Blaine Brownell

ARCHITECT contributor Blaine Brownell reflects on a recent exhibition series called, "A Tipping Point: Technology in Ceramics," put on by the the Northern Clay Center (NCC) in Minneapolis. The series focused on how the field of ceramic arts is being transformed by the increasing accessibility of digital technology.

"Individuals of any material or educational background can now wield the power of a small factory, prototyping, rendering, and altering on a computer before an object is actually formed in clay," the curators write in the show notes.

Current 3D printing technology poses a threat to handmade methods of ceramic tile production, though machine production of such products is quite common in today's industry. The addition of 3D printing technologies expands the industry further to add new elements and opportunities.

Jenny Sabin, who's work was featured in the show, argued that software is a new type of material, declaring that “one can paint with code.” Describing her studio’s efforts to develop pipelines for more user-friendly interfaces with robotics, she asserted that the digital revolution is still nascent, with ample room for development.

For Sabin and University of California, Berkeley architecture professor and additive-manufacturing pioneer Ronald Rael, the digital tipping point is empowering. The shrinking gap between concept and realization represents a significant paradigm shift in design and architecture. Sabin said, "The architect is being re-positioned as maker," something that "hasn't happened since the medieval period." The disciplinary schism between architect and builder resulted in a reliance upon drawings as a set of instructions for what to build. Yet "we now have the ability to communicate directly with machines," she said, "turning issues of notation and representation upside-down."

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