Dutch practice DUS proposes an alternative architecture through social networks, temporary interventions and open sourcing. Now it is printing its first building, a canal house in Amsterdam, which it hopes will be replicated and reworked along the city's northern waterways
For the generation that remembers Penny Crayon – a short-lived BBC children's cartoon about a girl who could draw anything with her magic crayons and find it miraculously spring to life – the appeal of 3D printing is immediately understandable. The transition from whimsy to finished form might not be as instant, but the premise still elicits childlike wonder. Take an idea, turn it into a digital model and watch a machine make it a reality.
But so far our imaginations have run far wilder than anything a 3D printer has actually delivered. The conceptual gulf between the plastic gadgets on Thingiverse, the user community of low-cost printer MakerBot, and say Foster + Partners' plan to print a lunar base from moon dust, has yet to be traversed. At the start of the year, Dutch architect Janjaap Ruissjenaars made another sensational claim – to have designed the first 3D-printed house. The house, a looped form said to represent the endlessness of landscape, is to be replicated around the world as a series of monumental spectacles. It will be printed in 9 by 6m sections of cement and binder using Italian inventor Enrico Dini's D-Shape, a large-scale printer that has been lying in wait since completing the Gaudi-esque Radiolaria pavilion in 2010. Radiolaria was the world's first printed building, and Dini the first to successfully scale the technology for architectural applications. Although there are plans to build as early as 2014, Ruissjenaars' design is frustratingly still a much-touted render, bringing us no closer to distinguishing between fantasy and reality in the nascent world of 3D-printed architecture.
To DUS Architects, a young Amsterdam practice that also has ambitions to build a 3D-printed house this year, it seems a strange way of co-opting the technology. "It's one thing to learn by doing and another to have an idea in your head and expect a printer to make it," says Hedwig Heinsman, who runs the office with partners Hans Vermeulen and Martine de Wit. DUS sees 3D printing as a craft to be mastered, a matter of working in tune with technology rather than asking it to conjure abstract forms. The KamerMaker, a large mirrored shipping container that houses DUS's prototype large-scale 3D printer, sits in the office's front garden, causing local intrigue. "We already had a small printer for some time, and thought it would be fascinating to scale it up," says Heinsman. "We put it where everyone can see it because it's really this showcase for the evolution of our print research."
DUS plans to use the KamerMaker to print the ground floor and entire facade of a Dutch canal house, on a site in the north of Amsterdam, mirroring the famous canal-belt layout of the south. "In Amsterdam, the canal belt has this very iconic architecture and is this big public gesture for the city," says Heinsman. "But at the same time it's about personal design. Each house is different in style and that's why you can recognise it as the place where you live. We want to [use 3D printing] introduce a new vernacular, a very nicely ornamented, personal architecture."
An arch test-printed in preparation for The Canal House (image: DUS)
The test prints for the facade are indeed delightful, careful studies in texture and geometry. Slight nuances lift them from that unerring aesthetic of digital smoothness and perfect replication. The prints have their own structural and formal logic, borrowing from the canal house typology but forging a new visual language. Glitches and imperfections make them satisfyingly real, revealing the work of a human, engaged in trial and error, and not just a machine. The thought involved is a relief to those terrified the advent of 3D-printed architecture implies a kind of dystopian rootlessness; a playground of arbitrary shapes copied or conceived, printed and dropped into place cheaply and quickly.
So far, the office has been test-printing the various structures and parts of the house, but from next month they will have the technology in place to build for real. It's an exciting departure for DUS as the canal house will put years of research on reprogramming existing architecture into practice. "We think that the future of architecture is going to be much more about the mixture of static and temporal," says Heinsman. Instead of demolishing a building entirely, they suggest extending its useable life by printing a readymade interior "that can stay there for a year, five
After meeting as students at Delft Technical University, Heinsman, Vermeulen and de Wit found a shared love of actively building 1:1 projects, no matter how cheap or small. Calling their work "public architecture", they have a string of temporary, participatory installations to their portfolio – a practice they like to keep up alongside their work on masterplans and social housing. Since forming DUS in 2004, the trio have been consciously redefining the role of architect, putting social interaction at the heart of their work. Their 19-point manifesto, short lessons from each of their projects, includes words like "smile", "cook", "act unsolicited" and "play the city". "Sometimes you find the real solution is not a building at all," Vermeulen says.
