Michael Hansmeyer is an architect and programmer who explores the role of computation to generate and fabricate architectural form. Recent projects include the construction of two full-scale 3D printed grottos for Centre Pompidou and FRAC’s Archilab exhibition, an installation of subdivided columns at the Gwangju Design Biennale, and the Platonic Solids series. Most recently, Michael taught as visiting professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He previously taught at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and Southeast University in Nanjing. Prior to this, he worked at Herzog & de Meuron architects and in the consulting and financial industries at McKinsey & Company and J.P. Morgan respectively.


Artistic proposition

Digital Grotesque II
Tools of Imagination

Today, we can fabricate anything. Digital fabrication now functions at both the micro and macro scales, combining multiple materials, and using different materialization processes. Complexity and customization are no longer impediments in design.
While we can fabricate anything, design arguably appears confined by our instruments of design. It seems that our current design tools operate within a too tightly prescribed scope: we can only design what we can directly represent. What we need are new types of design instruments. We need tools for search and exploration, rather than simply control and execution. They require a design language without the need for words and labels, as they should create the previously unseen. Knowledge and experience are acquired through search, demanding heuristics that work in the absence of categorization.
The project Digital Grotesque II seeks to develop such tools. It is a human-scale, highly ornamental grotto that was specifically designed to exploit the potentials of large-scale binderjet sand printing. It was guided by the search for new design instruments, and by a redefinition of the role of the computer vis-à-vis the architect.
While many of today’s 3D software packages allow the design of highly articulated surfaces, they generally lack the ability to generate the complex topologies that a 3D printer is capable of materializing. In Digital Grotesque II, a new type of topological subdivision algorithm was devised to allow the refinement of solid volumes. A form of genus zero can thereby evolve into a form with a genus of thousands, creating topologically complex, porous, multi-layered structures with spatial depth. These forms would be nearly impossible to produce using traditional means, yet are perfectly suitable to binderjet sand printing.
Given the vast solution space of such an algorithm, the question of how to explore and navigate the possibilities is key. Rather than work within a cycle of computer-proposed permutations that are then evaluated and selected by the architect, an attempt was made to let the computer itself evaluate the forms it generates. An optimization can take place in which forms are gradually evolved towards specific goals. But in the absence of functional design criteria – in the case of a grotto – towards which goals should the forms be optimized? Can one quantify notions such as beauty, interestingness, or newness?
Initially, no correlations were found between desirability of a form, and either its process parameters or its geometric attributes. Yet once the perspective of the spectator was also taken into account, two measures for desirability could be formulated: the depth complexity of a form, and its experienceability. The first measure stems from ray tracing in computer graphics, and denotes how many times a ray of light reflects off of a surface before reaching the eye of the spectator. It measures the spatial depth of a form. The second measure, experienceability, denotes a how much a spectator has to change his position or orientation in order to perceive the form in its entirety.
In Digital Grotesque II, the computer evolved forms to maximize these two criteria. It learned to create fragments of the grotto for which the depth complexity and the experienceability were particularly high. In doing so, the computer gained a degree of autonomy, becoming a partner in design to help us to exceed our imaginations.
If 3D printing is thought of as a medium between writing (designing) and reading (spatial experiences) architecture, then the use of computational tools can help us to create exciting new narratives.