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Modeling the Future

The view from his office window in building N51 may not be much, but from here Larry Sass can see the future of architecture.

Sass, who earned his PhD from MIT in 2000, is on the leading edge of a revolution in architecture that will change not only the way buildings are built but the very language of their forms. According to Sass, the use of computer models will take the practice of architecture into an exciting new realm where the venerable blueprint is a thing of the past.

Sass’s love of architecture began when he was 12, growing up on the tough streets of Harlem. He knew education was his ticket out, and after earning a bachelor’s in architecture from the Pratt Institute, he came to MIT in 1992 for a master’s degree. He says he chose to come here because he saw people practicing architecture focused on social change. 

“I made friends in the Black Graduate Student Association, and I saw what they were doing,” he says. “They were thinking about problems, trying to solve them, and talking about them over a period of time. It made me want to look at architecture in a different way.”

A year after he arrived at MIT, Sass was offered a chance to help create a computer animation of a proposed monument to the American slave trade, to be built on Sandwich Island in Boston Harbor. Although Sass had never touched a computer, he and then undergraduate Greg Anderson, SM ‘94, SM ‘96, developed an award-winning computer simulation of the monument. It was a turning point for Sass.

“I learned how to do cutting-edge research,” he says. “And I learned how computers work.” He also gained a valuable mentor-William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. Mitchell, who is one of the visionaries of the digital revolution in architecture, became Sass’s advisor and encouraged him to pursue the field of computers and architecture.

“Computing is a great way to do architectural research,” says Sass, “because you can look at an architectural problem over and over again without spending a tremendous amount of money building things.”

As a PhD thesis, Mitchell asked Sass to model all of the unbuilt structures designed by Andrea Palladio, a famous Renaissance architect. But instead of creating computer simulations, Sass used a three-dimensional-printing machine that creates models from tiny droplets of molten plastic. Traditional architectural models are hand-crafted from wood or cardboard after two-dimensional plans. Sass’s printed structures are unusual because they allow an exact and detailed model to be built directly from a 3-D computer CAD file.

Three-dimensional printing is so named because of its similarities to two-dimensional printing on a standard desktop computer printer. Where computer printers place ink on a page in a specific two-dimensional array of tiny dots, three-dimensional printers place tiny dots of material-plastic, ceramic, or metal-in a specific array that builds into three dimensions. It’s a deceptively simple process that can create highly detailed shapes, often with interior cavities.

The three-dimensional architectural-printing revolution goes far beyond table-sized models, however. According to Sass, the printing technique can be scaled up to print real, full-size buildings, piece by piece. In the future, he says, buildings will be designed on computers and built by three-dimensional printers on the construction site, without the use of traditional plans.

It’s a radical approach, but Sass says Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry is already doing it. “He starts with a computer file, which he sends to the people who are going to build the building,” explains Sass, who has visited Gehry’s offices in Los Angeles. “Then they make all the parts from the computer file and reassemble them on site, with no drawings.”

As one of the nation’s few university researchers in three-dimensional architectural printing, Sass is in a lonely field that is sometimes unpopular with the traditional architecture establishment. “Students crave this material. They want to learn how to do new languages,” he says, adding that computer technology doesn’t change the fundamental elements of architectural design, such as space, light, and materials. “The basics are still important. Those who understand them will be the most successful.”

Like most young faculty members, Sass is working hard to make his program a success. He compares the current challenge to competing for the Olympic bike-racing team, which he did in 1992.

“I could have made it to the finals, but I lacked confidence in myself,” Sass recalls. “It was a huge disappointment, but I know that life gives you other chances and opportunities, just with different circumstances. To me, that new circumstance was coming here to MIT.” - Eve Downing

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