BuckyBar, a dome of red umbrellas, Rotterdam, 2010 (image: DUS)
In 2009, DUS designed the BuckyBar, a dome constellation of red umbrellas placed spontaneously in a public square. An open invitation through social networks turned the BuckyBar into a party of 400 people. Vermeulen says: "For us this really shows the power of architecture. By making something beautiful, giving people shelter and a way to meet each other, we found a way of activating the space." The same trick of using cheap, common materials in an unexpected way was used for a temporary wedding hall in The Hague. Two kilometres of ventilation tubes knotted into a dome made an unusual but impressive chapel. "People recognise the material but are intrigued by its new use. It entices their curiosity and that's why they tend to love it," Heinsman says.
For Gecekondu, a temporary hotel, DUS filled bags with sand for their building material. "It was basically for sheer fun," says Heinsman. The name is Turkish for "landed overnight" and refers to an unwritten rule in Istanbul and other cities that if you can build a structure overnight, you have the right to live in it. "Which is insane in the current financial climate," says Vermeulen. "But when you think that 70% of Istanbul is built like this, you start to get ideas about how you can rethink the city." Visitors stayed in the hotel for free on the condition that they provided a public event: a party, lecture or evening of music. "People got to know each other," says Vermeulen. "It became like an analogue Facebook."
For the Amsterdam festival Love in the City, the team created Unlimited Urban Woods. The small cabin contained a single tree which, reflected in four mirrored surfaces, gave the illusion of an endless forest. And for the similarly spontaneous Bubble Building, a creation for Rotterdam's ZigZag City festival, no materials or construction were involved at all, just liquid soap. "Architecture is always the facilitator of programme but how can it be the event itself? And can it sheerly be beautiful?" Heinsman asks. "We made something that contains the making as the event, instead of building a pavilion and having no budget left to invite artists or performers to do something there." The structure is as simple as it seems, requiring people to communicate and work together to lift up handles that draw the soap up into a massive bubble around them.
Bubble Building, ZigZag City festival, Rotterdam, 2012 (image: DUS)
These installations – Heinsman hesitates to call them follies – have been an antidote for DUS to the lengthy legislative processes of traditional architecture. But they've also been critical for establishing a mode of practising architecture in a digital age. "The BuckyBar refers to Mr Fuller of course. He was a genius but unfortunately for him, there was no internet yet," says Vermeulen. "We do have the internet. We have this totally new public domain and way of communicating." Coverage on blogs turned BuckyBar from a local event to a global one, attracting feedback from all over the world. "And that's when we started to use the words 'beta-testing architecture'," Heinsman adds. "All these temporary projects, they're like architectural beta-tests. Similar to 3D printing and digital fabrication. You have something, you put it out there in the community and with their input it improves."
As a future model for architectural development, it is fascinating. And perhaps more interesting than whatever 3D-printed architecture may produce in the near future. Putting aside that childlike wonder for a machine able to make real our desires, the technology could give us a much-needed rethink of architecture as we know it. Rather than a fixed and final product, adopting an open-source attitude would see architecture gradually improved with user input and modified to meet changing needs over time. Vermeulen says: "Architecture is the physical embodiment of how we organise our world. I think one of the biggest changes will come from how we can use social networks in making physical structures. It's about how to organise the crowd."
To make the canal house a reality, it's taken a proactive, entrepreneurial spirit too. KamerMaker didn't start life as a commission or have a client, it was crowd-funded by selling 3D-printed champagne glasses designed by the office. Like any open-source project, fabrication experts and structural engineers jumped on board with interest and have been lending their knowledge to see the canal house through – the deputy mayor of Amsterdam has just endorsed the project. "Traditional architects don't really think as entrepreneurs," Heinsman says. "They basically sit and wait for clients to come. I think it's time we come up with a different attitude."