Tall Order: The new architecture of Michael Hansmeyer

Gothic, futuristic, reptilian – the lofty columns of Swiss architect Michael Hansmeyer represent a new order for a digital age.

‘Do not touch’ signs do little to stop the curious fingertips that find their way across architect and programmer Michael Hansmeyer’s infinitely detailed computer-generated columns. “The signs are completely ignored. Everyone wants to put their hands inside and on them. But that’s nice to see,” he says.

Whatever associations the imposing structures evoke – they have been described as gothic, futuristic and even reptilian – their complexity is enthralling. Each column possesses a unique fractured topography filled with branches and webs; surfaces flow out and fold back on themselves, with details too intricate to render by hand.

Having first exhibited one column in 2010, Zurich-based Hansmeyer showed The Sixth Order, four permutations of his designs, at the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea. Despite the focus on Doric columns, he has no interest in reimagining this ancient structure. Instead, the project represents the shift computer programming is causing in architecture, with architects designing processes to generate forms rather than the forms themselves.

The columns are designed with a mathematical formula commonly used in animation. The algorithm cuts the surface of a simple shape into ever-smaller faces to make hard edges appear rounded; this is repeated with each new face, creating millions of faces.

Some people find them very aggressive. We get a person every once in a while who rushes out in shock

“If one changes the parameters of the algorithm, then suddenly you create shapes that are not just rounded but display entirely different characteristics,” says Hansmeyer.

The architect shifts the points between facets slightly, skewing and rotating them so that the next set of divisions creates an entirely different effect, but he cannot predict the final form. The columns are then manufactured via a digital printer in 2700 horizonal layers of ABS plastic. which are assembled around a steel core.

At present, they remain exhibition pieces. Hansmeyer imagines that in the future they could be used within contemporary architecture, but whether people would want the alien-like structures in their homes is another matter. At nearly three metres, the towering columns of minute patterns elicit immediate responses in viewers.

“Some people find them very aggressive. We get a person every once in a while who rushes out in shock,” says Hansmeyer. But he wouldn’t presume to tell people what to think. “Where is the line between beautiful and interesting? I do find them aesthetically pleasing on some level. But they can also be overwhelming.” An intriguing mode of expression has been generated.

This was first published in Vogue Living Jan/Feb 2012. Download a PDF of the original story. Photographs courtesy of Michael Hansmeyer and Kyungsub Shin.