Mamou-Mani, Maker

Like explorers heading their tiny craft upstream, a pair of bicyclists float over the sands of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. A dust storm shrouds them from 60,000 more inhabitants of their pop-up metropolis at the 2016 Burning Man Festival, known as Black Rock City. While the bicyclists advance left, a 30-foot dream-like, flame-shaped apparition approximately 30 feet high appears to shift right.

Four years in the making, the challenge the building of this tower posed to its French architect, Arthur Mamou-Mani, his students at the University of Westminster in the UK, and his project’s 114 Kickstarter backers was this: how to make an inspiring structure, a beacon to the festival’s youth that points the way to a new kind of architecture, one in which the architect is once again the maker.  “If you’re an architect just handing plans over to someone else to build, you can’t test what you’ve designed. We need to return to the time when the great cathedrals were built, and the Maker Movement can do that, open up an era of Master Builders where there is no separation between architects, engineers, and builders,” says Mamou-Mani.

Mamou-Mani calls his response to this lofty challenge Tangential Dreams. It takes the form of a climbable, winding, temporary tower made from straight, run-of-the-mill, timbers. While it’s impossible to imagine  Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga tweaking a gown made of burlap, or Paul Bucose mixing carrots from a can into his truffle soup, one of the pleasures of visiting and touching Mamou-Mani’s tower was to experience its alchemy. What goes in, isn’t always what comes out. During the tower’s two-week assembly in the desert, one could see how amateur, as well as pro volunteers, began to marvel at how a working man’s materials could transform themselves into a solidly-constructed dream while remaining faithful to their origins, unvarnished and gilt-free.  

 Long, thin strips of lumber connected with bio-plastics express a simple, mathematical Sine curve, an open-source exercise in algorithmic design made possible using Rhinoceros 3D and Grasshopper 3D software-controlling laser cut and 3D printing fabrication tools. “Tangential Dreams not only refers to the Sine of sound waves, but to other things: the spin-off from many years of research, the daydreaming some people do at work, going off on a tangent. This is so often how artists operate,” says Mamou-Mani. Indeed, does one need to look much further than the German new-age electronic collective of the ’70s “Tangerine Dream” for yet another Tangential Dreams connection?

The Tangential Dreams Kickstarter campaign offered several attractive rewards for pledges, along with the usual T-shirts and unusual earrings: Mamou-Mani’s 3D printed “Smoke” stools, vases and ceiling panels. And, for £40—an invitation to send in a sentence to be stenciled on one of the tower’s tangents swaying in the desert. People also contributed thoughts on site, some declaring love, some high as kites. “If you think you understand Burning Man, you haven’t been paying attention,” said one. “Writing on walls and other forms of public self-expression are usually illegal, so perhaps that’s why everyone was so keen on getting involved,” says Mamou-Mani.

Michel Butor

Novelist Michel Butor (Mobile, Degrees, L’Emploi Du Temps) was one of those keen on getting involved, despite his failing health. A noted avant-gardist, Butor also happened to be the grandfather of one Mamou-Mani’s best friends, as well as a former student of the philosopher Gaston Bachelor, the philosopher whose 1958 Poetics of Space served as its own kind of beacon to a generation of designers.  Butor sent Mamou-Mani a Bachelard quote to be stenciled on the tower that read: “Every written word is a victory against death.” Four days before Burning Man 2016, on August 24, Butor died at 89.

Not everyone shared the enthusiasm of the Kickstarters funding Tangential Dreams. As they were becoming hooked on Dreams elixir of high-tech computation with low-tech, affordable, traditional building materials, birthing a new generation of Master Builders, bankers were having a panic attack.  “Stick a fork in 3-D printing, it’s done. Or at least everyone is starting to wonder why it is slipping off a ledge,” wrote John Brandon in Inc. last June. “A water bottle cage costs about $4 at Amazon.com but even a relatively short spool of filament costs $65. The math doesn’t compute. And, it doesn’t make sense to spend the time,” Brandon complained. 

“You can make a lot of cool things with a 3-D printer, but excited investors aren’t one of them,” wrote CNN Money digital correspondent Paul R. La Monica earlier in December. MakerBot, whose Replicator Mini retailed for $1,375, had just caused its parent, Stratasys, to head alarmingly south. The stock of rival systems declined as well: 3D Systems, ExOne, and Voxeljet. But as LaMonica pointed out, all industries in their infancy pose a risk. “Remember Think Global, Aptera, Coda Automotive, and Fisker?” he asked. “They are the electric car companies that didn’t wind up becoming Tesla.”

By July, Brian Eha offered a more upbeat take in Fortune: Forget 3D-Printed Knick-Knacks: The Maker Movement Is Entering a New Phase. , citing the new $11,000 desktop Glowforge. Though marketed as a printer, Glowforge builds by etching and carving with a laser, rather than extruding layers usually through plastic. It can do this through metal, leather, Teflon, metal, leather, stone, and cardboard.

Consequently, says Eha, the promise for Makers listed on Etsy and other craft sites is immeasurable. As for industry, GE just ran successful tests on the world’s largest commercial jet engine, the eleven-foot-diameter GE9X, which was made mainly with printed parts. A developer in China printed a five-story apartment building, reported CNET. In July, a month before Burning Man, Emma Sandler reported in Forbes, that Mamou-Mani had teamed up with chefs Joel Castanye and Mateu Blanch to create a £240 prix fixe 3D dinner for Food Ink’s three-day,  3D Pop-Up Restaurant in London this July, complete with 3D-printed utensils, lamps, and chairs. 

In other words, there’s a lot happening tangentially, ever since MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms Fab Lab Program and Fab Foundation began spreading Maker culture throughout the world in 2009. Not least of which is Mamou-Mani’s workshop Fab Pub, on Maker’s Row in East London. There, after a free induction, anyone can rent an £11,000 Hypecask Delta Tower 3D printer at £15, and/or a £12,500 Blu100 Laser Cutter/Engraver at £30. With such a proliferation of designs, houses and objects will be in “constant mutation” Mamou-Mani told the New York Times; mass production will be over.

To underscore this point, he posed for the Times holding one of his wispy white, FabPub “Smoke Stools,” which became a tangent of the Kickstarter Rewards campaign. His American Architecture Prize-winning installation for BuroHappold’s engineering office in London, called Wooden Waves casts the digitally driven mutability Mamou-Mani’s talking about in a golden light. Using a CNC fabrication technique of “lattice-hinge-formation” the architectural installation links two office areas, making a peaceful place to meet out of a former no man’s land, diffusing light, absorbing sound, and stabilizing temperatures. 

Here in London, as in Black Rock City in the Nevada desert, Mamou-Mani has assumed the role of Master Builder, testing out his designs hundreds of times before, during, and after construction. Whether he succeeds in encouraging others to follow his lead and become Master Builders brings us to ask what’s next after Tangential Dreams for Burning Man 2017. “That was only one tower we did in 2016,” says Mamou-Mani, “Next summer I’d like to see several interconnected towers, enclosing a space in which to congregate.”

For the bicyclists braving the sandstorm that could be good news.

Tangential Dreams (detail)

{Photo of Arthur Mamou-Mani by Carolyn Butler}

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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