bees are preparing their concrete to fix any flaw the building might have. No longer must you call in repair personnel to do the job; you simply tap the sides of your concrete-mixing beehives and living 3D printers fly out in a buzzing cloud, caulking broken arches and fixing the most delicate statuary.

Nearby homeowners occasionally find lumps of concrete on their rooftops and under the eaves, as if new hives are beginning to form.

4) In the opening image of this post, you see the so-called “Beamer Bees” that Liam Young, Anab Jain, and collaborators created for Power of 8. The beamer bees were “formulated by a community of biologists and hired bio-hackers to service under-pollinated trees, plants and vegetables due to the disappearance of honey bees.” And while the beamers don’t actually have much to do with the idea of mobile 3D-printing swarms, any post about designing with bees would be incomplete without them…

(Thanks to Steve Silberman for the Rosslyn Chapel hives link, and to John Becker for the conversation these ideas came from).

The Right Printhead

I was excited finally to pick up a copy of Icon’s February issue today; it is, in its entirety, an exploration of how fiction can be used to explore architectural ideas and the future of the built environment.

Contributors range from China Miéville, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow to Ned Beauman, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Oron Catts, and Will Self, with microfiction contributions from Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon fame and Simon Sellars of Ballardian. I was also very happy to see that “Landscapes of Quarantine” participant Scott Geiger appears with a short review, and there is much else besides.

China Miéville’s story, “The Rope is the World,” takes place amidst “the space elevators, the skyhooks, the geostationary tethered-dock haulage columns” of a planet bound to its lower atmosphere by giant pieces of astral infrastructure. However, these elevators, in Miéville’s telling, are doomed to become fantastic aerial ruins, turning the Earth into “an irregularly spoked wheel” studded with abandoned elevator shafts, each “longer than Russia.” Derelict chain-cities hang flaccid in the skies. What might Caspar David Friedrich have painted in such a world?

Bruce Sterling, meanwhile, presents us with a world in which nothing seems to exist but broadband access—and that world is far from exhilarating. The story’s accompanying photograph shows us a Windows-powered laptop sitting alone on a plaster-flecked apartment floor, plugged into the wall of a room that otherwise has nothing in it; this solipsistic interior, void of anything like human presence or culture, reminded me of an old Peter Lamborn Wilson interview in which Wilson launches into an amazing rant against the rise of home internet use (even if I don’t agree with his conclusions):

Yes. You’re slumped in front of a screen, in the same physical situation as a TV watcher, you’ve just added a typewriter. And you’re “interactive.” What does that mean? It does not mean community. It’s catatonic schizophrenia. So blah blah blah; communicate communicate; data data data. It doesn’t mean anything more than catatonics babbling and drooling in a mental institution. Why can’t we stop?

In Sterling’s fictional world, these empty interiors freed of all personal possessions, with not even a place to sit, pulsate with instant access to Gmail; you can check your Twitter feed even if you can’t cook a decent meal.

But when the story’s protagonist obtains a mail-order 3D printer (“This sleek and sturdy overnight parcel contains everything one might need for do-it-yourself, open-source digital home fabrication,” Sterling writes), he or she gains an ability to produce objects—which then seems to be greeted with hipster disillusionment, rather than with ecstasy.

Indeed, the story ends on a low note; its final line: “I have to print my bed, so that I can lie in it.”

I have to admit to having already read that final sentence courtesy of Matt Jones’s Twitter feed a few weeks ago, and I had imagined, between then and now, a totally different story. I had pictured Sterling’s story, called “The Hypersurface of the Decade,” set in a world where personalized 3D printers create everything from our furniture to our food; today we might print our boarding passes at home before getting on an airplane, but tomorrow we will print our hamburgers, TVs, and even bedspreads.

Maybe we’ll print dogs and subway passes and prescription medications. Maybe we will even print our children.


[Image: MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group’s Cornucopia 3D food-printer].

Maybe it’s just a question of having the right new infrastructure of pipes—no, not those pipes. Maybe we need to forget ink cartridges; we’ll just subscribe to personal flows of speciality ingredients, chemical mixtures that come to us through a radically retooled infrastructure of pipes embedded in the walls of our cities. As unsurprising to someone in 50 years as piped water is to residents of New York today, anyone will simply print a pill of Prozac when they really need it or even print themselves a birthday cake.

Forget killer apps; all you need is the right printhead. Plug it into a nozzle on the wall and voilà.

In any case, I had pictured a story set in some strange Dr. Seuss world of instantly-printed objects. Forget furniture and clothing and utensils. Forget the Apple Tablet; instead you’d carry portable printheads, emitting on-demand, dissolvable realities of the present moment. Trapped in a room, you’d simply print a hammer and attack the wall. Of course, in many ways that is exactly what Sterling has described in his story, but it takes till the last three or four paragraphs to get a glimpse of this malleable world.

But, speaking only for myself, I’d love to spend more time inside this strange fever-dream in which instantly realizable objects appear left and right. I would hold something not unlike a gateway in my hand—some fabulous new printhead—spraying forms into the world of human beings.

Pick up a copy of Icon’s Fiction Issue before it disappears.

Lunar urbanism

Apparently ‘learning from nature’, François Roche and Behrokh Khoshnevis are working on a concrete spray-nozzle that ‘spits wet cement while a programmable trowel smoothes the goo into place’. They’re now wedding that with Roche’s own ‘viab’ device: ‘a construction robot capable of improvising as it assembles walls, ducts, cables, and pipes.’
They want to build skyscrapers on the moon.
There’s a movie coming out this summer called *Stealth* with Jamie Foxx that looks really, really bad. An AI bomber put to use by the Air Force – or Navy – gets struck by lightning, thereby rewiring its circuits into a predatory killing machine… What would be at least moderately more interesting, however, would be if a Roche/Khoshnevis viab/concrete nozzle assembly is struck by lightning, or perhaps reprogrammed by some strange shift in the local geomagnetic curtain: it thereafter starts building uninhabitably complex architectural structures out of a near-infinite supply of concrete from a nearby gravel plant. After only six days we’re talking Tower of Babel proportions. Soon you can see the results from six, seven, eight miles away; soon from the International Space Station.
A group of grad students volunteers to go out and waterproof it, sealing and perhaps painting it, and the autonomous viab/nozzle takes on literally mythic proportions. Soon Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of these States, starts an epic poem based on the legend of Theseus and the Cretan labyrinth, rewriting it with the viab/nozzle as hero.
It just goes and goes and goes. Soon all of the American southwest is a hive of concrete. Skateboarders flock en masse to try out its arcs and curves, deep bowls and slopes perfect for next year’s X-Games. The galleries of New York fill with photographs and watercolors; avant-garde black-and-white films are released to great fanfare at European festivals; the President visits, complaining that it blocks access to resources vital to the extraction industry.
Soon the original – and real, mind you – purpose of the viab/nozzle is achieved: they are sent up to the moon, and Mars, and beyond – perhaps even to the bottom of the sea – in order to begin a more inhabitable, humanly useful construction.
They gaze back lovingly at the Earth, at the deserts of America, and the results of their ancestor’s first workings. The future origin myth for a race of interplanetary architect-machines.
(All quotations from Bruce Sterling, ‘An Architect’s Wet-Cement Dream’ in *Wired*, Feb 2005).