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Architecture prof says blueprints are pass�

Lawrence Sass
Lawrence Sass

The view from his office window in Building N51 isn't much, but Lawrence Sass can peer out and see the future of architecture.

Sass, who earned the Ph.D. from MIT in 2000, is an assistant professor of architecture who is an expert in rapid prototyping for building construction. He's on the leading edge of a revolution in architecture that will change not only the way buildings are created, but the language of their shapes and forms. According to Sass, the use of computer models and sophisticated rapid prototyping equipment will soon take the practice of architecture into an exciting new realm where the blueprint is a thing of the past.

Sass's love of architecture began when he was 12, growing up in Harlem. After earning his undergraduate degree at Pratt Institute, he came to MIT in 1992 for post-graduate studies because architects here focused on social change and design. Once he arrived, exposure to science and engineering students piqued his interest in research.

A year later, Sass was asked to help create a computer animation of a proposed monument memorializing the American slave trade to be built in Boston Harbor. Although he had little experience with computers, Sass and undergraduate Greg Anderson (S.B. 1994, S.M. 1996, architecture) developed an award-winning computer simulation of the monument, showing realistic lighting effects. It was a turning point for Sass.

"I learned how to do cutting-edge research--and I learned how a computer could work in design," he said. "You can look at an architectural problem over and over again without spending money to construct finished buildings."

He also gained two valuable mentors--Isaac Colbert, dean for graduate students, and William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. Mitchell became Sass's adviser and encouraged him to pursue the field of design computing.

As a Ph.D. thesis, Sass modeled all of the built and unbuilt designs of Andrea Palladio, a Renaissance architect, using a computer and 3-D printing machine that creates models from plaster and water. Sass's printed structures are unusual because they allow a detailed model to be built directly from a 3-D computer CAD file.

3-D 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, 3-D printers place tiny dots of material--plastic, ceramic or metal--in a specific array that builds into three dimensions. The process, invented by MIT professors Emanuel Sachs and Michael Cima, can create highly detailed shapes.

According to Sass, 3-D printing can be scaled up to print full-size buildings from fabricated pieces. In the future, he says, complex buildings will be designed on computers and built by CAD/CAM fabricators on and off the construction site, without the use of traditional plans. Sass says Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry is already doing it.

"Frank's office starts with a computer file, which is sent to the builders," explained Sass, who has visited Gehry's office in Los Angeles. "Then they make some of the parts from the computer file and can reassemble them on site, with few, if any, drawings, similar to a 3-D jigsaw puzzle."

The technique will change the way buildings are constructed, but will have an even greater impact on building design. "Most buildings now are made up of lines, circles, triangles--and all you need is a T square to draw them," said Sass. "Now imagine making a building in the shape of a leaf or a potato chip--shapes you can't build without a computer."

Sass's office is covered with curvilinear plastic shapes he and his students have created. Scaling up the fabrication process to building-scale is a big engineering challenge, but Sass predicts it will happen in the next 10 to 20 years. "It's at the same stage of infancy that desktop computer printers were at in the early 1980s," he said.

Sass compares his current challenge to competing in the 1992 Olympic trials for bike racing. "I missed the finals by only a few points, and looking back I know that I could have made it, but I lacked confidence in myself to go faster in the final 10 laps," he recalled.

"It was a huge disappointment, but life always offers new opportunities, just with different circumstances. To me, that new circumstance was coming here to MIT."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 2003.

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