Arthur Mamou-Mani: Digital Fabrication and the Future of Architecture

Digital fabrication technologies such as 3D printing are increasingly gaining ground in architecture, but the future potential is vast. Lucy Ingham speaks to architect and digital fabrication pioneer Arthur Mamou-Mani about how the technology could transform the field for the better

Images courtesy of Perkins+Will

These are challenging times for the world of architecture, with many practices and architects facing an uncertain future. Arthur Mamou-Mani, the founder of London-based practise Mamou-Mani, is no different.

“It's a little bit messy,” he says, speaking to me from our respective places of isolation. “There's lots of projects cancelled, things happening, client conversations.”
But despite the concerns that the Covid-19 coronavirus has brought to the field, Mamou-Mani is hugely positive about what lies ahead for the industry, particularly when it comes to how digital fabrication is transforming what it means to be an architect.

“It's advanced really, really quickly, from the size of the machines, to the amount of places that expand on research, to the clients being aware of the possibilities, to the blending of suppliers and architects creating new companies,” he says.

“It's been a really interesting shuffle of what an architect used to be.”

 Arthur Mamou-Mani

Galaxia, the central structure at Burning Man 2018.

Digital fabrication: Reconnecting architects with the built world

While this transformation is ongoing, Mamou-Mani has long been at the forefront of innovation in architectural digital fabrication. His practise focuses on digitally designed and fabricated architecture, using new and emerging technologies to produce bold architectural projects. 

These include structures such as Conifera, a 3D printed installation at the 2019 Salone del Mobile for COS, and Galaxia, the spiralling central structure at the 2018 Burning Man festival, as well as a number of more permanent projects for private clients.

However, while the at times otherworldly structures that his practise produces may seem removed from more traditional parts of architecture, he sees digital fabrication as a key part of architecture’s future, providing an antidote to what he sees as a growing separation between design and reality.

“When the architect is able to produce stuff, he has control over the cost, he has control over the detailing, and there was a real disconnection between the architect and the contractor,” he says.

“ By reconnecting architects with the machines that create the design, you are reconnecting the world of conception with the world of making. 

“We saw it little by little, where the contractor takes this sort of abstract concept, takes the entire contract and then it becomes this design and build thing, so the architect just became the sort of concept designer. 

“This really was bad, and so when I hear designed by this architect, when we know that the contractor took over the thing at a very early concept stage, I always cringe because, to me, every aspect of design is designed. 

“From the size of a truck that constrains your building to the fireman telling you that this is not compliant, all this is design, and by reconnecting architects with the machines that create the design, you are reconnecting the world of conception with the world of making. And to me, that's ultimately the best thing about that, it's to reconnect the designers with what they actually designed.”

From fringe technology to mainstream reality

3D printing has only begun to be explored in the built environment in the last 15 years, but the technology has been around for much longer. Now, however, Mamou-Mani says that clients are showing a genuine enthusiasm for the technology and what it can offer their projects.

“3D printing is not so new; it was invented in 1983, but it had a steady movements and people got excited about it around 2005-ish, so it took a while to get people's imagination,” he says.

“I think as soon as people's imagination is taken by it, the shift is quite radical, because it takes a client that is interested in communicating that technology as part of the process of choosing architects, of choosing the type of buildings they want to do. And I've noticed this a lot: people come to us because we represent a new way of doing things with technology. 

“ People come to us because we represent a new way of doing things with technology. 

“Architects haven't fully embraced digital fabrication and parametric design yet, but the general public is starting to really see the value of it.”

He says that the growing understanding by clients has been greatly helped by social media, where “people are posting possibilities”.

“Let's say someone in his bedroom with a 3D printer [finds] out that you can blend, I don't know, mud with a certain additive and then puts it online for everyone to access. It's been pretty amazing for anyone who's up for innovation to reach out to the world,” Mamou-Mani explains. 
“The number of times I received from a client: 'hey, look at this earth-printing machine. Can we do that?' And they know to come to me because we've been quite early in that.”

