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Home > “By Being Very Bespoke You Can Be Bespoke To The Sun”

“By Being Very Bespoke You Can Be Bespoke To The Sun”

Pioneering architect and proponent of parametric design, Arthur Mamou-Mani talks about the importance of experimentation for innovation & embracing imperfection in design to ID brand director Preeti Singh

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Arthur Mamou-Mani, photo by David Azia

Arthur Mamou-Mani is a renowned French architect, designer, and educator, known for his ground-breaking work in the field of digital fabrication and parametric design. He has received numerous accolades, including the prestigious RIBA award. Mamou-Mani Architects, his London-based firm, specialises in design and fabrication using cutting-edge digital tools and techniques. Mamou-Mani’s work is heavily influenced by his passion for technology, sustainability, and craftsmanship.

One of his most iconic projects is the Burning Man Temple, which he designed and built using digital techniques in collaboration with volunteers. It is a striking example of his approach to architecture, which blends technology with traditional craftsmanship and materials. Mamou-Mani is a vocal advocate for renewable materials and energy-efficient technologies, which he incorporates into many of his projects. For instance, he created a 3D- printed house using biodegradable materials like bioplastic and timber.

Collaboration and community-building are also crucial to Mamou-Mani’s work. He frequently collaborates with volunteers, architects, and designers to create ambitious and inclusive projects. Furthermore, he has mentored and taught numerous students and young architects, inspiring the next generation of designers and innovators. With his innovative ideas and passion for sustainability, Arthur Mamou-Mani is at the forefront of modern architecture.

Catharsis, Burning Man 2022, photo by Jamen Percy

What’s the role of experimentation for a designer in today’s design milieu?

Experimentation is the main aspect of innovation. If we can’t try and fail then we cannot create the iterations … it’s trial and error that enables the growth of a body of work. Every project that you see from us is the result of countless evolution, and countless failures. We often see the success at the end but you know, I always try and communicate the failures, even display them.

For example, when we did the Temple for Burning Man, the way we attached the pieces, we used straps like ratchet straps. Everyone was aghast as to how could I show it. I said that it reflected the sum of constraints that we had on-site. It was the safest way to do it since we had volunteers building it.

Galaxia, Burning Man 2018, photo by Alex Medina

Every project is an opportunity to communicate the process. It conveys the mindset of whoever has made it, rather than showing a perfect result that can be quite sterile, which I think it’s not empowering for others. Our work is not just trying to celebrate perfection but it is also celebrating the actual process behind what ends up being.

It’s about being able to show the rough edges as opposed to kind of celebrating the polished result at the end. Clearly, you favour the rough edges.

You know that’s the Wabi Sabi philosophy, which celebrates imperfection. It is amazing because we are so used to perfection. Everything needs to be perfect like the iPhones and the fancy shoes. But when you deal with environmental constraints, biomaterials, and organic materials, there is a dose of imperfection that comes with that because they’re not full of chemicals, and because they have not been using the most expensive machines, and so on. If we’re going to do environmental projects then we’re going to have to accept the cracks, accept and even celebrate them. It requires a shift in mindset.

Taking from that, what is the role of an architect or a designer today? Given what’s happening around the world in terms of resources and the kind of built environments we need?

The architect has a huge role because construction in general contributes to about 40% of all carbon emissions worldwide. Based on our choice of material, based on our design approach, we can change the course of the planet in terms of emissions, etc. It’s a big burden and I don’t think architects are aware of that. It’s very humbling because it requires us to understand the science behind what we do. Architects have a creative side but they often overlook their responsibility in terms of understanding the environmental cost of their decisions.

It doesn’t just mean using biomaterials or new kinds of materials, it means understanding boring stuff like air conditioning and its alternatives, the carbon footprint of, for example, aluminium versus steel, etc. But also if you’re going to design structures, are your structures minimising the amount of material using the right engineering approach? Are you friends with your engineers or are you imposing shapes that don’t make sense with the use of that particular material? Architects need to understand that weight on their shoulders and therefore, be more like students than teachers in a way of how to achieve these goals.

