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Sci-fi 'gothic' architecture brought to life

  • Swiss architect has built fantastical form using "subdivision algorithm"
  • Column is composed of 16 million faces generated by computer
  • Computational architecture increasingly key to architectural practice

London, England (CNN) -- It looks like an architectural fantasy from a world far in the future, but Michael Hansmeyer's complex column design is so real you can touch it.

His work is composed of sixteen million faces and made from 2,700 layers of cardboard. It is the result of a cutting-edge computational process and people's responses to it are just as improbable.

"Some people say it looks like a reptile, some people think it looks like an underwater creature and other people bring up the Gothic," said Hansmeyer, an architect and computer scientist based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

The incredible complexity of the column's fractal surface is the product of what is known as a "subdivision algorithm," a process that used a computer program to divide and sub-divide the the facets of a classical Doric column.

To make the design reality, laser cutters sliced the design out of 2,700 individual layers of 1mm-thick cardboard sheets. The layers were then stacked around a load-bearing core to produce a 2.7 meter-high prototype.

Some people say it looks like a reptile, some people think it looks like an underwater creature and other people bring up the Gothic
--Michael Hansmeyer, architect and computer scientist

This school of design is broadly termed computational architecture -- architectural models generated by a computer program.

"For me, it's about expanding the language of design, expanding what kinds of forms one can produce and what kinds of systems of ornament one can generate," Hansmeyer said.

He is busy creating a forest of similar Gothic-style columns. These are being produced in a similar way to the cardboard original, only this time out of more durable plastic, with plans for them to be installed out of doors.

"Beyond it, the idea is to generate architecture, inhabitable space or some definition of a space," he continued, adding that next on his to-do list might be either a vault or an arch.

Computational architecture is increasingly important in architectural practice. "You'd be hard-pressed to find young architects that aren't designing on computers," said Ari Kardasis, a graduate researcher in computation and design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The traditional notion of an architect having a vision of a building and then drawing it either on paper or on a computer and then constructing it isn't really how architecture works and in reality the computer has a lot of influence on design," he added.

But Kardasis, who is part of a group dedicated to computational architecture and design at the university, points out that computational architecture has a long history, and was around as a process even before the computer came into existence.

In reality the computer has a lot of influence on design.
--Ari Kardasis, graduate researcher in computation and design, MIT

He cites late-19th century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, master-planner of the wildly Gothic, unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, as a forerunner of computational architecture.

Gaudi, he explained, would make models using strings with weights attached to them to create a kind of digital sculpture composed of numerous curves.

"So there's a long lineage of this kind of thinking before the computer even came around," Kardasis said.

As for the potential of computational architecture, and the type of designs Hansmeyer is prototyping, the future looks bright.

"I think the interest in the past couple of years has been gigantic," Hansmeyer said.

"In the late 1990s, a lot of the technology, a lot of the research, was about creating shapes in the computer," he continued.

"And then in the last 5 to 8 years, people have been interested in how we can get it out of the computer again, how do we actually produce this?" he said.

With computers becoming ever more sophisticated, it may not be long before Hansmeyer is able to build an entire cathedral.


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