Subdivided Columns   (2010-)

This project involves the conception and design of a new column order based on subdivision processes. It explores how subdivision can define and embellish this column order with an elaborate system of ornament.

An abstracted doric column is used as an input form to the subdivision processes. Unlike the minimal input of the Platonic Solids project, the abstracted column conveys significant topographical and topological information about the form to be generated. The input form contains data about the proportions of the column's shaft, capital, and base. It also contains information about its fluting and entasis.

The input form is tagged to allow the subdivision process to distinguish between individual components. This allows a heterogeneous application of the process, with distinct local parameter settings.

The initial subdivided column was fabricated out of greyboard at ETH Zurich in 2010. Subsequently, four CNC-milled ABS columns were produced for the Gwangju Design Biennale 2011. The project was revisited for the Expo 2017 in Astana, making use of a new high-speed serial laser cutter.


For the subdivided columns, the architect effectively designs a process that produces a column, rather than designing a column directly. This process can be run again and again with different parameters to create endless permutations of columns. These permutations can be combined into new columns, and can form the point of departure for new generations of columns. The architect assumes the role of the orchestrator of these processes.

Unlike traditional design processes, the single subdivision process generates the form at all its scales: from the overall proportions and curvatures, to smaller local surface formations, down to the formation of a micro-structure. The process adds information at all scales, without resorting to any type of repetition. The result is a series of columns that exhibit both highly specific local conditions as well as an overall coherency and continuity. The ornament is in a continuous flow, yet it consists of very distinct local formations. The complexity of the column contrasts with the simplicity of its generative process.



The initial subdivided column is a full-scale, 2.7-meter-high variant of the columns was fabricated as a layered model using 1mm sheet. Each sheet was individually cut using a laser cutter. Sheets are stacked and held together by poles that run through a common core.

The calculation of the cutting path for each sheet takes place in several steps. First, the six million faces of the 3D model are intersected with a plane representing the sheet. This step generates individual line segments that are tested for self-intersection and subsequently combined to form polygons. Next, a polygon-in-polygon test deletes interior polygons. A series of filters then ensures that convex polygons with peninsulas maintain a minimum isthmus width. In the final step, an interior offset is calculated with the aim of hollowing out the slice to reduce weight.

While the mean diameter of the column is 50cm, the circumference as measured by the cutting path can reach up to 8 meters due to the complexity of its surface.

Sixth Order: Gwangju Design Biennale 2011

The Sixth Order installation at the Gwangju Design Biennale 2011 continues the development of a column order based on subdivision processes. It explores not the design of an object, but the design of a process to generate objects. This procedural approach inherently shifts the focus from a single object to a family of objects: endless permutations of a theme can be generated.

For the Gwangju Biennale, a single process was used to generate four individual columns. These four columns have not a single surface or motif in common, yet due to their shared constituent process, they clearly form a coherent group.

When entering the exhibition room, the viewer at first perceives sixteen columns. This effect, created by the use of two floor-to-ceiling mirrors on adjoining walls, is intentionally accentuated by the columns' design. Thus, the columns are symmetrical along only a single axis, and they have a different appearance when seen from the front or the back. In effect, two permutations are united in a single column - with eight virtual models for the four physical objects.

Astana Columns    (2017)

The Astana Columns are a commission for the Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan. They were installed at the Artists and Robots exhibition at the Expo's Astana Contemporary Art Center, and later at the Artistes et Robots exhibition at Grand Palais in Paris.

These columns, with three-fold rotational symmetry, are made of 5000 sheets each of 0.6mm greyboard. They are fabricated using a new high-speed serial digital cutting and creasing machine. The extraordinarily thin sheets give the columns a soft and supple texture. The high pliability of these sheets also adds a degree of deformation to the columns, as cantilevered details are pulled downwards.

Standing amidst the Astana Columns, visitors are struck by an unusual richness of detail that is at times disorientating and overwhelming. Although designed entirely autonomously by the computer program, the columns evoke analogies in multiple domains. Yet they resist reductionism and an immediate understanding. Rather, they invite visitors to wander and ponder.