Mecanoo's design for Futian Civic Culture Center in Shenzhen, China, features numerous sky gardens | Image courtesy of Mecanoo

3D printed buildings and the post-coronavirus world

Equipped with its own large-scale 3D printer and a growing portfolio of projects involving digital fabrication, Mamou-Mani’s practise is able to more precisely define the final structures than with traditional construction methods. And he sees the immediacy this enables to be particularly valuable during the uncertainty created by the coronavirus.

“It’s pretty exciting, even in this weird time, and actually maybe even more in this weird time because people know that because we use digital fabrication it's probably more connected to the physical outputs,” he says. 

“So we can do a lot of digital work and they know that we'll be quite aligned with physical outputs, and that you don't need that many people to operate the machines. And therefore, in this time of self-isolation, it's a pretty good thing I think.”

“ It’s pretty exciting in this weird time because people know that because we use digital fabrication it's probably more connected to the physical outputs. 

The practise’s main large-scale 3D printer, which is located on-site at its studio in the London, UK, borough of Hackney, was created by Italian company World's Advanced Saving Project (WASP).

“The reason I use their machine really is just because they called me because we released open-source software to do 3D printing called silkworm. And they started using it and then they were like: Arthur, come to us in the mountains of Bologna in Italy,” he says.

“They're all Buddhists, and they have giant 3D printers where they try to create buildings made of earth with giant 3D printers. Oh, wow, I was under the spell, and they were kind enough to create a sort of partnership with us and then we received the first 3m-high 3D printer, which is now on Hackney Road for everyone to see, which is quite fun because everyone can actually enjoy seeing such a big machine produce stuff.”

Conifera was an installation at the 2019 Salone del Mobile for COS, constructed using the WASP 3D printer at Mamou-Mani’s studio.

Locally built, environmentally friendly

While sustainability may not be the most immediate concept that 3D printing and other digital fabrication technologies such as laser cutting or CNC machining bring to mind, Mamou-Mani sees the technology as having significant environmental benefits.

“When one thinks about the consequences of having a very accessible machine for designers and architects, you can see how the means of production comes back to the local community,” he says, pointing to the practise’s own 3D printer as an example.

“Whenever we produce a project, like the one we did with COS, for example, we can actually produce it in our courtyard. And that's really amazing for people, because factories were kind of separated from people.

“When we started creating big factories during the Industrial Revolution, everyone was like, 'oh, it's terrible, the conditions', all of that. And then they all went to the developing countries, and then now we're like, 'oh, it's horrible, made in China, blah, blah'. 

“And then now is a new age where we have our printers and our technology next to us. So I think this evolution has changed the way we perceive machines and robots. And it's actually helped us do local manufacturing and use bio-materials that we weren't aware of as well.”

Mamou-Mani is also a lecturer on the University of Westminster’s Master of Architecture course, and here he is helping his students explore the environmentally friendly applications of digital fabrication, based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that found we have 10 years left to take sufficient action on emissions.

“ When one thinks about the consequences of having a very accessible machine for designers and architects, you can see how the means of production comes back to the local community. 

“I know it sounds weird now because we've got the virus, but when we saw that report, we were all terrified, really,” he says.

This prompted Mamou-Mani and his fellow lecturer Toby Burgess to move away from Burning Man projects, which previously saw students help design and construct structures for the festival that would be burnt at its end. 

“We were like, okay, we think we should probably focus on this pressing issue and I think the young students were particularly wanting to tackle this problem through architecture, because the construction industry, I think it's the second or third worst industry,” he says, adding that it was vital to focus on getting the science right to avoid a greenwashing approach.

“So we started researching materials, which materials are best: is it timber? Are there any bio-epoxies we can use? Are there any renewables we can use, anything that can last, because it's a building at the end of the day, but also maybe [it can] be disassembled to start thinking of this whole cradle-to-cradle approach,” he says. 

“And in a way the Burning Man research was good because we learn how to think of the afterlife of projects and how to build in a modular way in an extreme scenario, but it's good to take this back into an accessible thing for everyone.”
This has produced a host of creative and innovative projects from students, that marry environmental approaches with digital fabrication.

