French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani has assembled a structure from 700 bioplastic bricks in the courtyard of a 16th-century palazzo, as this year's Milan design week installation for fashion brand COS.
Mamou-Mani – whose previous projects include a temple for Burning Man festival – wanted to show how design can be more circular, by harnessing the potential of renewable materials and sustainable processes.
The result is a large-scale parametric structure made up of modular bio-bricks, each 3D-printed in a mixture of polylactic acid (PLA) – a fully compostable bioplastic that is made using renewable resources – and wood. They are secured together using PLA cable ties.
"Technology alone doesn't really matter, it's what you do with it, and to me it's only interesting if we are helping the planet," Mamou-Mani told Dezeen.
"I wanted the piece to echo the circular nature of the compostable material and create a journey from architecture to nature in order to showcase how renewable materials, coupled with an algorithmic approach and distributed 3D printing, can create the building blocks of the future," he said.
The 30-metre-long installation, Conifera, is on show in the courtyard of Palazzo Isimbardi in Milan from 9 to 14 April as part of the city's annual design week.
Three colours feature across the installation, ranging from clear and white to orange and brown. The translucent elements are PLA in its purest form, while the white sections contain a pigment, and the brown hues are achieved from adding wood pulp to the mixture.
Mamou-Mani and his team printed all of bioplastic bricks over a period of two months using four printers, with each print taking between four and a half to seven hours.
Each bio-brick has a lattice structure to take full advantage of the strength of the material, but to also allow light to permeate through the installation.
"This filigree structure contrasts to our typical use of concrete or steel, and brings us back to the Victorian era when materials were very expensive, so we had to try to optimise them," the designer told Dezeen.
"Now, the robotic tools we use allow us to rethink our use of material, and I find that really exciting," he continued. "I love the idea of a very light and porous structure that doesn't create walls – I think it's poetic."
This lattice structure also gives the delicate-looking structure an unexpected density. According to Mamou-Mani, the material shares a similar density to foam, yet it is able to support over two-tonnes-worth of weight.
Unlike last year's COS installation by American artist Phillip K Smith III, which occupied only the courtyard of the palazzo, Conifera extends out into the garden beyond, so as to establish a dialogue between nature, architecture and technology.
"We wanted to show that the future is actually bringing us closer to nature," the designer told Dezeen.
The installation takes its name from the Conifer tree – the wood of which was used to print the structure. According to Mamou-Mani, the design was also inspired by the pine cones found on these trees, as the shape of two bricks together resembles the shape of a cone.
Mamou-Mani also took inspiration from the patterns found in the palazzo's design, including diamond motifs and herringbone patterns, and used the architecture to inform the truncated pyramidal shapes of the bricks.
"I'm equally interested in patterns in nature than I am in those in architecture, so it's nice to be able to make them speak to each other," he added.
The designer sees the installation as part of "a new generation of architecture" that is digitally designed and fabricated.
"I want technology to be approachable, not scary," Mani told Dezeen. "I think people are scared of things like 3D-printing and artificial intelligence because they don't necessarily understand it, but once you get into it, it's relatively simple to learn."
"I think it's very important this structure can teach people that."
Once Milan design week is over, the installation will be transported to London and exhibited at the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Coal Drops Yard.
"I love the idea that a building can be reused or can regrow," concluded the designer. "I think that is also something that could help the planet, if we stop thinking of finished buildings, but things that can be stacked and unstacked."