Cabana, Orange HQ, photo by Studio Naaro

I don’t know if you have noticed but in India, we seem to be having a long moment with high-rise glass structures, which doesn’t make sense in a climate like ours.

It’s like in Dubai. I think there was just this sort of modern movement where everything had to kind of look the same and had to reflect modernity, where we just forgot about ancient, vernacular rules of thermal mass and thermal cooling and we just went wild on this sort of international style. It’s a shame because we now realise that if you had sun shades, you can lower your consumption of air conditioning; the coolant gas for air conditioning is 10 times more potent than CO2. I think we need to look back at those traditional ways where people just used common sense to see whether it’s scalable to be a skyscraper.

Talking about scalability, your pursuit is also for customisation, for bespokeness. Could you elaborate on that?

That’s basically our goal — to try and find ways to scale up custom components as opposed to mass produce the same thing. The aspect of modernism was just that people copy pasted the style, and the material, and sold their products everywhere. Whereas now with 3D printers, laser cutters, parametric systems, and all these digital fabrication techniques, you can customise so you can create unique pieces. Parametric means you can adapt to a special condition as opposed to just mass produce.

By being very bespoke you can be bespoke to the sun, so if the sun is a particular angle you can adapt your geometry to the sun of that specific location. Therefore, you can have the same system but slightly adapted parametrically – that means you can be a lot more efficient. We need to look at how to do these custom systems concerning regulations. And we’re working hard on how to certify bespoke items, working with materials that are less common than concrete, steel, and glass.

Smile, Orange HQ, photo by Studio Naaro

How big a challenge is working with certifications?

Massive. Because whenever you introduce a material that’s not commonly used, you face an entire industry, an entire set of building codes that want to oppose it. So you need to prove much more. For example, in the case of fire, you need to prove that your material will not propagate it further, and you need to use advanced tools to simulate the advance of fire. And then you need to alternate between, say, organic and inorganic materials. For example, bioplastic could be mitigated by something like clay. You can alternate between these elements and prove through simulations that fire will be blocked. I find this fascinating; it just is a new way of proving things through technology as opposed to have standard copy-paste.

This must be informing your practice quite a bit. Kind of just trying to get these things up to code and everything.

It has not just changed our practice, it has defined our practice. We have an architecture studio that can push boundaries on applications but then we created a fabrication company called Fab Pub where we brought in investors, and where we commission big engineering companies and certifiers separately using our investments.

An architecture firm cannot produce a product. Architects are specifiers to some extent They design and say what to use as a material, but they don’t necessarily have the means to distribute or invent or certify. So we created a company just for that and we call it Fab Pub because it’s fabrication open to the public and empowering other architects. I believe if you want to change things, you need to empower others.

You are big on the collaborative effort. How did you come to this worldview and work view?

My family…they are all teachers so that helps. Once you teach, you’re definitely in a mode of sharing because you’re not withholding information. I started teaching at university at 28 years old, and every weekend I was also teaching the software that I was learning. I had to learn to keep up to speed so the teaching forced me to learn as well.

Our practice is very much still the continuity of our university days… it also helps to learn leadership and to understand how to not be a top-down leader. A leader should empower other leaders. I like the gardening metaphor where you are more of a gardener, where things have lives of their own especially when you do parametric design because here you write algorithms rather than create finished forms.

Boardroom, Orange HQ, photo by Studio Naaro

Are you surprised at the end of the programming process, at the visual results of your algorithms? 

There’s always an element of surprise but these are micro surprises because there are micro checks along the way. There’s the effect of the first goal, right? And usually, the first goal is totally ugly and terrible but then that already gives us a sense of where we should go. Then we do another branch, then it branches out, then it branches out. You could think of it like a natural evolution, like slight mutation and then slight mutation and testing, slight mutation and testing, and so on. Therefore, I really like it when someone shares something very ugly at the start and we all have the knowledge it’s ugly or it’s not working because it allows us to just get cracking with the process.

