Last month I sat in on the reviews for a Creative Architecture Machines studio exploring the implications of 3D printing—in combination with the Maker Movement, a tech-influenced DIY community. This one was organized at the California College of the Arts (CCA) by professors Jason Kelly Johnson and Michael Shiloh. For the final review, they invited a cast of characters you could probably only assemble in the Bay Area, ranging from architecture nerds to technology geeks, including one Google executive wearing Glass and no doubt recording it all.

What the students produced in one semester was amazing. Their robots, mostly made out of printed parts, were complex and intricate. They moved in ways that were, if not always smooth, amazing to me in their complexity. They produced shapes and objects, extruding or layering various substances over landscapes. My favorite was melted hot glue gun sticks. I have no doubt that students at dedicated engineering schools can produce more complex, effective, and elegant robots, but these pieces had the charm of invention, exploration, and—what was most important—they were all looking for architecture.

A walking 3D printer hexapod
Courtesy Mark Sek via California College of the Arts A walking 3D printer hexapod

What architecture might mean in this context is open to question. The weakest moments in the projects came actually when those students proposed that the squiggles their little monsters produced were prototypes or models for the large-scale construction of buildings or even whole cities. That sort of automatic scaling-up does not seem to me be a very fruitful direction to explore.

Instead, what was most interesting to me was, first of all, the implication that we can eventually produce the bits and parts of buildings in ways that are not just new in form or appearance, but that respond much more quickly to continually-changing site, context, function, and cultural conditions. I wonder whether we may be able to change the process by which architecture appears from the invention and then imposition of abstract ideas, developed at one time into seemingly seamless wholes, into something closer to conceptual artist Sol LeWitt’s description of art production as “First do one thing. Then do something else.” May we be able to start with making a particular response to a site, then a construction that establishes the place, then the space of greatest importance? Then add on, bit by bit, on site and in a collaborative process, all the things that might eventually be a building?

Second, what are the aesthetic implications of this way of producing? We now have had more than a decade of sophisticated application and exploration of computer-assisted design and construction, and if there is an aesthetic to this work that foregrounds its possibility, it is one of fluidity. In that sense, it continues the modernist discovery of new materials of a malleable sort that create streamlined form—a kind of Neo-Art Nouveau and Neo-Art Deco. The implications that we might be able to develop aesthetics based on architecture as a kind of Semperian weaving or three-dimensional decoration has only found expression, as far as I know, in designer Greg Lynn’s work. Now we might be looking at an aesthetic of bits and pieces, combining fluidity with a much more staccato assembly of elements. It might be a Neo-High Tech (leaving the return to order and classicism that intervened between Art Deco and the New Brutalist/High Tech era to British architect David Chipperfield and his conservative ilk). Will this aesthetic drown in anti-human bombast or corporate appropriation, as its earlier version did? Or will the change in process create something distinct that will not be a repetition as either farce or tragedy, but as revelation or even revolution?

It is obviously much too early to tell. My experience in San Francisco, however, as well as what I see artists and fabricators doing all over the world, makes me ready to see something of interest appear. I can only hope that we will be able to turn it into something that is socially, environmentally, and aesthetically better architecture.

Aaron Betsky 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.