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Architects must embrace 3D printing

This technology is here to stay, says Rory Olcayto

When architects have a go at new technologies, you know those technologies are going to be big. There were calls to reject the easy charms of CAD in the ’80s and ’90s and now 3D printing is facing fresh attacks.

A nervy article by Amanda Levete in the New Statesman last week countering ‘the unchecked evangelism around the advent of 3D printing’ and which argues in favour of handmade design, is typical of the neo-Luddite tendency many architects share.

Placing her faith in the art of the accident, Levete says that handcrafted design processes are built upon resistance, and the possibilities disruption offers: ‘We make models to test our thinking in three dimensions. Whether it is kneading a piece of plasticine, cutting and gluing card or folding a piece of paper, so much can happen at this fragile moment: the scalpel might slip but suggest a clever way of dealing with a difficult junction.’

On the other hand, she says, 3D printing is all about surrender. ‘The second you press that button to transmit your computer file to the machine that builds up your design, layer by microscopic layer of resin, you relinquish all control.’

Levete enlists Richard Sennett too, quoting from his book The Craftsman a simplistic maxim to prove her point that 3D printing is a bad idea: ‘Machines break down when they lose control, whereas people make discoveries, stumble on happy accidents.’

The control Levete fears losing however, is not one of design surrendered to automated processes, but one in which design is surrendered to the public. She warns against Chris Anderson’s prophecy in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution that 3D printing will make designers of us all. This is a straight plea to preserve the profession’s mystique. That artful slip of the scalpel after all takes at least seven years to master.

Levete’s architecture, defined by polygonal shapes, spline curves and blobs that look as if they have been fashioned using 3D software are often designed and built using traditional techniques. Her buildings seem to embody the hazy relationship architectural design has with digital form-making tools, and that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice.

New technologies can be accommodated by the architectural practices Levete seeks to protect. Consider a handmade model, one shaped by resistance and mistakes, scanned into a 3D graphics programme where it is tweaked a little - and in which it’s possible to make mistakes too - which is then 3D printed. There’s plenty of scope for resistance there.


Underlying the rejection of 3D printing is the chronic fear many architects have of learning how to use new tools. That stems from a desire to stick to long established practices (the sketch, the plan, the section, the maquette) that have remained the same since Renaissance Italy, and which constitute the essence of the architect’s secret skills.

3D printing is no threat to architectural practice and its emergence does not signal the demise of the professional designer. Just because it’s possible to print your own house, why should we think that everyone will? Cubase didn’t put Quincy Jones on the dole and Quark didn’t make Rupert Murdochs of us all. Architects instead should master 3D printing and sell their expertise. This technology is here to stay.

But whether architects should 3D print or not is a sideshow few are watching. Last week the world’s first 3D printed gun - the Liberator - was fired in the US. The sound it made was of the century changing gear. Resistance will prove to be futile.


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