What about the argument that technology is taking away all the creative prowess and joy of designing?

I get that a lot. The idea that the software does the design for us implies that we were doing all the design and that’s a misunderstanding or a pretension. Architects act as if they’re the almighty creators when the material dictates what it wants. The regulations dictate what they want. Then the design software. Even our sketchbooks; all our tools have always been drivers of what we can do.

Take for example the usual materials – timber and stone. These materials dictate what we can do with them, they have constraints. We don’t clay-mold the world to our desires. That notion is just wrong. AI software can generate images based on the prompts. It’s still a craft, and we need to master the art of prompts. It is still very hard to get anything out of it that is useful for architects. And so I think if they are fearful of it, they should try and use it and they will not be fearful anymore because they’ll realise it doesn’t do what you need. I think it was the same with 3D printing and we realised it’s full of constraints and very hard to use. And it’s a craft. Every tech leads to a craft. If they want to be a craftsman of that tech, then they’ll realise how to master it. But they shouldn’t be fearful of something they haven’t touched.

Conifera, COS X Arthur Mamou-Mani

What’s the caveat?

My only fear would be that we’re so disconnected from the making of that tool. Because to learn AI, you’d have to learn code. You’d have to learn the principles behind things like machine learning. And you’d have to practice. My dad was a computer scientist, so we learned computer science very early on and therefore it wasn’t so disconnected. So when we use this algorithm, we are already familiar with algorithmic design. I worry that the architects are too far removed from any of the makings of that tool.

I would recommend trying to understand computer science and there are so many good ways to do it. I mean there are so many classes online there’s so many. I would recommend this to every architect. To understand the basics of computer science so that they remove a little bit of that fear of AI.

You mentioned about the materials dictating their own form. Now with AI, at some point in time, do you think we will see the built world around which looks very different from what it has been looking like historically. When will this happen and how much of it will happen?

It’s a really good question. The speed at which we’re going to implement the change will be dependent on our successes as architects to show the value of these changes. I think the problem with architects is they lost a lot of credibility with the general public when modernism happened. When modernism happened, we started doing these structures stripped of any ornament. They were concrete, ugly things and the public was like, what the hell? With 3D printing and with new technology and potentially AI we can bring back a new kind of ornamentation that is beautiful, organic, and intricate. One of the reason I went to see the temples in Hampi was that they’re so intricate, almost like fractal intricacy that good for the soul like it’s they’re almost meditative.

When you look at nature, a tree is so intricate whereas if everything is smooth and like a big cube of concrete. Your soul just sort of slips past it and doesn’t have time to spend meditating on it. I think the new technology will allow to bring that back. But also make it affordable.

Conifera, COS X Arthur Mamou-Mani

In a country like India, in terms of building with AI, how does one integrate parametric architecture or these new tech tools currently? 

I see amazing architects in India like Nuru Karim or Studio Ant that do really innovative stuff. The key is to not necessarily think that parametric design means using crazy shape and then imposing them on the world. On the contrary, it’s starting from say a brick and then takes that brick in the computer and apply parametric intelligence to the brick. Create some gradients with the brick or create some movement with the brick. I say brick as an example, but it could also be anything.

What innovation or movement are you excited about coming out of the design industry?

I am excited by the whole transition from inorganic materials to organic materials like concrete, steel, aluminium, glass to wood, biomaterials, bioplastics, bio insulative material. All these organic elements can grow as opposed to being mined. At the moment we mine most of our building materials, but we can grow them. I’m excited to transition to that because what it forces us to do is to think of how to grow things, how to treat them to become materials, how to certify them, how to make them safe, and then how to discard them. It opens up an entire territory of thinking through and it opens up our scope as architects and also the need for collaboration.


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