Tucked between a masseuse and vegan bakery in stacks of candy-coloured shipping containers bordering Regents Canal in east London, a robot busily churns out row after row of bio-bricks using starch, vinegar, and glycerine. In just a few weeks’ time, 700 of these 3D printed bricks will have found their way to a 16th century palace in Milan.
Now, the cutting-edge technology flows through Palazzo Isimbardi’s open courtyard and opulent marble interiors like a pixelated waterfall, temporarily fissuring shut the six century gap between the architecture of past and present. It leads out into a tranquil back garden, dissolving among the horse chestnut trees and Japanese acers.
Conifera, as the undulating structure would come to be called, is the brainchild of French architect and designer Authur Mamou-Mani. The son of a Tunisian computer scientist and a French environmentalist, the 36 year-old Paris-born, London-based architect is living proof that the binary between nature and technology is indeed a false one. “My parents were huge advocates of technology, but also environmental protection and sustainable growth, and I grew up discussing this relationship,” reflects Mamou-Mani. “It’s a conflict we urgently need to resolve.”
Philosophising around the dinner table complemented his rather techy studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where Mamou-Mani became fluent in the coding languages that would later become the backbone of his practice. It was only when the architect arrived at the Architectural Association in London that he realised his passion for technology could be fluidly translated into the built environment through parametric design and digital fabrication tools.
Stretched between art and science, you’d expect Mamou-Mani, like most architects, to pick one and outsource the other. But it’s precisely within this sticky in-between that he seems to thrive—a rich juxtaposition that the architect sees as endemic to French and British sensibilities. “I wrote my thesis on the link between the Parisian Flaneur and Sherlock Holmes in the UK,” he shares. “They occurred at similar moments in history but reveal a fundamental contrast between the two cultures: namely, the poetic emotionalism of the French and the pragmatic logic of the English.”
His professional experience occupies a similar threshold: before founding his own practice, Mamou-Mani cut his teeth in the offices of Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid. “Nouvel’s practice was rooted in narrative; while at Zaha it was very bottom-up, very high-tech: we were learning from the algorithms and rules derived from the building site,” he explains.
When Mamou-Mami set up his own eponymous practice in 2011, he put down his roots in that cross-over of poetry and technology. Focusing on digital design and fabrication solutions, his portfolio ranges from remodelling the staircase of a Victorian-era apartment in Elephant & Castle to a proposal for an adaptable skyscraper inspired by the blockchain in Dubai (and built by the architect’s construction robot, the Polybot, currently in prototype phase). Many of the team of seven’s completed projects are pop-ups: from Burning Man, the annual desert festival cherished by tech elite, to the Amsterdam Light Festival, and not least Conifera.
Craft can always be scaled up, argues Mamou-Mani, who is equally committed to the use of new technologies in a grassroots context. “The biggest misunderstandings surrounding 3D printing and digital design is that it’s expensive, it’s too complex for normal people to learn, and it’s the gateway for robots taking all of our jobs,” half-jokes Mamou-Mani. “When the automobile was invented, of course it made some jobs obsolete: like the farrier who shoed horses, which was actually a speciality in Hackney. But look at all of the new jobs it created.”
In 2015, Mamou-Mani set up a digital fabrication laboratory called FabPub adjacent to his office in Hackney. Here, locals can have their design dreams brought to reality through an arsenal of tools: 3D printing, laser cutting, and engraving services are all on offer on a DIY basis, although Mamou-Mani’s eight person team is happy to offer inductions, consultations, and will even draw up designs for those less confident in their coding acumen. Mamou-Mani also offers regular workshops in Grasshopper, a popular entry-level code for digital design used by architecture software including Rhino.
“I make it a mission of mine to show how accessible this new technology is, how it can empower creativity, and give back the means of production to the people,” explains Mamou-Mani.
There’s a strong whiff of Burning Man about him, and for good reason: the architect got married out on the Nevada desert’s bone-white “playa” last summer, underneath his own monolithic, cosmic creation, the Galaxia: a mandala-shaped temple built from 20 timber trusses that eventually, as per Burning Man tradition, went up in flames as a sacrificial gesture. But it’s also discernible in the twinkle in his eye when he talks about the future possibilities of technology as a social good, and as a cross-disciplinary conduit for radical ideas like nomadic living and 3D printed food (Manou-Mani’s team worked with Shoreditch restaurant FOOD INK back in 2016 to create the world’s first 3D-printing restaurant, with computer-made hummous, chocolate mousse, and goat’s cheese on offer).
When asked about the Fourth Industrial Revolution—or the total infusion of digital and physical worlds—Mamou-Mani’s enthusiasm is equally effervescent. It bubbles over in quickly uttered observations and passionate provocations on the epic potential of design—how it can create new social and economic codes, fundamentally changing the way we live through ideas like open-access downloads (print your own clothes”) and closed-loop systems with circular economies. An excitable stream-of-conscious manifesto, it clearly takes some cues from those ambling flaneurs.
But unlike the equally impassioned starchitects of Mamou-Mani’s tutelage—the Zahas and Nouvels of the world—there is little space here for ego, and he’s not interested in it. Manou-Mani is a beacon of post-digital design philosophy: far from the seamless permanence and total takeover of the impending robot revolution promised in the aughts, imperfection and temporality are core aspects of his work. Mamou-Mani considers this as an ongoing process with a singular learning curve from project to project.
“The architect does not have all the solutions,” he argues. “Far from it. Architects are quite abstracted from pragmatic solutions. As architects it’s important to admit we know nothing and be a sponge: to learn as much as we can from everyone’s skills.” He considers both his architectural practice and FabPub as the two fundamental pillars of his practice: one a place where he has his own personality and agenda, and the design lab, where he can help everyone achieve that; in both, he learns as much as he teaches. “My work exists in both of those worlds: one of the poetic and personal, and the other of a deeply democratic empowerment.”
Mamou-Mani’s magical thinking has clearly had an impact on his client, COS. This is the eighth year the Swedish fashion house has exhibited at Salone; harkening from collaborations with architects, artists, and designers from Studio Swine to Sou Fujimoto, they are typically weightless, seamless installations. This year’s choice consciously steps away from the drive for material perfection, and instead spotlights a truly future-focused design.
Like all of Mamou-Mani’s creations, Conifera should be read as a kind of provocation: an investigation into the field of possibility over surface-level spotlessness. Just as the bio-bricks will have second and third lives to come—with a chunk being shipped to the COS store in Coal Drops Yard, London, a chunk going home to Mamou-Mani’s box office, and the rest melted back down and distributed locally in Milan, Mamou-Mani sees his work as an ever-morphing thing, freely crossing borders and material states, as part of its own infinitely generative closed-loop system. Mamou-Mani’s work is deeply embedded in both the real and speculative, with one leg (or printed structural member, as the case may be) firmly planted in the future to come.