Milan – The COS store on Via Brera, on the lower floor of a building with crimson-corniced windows and restrained postwar efficiency, stands its ground in front of the neighbourhood’s famed 18th-century Accademia. Inside the shop, two Spanish tourists are mesmerized by an all-white scale model of another grand Milanese building, the Palazzo Isimbardi. Their phone cameras, though, are focused on the gossamer cone-shaped growth that starts on the front gate and blooms on through the courtyard and the garden. ‘Gorgeous,’ they ooh-ed and ahh-ed. ‘But what is it?’
Back on the real thing on Corso Monforte, Arthur Mamou-Mani’s 700 apexless pyramids spread out from the front gate and on through the courtyard and the garden. Weighing more than three tonnes, it is one of the largest bioplastic 3D printed structures ever. On a matter of square metres alone, Conifera was COS’ biggest installation ever for its annual Milan Design Week outing — that’s some 25 metres long on one end. But it was also the one that allowed them to be the bigger person: for the first time since COS’ Fuorisalone debut in 2012, neither the brand nor the guest designer knew what the final installation would look like. That decision was left in the hands of parametric calculations and, most importantly, biomaterials.
For a brand and a design event so focused on the minute aesthetic details that make up a finished product, this was a bold act of relinquishing control. And with that, the highly visible collaboration is setting a new north on the compass and sending a strong message to its peers: it is time to let the right materials speak for themselves.
In this case, it was fully compostable plastic made from a mixture of starch vinegar and Douglas fir — for all their soapboxing about designing with the future in mind, many Fuorisalone installations end up ironically becoming landfill fodder after the week is over. The resulting compound is deceptively light once printed, and yet the 3D-printed blocks can support some two tonnes. But what is the point of using such a considered material if the architect is designing for excess, with form following Instagram function? That’s why Mamou-Mani, who last year happily saw his massive Galaxia burn down at Burning Man and frequently encourages visitors to experiment with the large-scale laser cutters and 3D printers in his London studio, was such a considered choice.
This is not something done for face value: it’s a real exercise in structural optimisation
Coincidentally, the French architect also opened his studio in 2012. His generational Venn overlap is made up of an appreciation for open-source digital fabrication and the challenges of building in a climate-challenged world; thus, he became part of a crop of designers that is now rejecting the myth of the all-knowing starchitect who builds anew and aplenty, and instead embracing design humility. That’s why, instead of sketching the base element of Conifera directly, he started by analysing the vast runway of the Isimbardi and working with self-created parametric software to determine how to utilise the material most judiciously — in other words, how to use as little of it as possible and yet deliver the grandest effect in order to amplify his message of design acceptance.
‘This is not something done for face value, for technology’s sake,’ Mamou-Mani explained. ‘I believe this sort of approach can help sustainability and create lighter structures. This structure is as light as foam and yet it supports 2.1 tonnes. It’s a real exercise in structural optimisation using the computer, material science, fabrication and engineering and creates a holistic approach to design, which I hope helps the industry.’