“We have students that are looking at banana yarns and leaves and all the by-products of the industrial, the agricultural world. We have students looking at how to use timber and combine it with bioplastic to create water-resistant wood. Or earth building: how do you combine metal 3D printing with earth to create the reinforcement?” he says.

“It's quite exciting when you check digital fabrication in relation to the environmental impact. I feel this has really opened up a really exciting field.”

The Sandwaves, an installation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabi, was designed by Mamou-Mani and Studio Precht and constructed using 3D printed sand. Images courtesy of Mamou-Mani | Studio Precht

Collaboration and environmental design

When it comes to using digital fabrication to further architecture’s environmental credentials, Mamou-Mani sees collaboration as vital. 
“I think there is a real collaborative nature in trying to do this,” he says. 

“It used to be that the architect could work in isolation and do their beautiful geometries and use concrete to do that and so on. And then there was this sort of awareness [that] concrete is a terrible material based on what we know about the manufacturing of cement. 

“And they're like: 'okay, we need to switch to wood'. Then people start getting excited about wood. But then they started taking trees from Austria and shipping them to China. And it was like, 'er okay, that's not gonna help'.”

He argues that architects have a key role to play in educating clients about the potential of materials, particularly when it comes to stepping away from concrete.

“So how do we assess where materials come from, where are they shipped? Architects are not really used to thinking of these things, and so the default stuff is always the client being like: 'can we use concrete here, I like the finish of concrete' because that's what they're used to,” he says.

“And like: wait a second, do you realise the impact of doing that on carbon, versus doing this? And so people are extremely sensitive to all these things. 

“ There's a sense of trying to stay positive rather than critical, but to be aware of the science behind the things that you do to avoid the usual greenwashing. 

“And I think what's quite exciting is when you start learning about the science and the stats, you can kind of look at things and almost tell your clients: 'isn't it more exciting to use this material, because then you can tell that this material comes from x and x'.”

One such example of where this has been successful is in the project The Sandwaves, an installation made from 3D printed sand in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, created in partnership with Austrian architect Chris Precht and his practise Studio Precht

“Everyone was like, 'Oh, why are you working in Saudi Arabia, the land of petrol? And I was like, because it's exciting, because we can show alternatives. And we can show that you can use sand and you can mix the local material with a resin that's not too harmful,” Mamou-Mani explains. 

“Then you can create exciting new kinds of structures. And so there's a sense of trying to stay positive rather than critical, but to be aware of the science behind the things that you do to avoid the usual greenwashing.”

Developed in collaboration with Arup, the Polibot showcases the potential of cable robots.

Future potential: Cable robots

While what can be achieved with digital fabrication now is certainly impressive, there are developments ahead that look set to transform the potential of the field. And for Mamou-Mani, perhaps the most exciting area is cable robotics.

Essentially giant versions of 3D printers, cable robots are a nascent technology that see robotic assemblers installed on cranes, so that they scale up the area of digital fabrication from a 3m cube to an entire skyscraper-sized building.

This is an area that Mamou-Mani has already begun to explore in collaboration with Arup, through a project known as Polibot. A prototype cable construction robot, Polibot can stack blocks to form a pre-programmed structure, and although it is not at the stage where it can be used in real-world construction, it was showcased at a number of museums to demonstrate where the technology is heading.

“ It's very site-friendly. And architecture is such a messy world, that's probably why we're not seeing prefabricated buildings out there too much. 

“This was exhibited at the Tate Modern through the Wired show, and then it went to the Sir John Soane's Museum and then we developed a kind of skyscraper based on it that would disassemble itself in case the economy goes bad,” says Mamou-Mani.

“It's very site-friendly. And architecture is such a messy world, that's probably why we're not seeing prefabricated buildings out there too much.”

He describes this technology as particularly exciting due to the step-change it would bring to digital fabrication.

“When you're thinking of 3D printers, they're limited in size. When you think of robotic arms, they're also limited in size because they were done for the line assembly in factories,” he says. 
“But when you start thinking of cranes, then that's another world, and the idea behind the Polibot was to mix cranes with robots and to have a kind of 3D printing crane, or a sort of assembly, a giant choreography assembling a building robotically.”