While electroforming was once used to crank out metallic sculpture and architectural ornament, it is now reserved primarily for industrial applications. But Ann Arbor, Mich.–based studio Akoaki envisions opportunities for architectural applications with “unmatched dimensional accuracy, thin material sections, complex curvatures, and refined detailing.”
Electroforming enables the precise fabrication of thin, hollow shapes in metal. A conducting mandrel, or mold, attached to a wire is immersed in an electrolyte bath with a reducing agent, such as nickel or copper. The metal dissolves into ions that deposit themselves as a uniformly thick skin around the mandrel. When the desired thickness is reached, the current is cut, and—voilà!—a solidified electroform that can be split from the mold is formed.
Supported by a grant from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, Electroform(alism) is both a prototype and an approach. The prototype, an electroformed copper wall finish, is “just a beautiful product,” juror Lawrence Scarpa said. “You want to touch it.” Meanwhile, the approach celebrates “small-scale fabrication … in service of mass customization,” Akoaki members Anya Sirota, Jean Louis Farges, and Patrick Beaucé note.
What makes the time-intensive manufacturing process efficient—each electroform unit takes about 24 hours—is the use of a single interlocking component to create the appearance of endless variation. For its prototype, Akoaki created 92 tessellation options, settling on a shape ornate enough to disguise the repeating pattern, but curvy enough for smooth electroforming. The result is similar to a sprawling cluster of molecules that bind together perfectly.
Electroforming is relevant to architecture today for four reasons, Sirota and her team argue. First, the process works at any scale, “from a cufflink to a submarine.” Second, any failed units can be dissolved back into the solution. Third, the technique lends itself to short-run production—a midpoint between the artisanal one-off and mass replication. And, finally, electroforming offers the potential of “nomadic production” with a compact, portable lab. “All you need is a source of current, a rectifier [DC adapter], a plastic garbage can, and you’re ready to plate,” they say.
Drawn to the project’s use of small-scale experimentation, juror Jing Liu noted, “You can see that there is love in it.” Though juror Bill Zahner felt that the process lacks originality, he said, “It always interests me to take technology from another industry and apply it to architecture.”
To see all of the winners of the 2013 R+D Awards, click here.
Design Firm Anya Sirota + Akoaki, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Primary Investigators Anya Sirota (assistant professor, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan), Jean Louis Farges (principal, Akoaki), Patrick Beaucé (associate professor, École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes)
Research and Design Team Nathan Doud, Assoc. AIA, John Guinn
Electroform Consultant Galvanique, Providence, R.I.—Alex Belykh
Funding Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning Research Through Making Grant