I wrote last week about an Ireland-based company that developed a 3D printer that creates models with paper, which lowers the materials cost of this type of printing. Last month, a California design studio achieved another milestone in 3D printing applications.
According to the studio, Smith|Allen, its "Echoviren" project is the first full-scale 3D-printed architectural installation in the world. But this claim may be refuted by designers who have created other full-scale architectural prints, or by architects currently developing 3D-printed buildings that actually keep the rain off one's head. (What defines an "architectural installation," anyway?) Nevertheless, Smith|Allen's construction is notable in the way it marks the transition from prototyping—which has long been the primary use of 3D printing—to full-scale fabrication.
According to the designers, "Echoviren" is a name related to coastal redwood trees, and means "always alive" or "always growing." The pavilion is an open-air construction made of nearly 600 modules of 3D-printed PLA (cornstarch), and its geometry is that of a cone that has been gently pinched and twisted near the top, presumably for increased structural rigidity. The perforated building modules are intended to represent the cells of sequoia trees that have been enlarged and abstracted.
From a distance, "Echoviren" is a visually arresting structure that glows brightly in the midst of a redwood forest. On closer inspection, however, it becomes immediately apparent that the pavilion comprises many PLA 3D prints—a medium that is now all too familiar to architecture students and practitioners who actively use 3D printing. Moreover, the horizontal joints seem to contradict the nature of the cellular structure that the designers were attempting to employ.
Despite the limitations of "Echoviren," Smith|Allen has made at least two important contributions here, in addition to printing one of the first full-scale works of architecture: devising a structural strategy to create a self-supporting pavilion out of small PLA blocks, and developing a representation language that relates to the material substance of its context without aping it. As the biodegradable installation decays naturally over time, it may actually get better with age—a strange luminous apparition sloughing off its skin, deep within the primeval forest.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.