Fabricating the initial 2010 subdivided column was a highly labor-intensive process. A standard 60W laser-cutter required approximately 4 minutes to cut a single sheet, with additional time needed to strip the pieces. Even when working with three laser-cutters in parallel, fabrication time was close to 100 hours.

In contrast, the Astana Columns were produced on a serial digital cutting and creasing machine. This machine, a Highcon Euclid II, operated by Maision Lack in Paris, is able lift 0.6mm sheets from a stack, individually cut them, and then restack them at a rate of up to 500 sheets per hour. Extremely high-powered lasers reduce the cutting time from originally 4 minutes to just a matter of seconds.

The only remaining manual step was the stripping of cut material. As the columns' outlines are highly convoluted - and each sheet's outline is unique - the machine was unable to reliably strip the sheet. If this final step were automated, the machine would be able to autonomously fabricate the initial subdivided column - at almost double its original resolution - in under 10 hours.

Serial laser-cutting, 300 sheets / hour

Undrawable, and Unimaginable?

The subdivided columns are purely algorithmic forms. They are undrawable using conventional means - whether by pen or by mouse - as they have too much detail and differentiation.

But are these forms imaginable? Can we as designers conceive of such forms from the outset? Even in working with generative algorithms, there are features that cannot be foreseen; there is an element of surprise. Ultimately, this approach redefines the process of design: the designer works in an iterative feedback loop with the machine, moderating processes, and incorporating feedback, surprises and proposals. Knowledge and experience are acquired through search, demanding heuristics that work in the absence of categorization.

What we stand to gain are entirely new spatial and haptic experiences. A playful design that stimulates the senses, elicits curiosity, and invites interaction. A design environment that simultaneously allows control and surprise, and that embraces and celebrates the unforeseen.

Subdivided Column I   (2010)

Material:   Greyboard, 1mm laser-cut sheet
2700 sheets total
Wooden core

Dimensions:   270cm height
45-70cm diameter

Fabrication:   ETH Zurich
Assistance: Manuela Koller, Thomas Raoseta, Edyta Augustinowicz

Venues:   Museum of Arts and Design (New York, 2013)
TED Global (Edinburgh, 2012)
Le Lieu du Design (Paris, 2012)
Smallspace Gallery (Berlin, 2011)

Reviews:   Architectural Record
Design Exchange
Frame Mag
Frankfurter Allgemeine
New Scientist
Ling (Vueling)
KM Kunst & Techniek
New York Times
Spiegel Online
城市建筑 Urbanism & Architecture
Research for the subdivided columns was carried out at the Chair for CAAD at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.

Sixth Order Columns   (2011)

Material:   ABS plastic in 1mm sheet
10,800 sheets total
Steel and wooden core

Dimensions:   270cm height
45-70cm diameter

Fabrication:   Nanjing
Thank you to Hua Hao and Li Biao

Venues:   MAAS Museum (Sydney, 2017)
Martin-Gropius-Bau (Berlin, 2016)
Palais de Tokyo (Paris, 2015)
FRAC Centre Archilab (Orléans, 2013)
Gwangju Design Biennale, 2011

Reviews:   Archithese
Domus 国际中文版
时代建筑 Time + Architecture
Vogue Living
Two Sixth Order columns were acquired by FRAC Centre, Orléans, for its architecture collection.

Astana Columns   (2017)

Material:   Greyboard, 0.6mm laser-cut sheet
20,000 sheets total
Wooden core

Dimensions:   300cm height
45-70cm diameter

Fabrication:   Maison Lack, Paris
Thank you to Virginie and Maxime Dumesnil

Venues:   Grand Palais (Paris, 2018)
Expo Astana 2017

Reviews:   Atlantico
Economie Matin
France Culture
La Tribune
Radio Canada
Radio France Internationale
SRF - Schweizer Radio & Fernsehen