Arthur Mamou-Mani is a French architect and director of the award-winning architecture practice Mamou-Mani Architects. He is a lecturer at the University of Westminster in London and owns a digital fabrication laboratory called the FabPub which allows people to experiment with large 3D Printers and Laser Cutters. Arthur has taught parametric design tools, digital fabrication as well as environmental and structural simulation at many leading academic bodies such as the Architectural Association School of Architecture and the UCL-Bartlett. He gave numerous talks including the TEDx conference in the United States and the Taipei Technical University in Taiwan. Mamou-Mani’s clients include Karen Millen Fashion, The Burning Man Festival, and Imagination. His practice is currently undertaking work in England, France, USA and China. Prior to founding Mamou-Mani in 2011, he worked with Atelier Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid Architects and Proctor and Matthews Architects. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Arthur’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
Where to start? None of my family members were architects and yet my parents had a great influence on my career choice. My father Alain was one of the first computer scientist in France and he brought laptops home when screens were still green and black. That’s when I started playing a game called SimCity. It was my first introduction to the built environment and I was hooked very quickly and at a young age. Then I got SimTower, SimPark, the Sims- all of them — I enjoyed creating these worlds, loved understanding the logic behind the games and played long hours seeing how different arrangements of spaces created different dynamics. My mom Chantal saw very early on that I had an artistic side and would bring me almost every Wednesday to an art exhibition. She would then ask me to reproduce the art piece in our kitchen, and would keep her favorite painting in her office. Over the years, she made me trust my creativity and understand the process behind an artistic endeavor. It was not just art, she once brought me to a historical exhibition where we had to dig and look for archaeological pieces, discovering clues about past civilization, the life they had and the buildings they lived in.
As a young boy, I hesitated for a while between becoming an artist, an archaeologist or a magician. I enjoyed geometry, I could draw but also liked the showmanship and dream-like nature of magic — Sometimes I ask myself if architecture contains a bit of all this — In kindergarten there was a competition where groups of students had to draw the school we studied in. We all put our drawings in front of the table and mine got selected by everyone which marked something in me as well. Years later, after my baccalaureate, I started studying Architecture at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’architecture de Paris Malaquais, a university located inside the Beaux-Arts Building, which is an extremely beautiful place. I spent most of my early education just walking around taking pictures of Paris and developing them in the dark room by myself, I even travelled around Italy and Greece with a Eurorail pass and a notebook, in which I would write my thoughts. At that time I felt a personal disconnect between my intense passion for architecture and the people around me, so I left to London and joined the Architectural Association in 2003. The AA is a prestigious private school located in a small square in the centre of London. It is a very cosy little Georgian house which felt miles away from the cold and impersonal Parisian amphitheaters where I studied before. Everyone around me seemed so driven from the moment I started studying. My first teachers there, Charles Tashima and George Liaropoulos-Legendre were asking me to look at games, at the rules behind them. They told us to abstract things, to stop thinking about buildings but to think of systems. At the end of the course they even awarded us a “certificate of abstraction”. From this moment onwards, I felt like everything around me could be a source of inspiration that architecture was so much more than what I thought it was.
On his influences
George Liaropoulos-Legendre looks at mathematics and translates parametric functions into buildings. When we were asked to choose a game, I chose baseball as I thought it was quite spatial and constrained so I diagrammed nine innings with my own symbols on Autocad. Another student chose Warcraft and made abstract diagrams of each characters’ abilities. The presentations were great fun and very far from the usual “here is a site and here is a program” approach to architectural education. Although it seemed a bit strange at the time I now fully understand the purpose of abstracting our minds in architecture. once you start looking at patterns and systems and clearly understand the rules behind them, you can then design directly from these rules, creating a more “natural”, “bottom-up” architecture. Instead of metaphorically “doing a building like a leaf”, an architect should research why the leaf became a leaf which opens up design directions that might end looking nothing like a leaf whilst keeping its essential beauty. Buildings can be defined by relationships, not just form or superficial metaphors. A bit later, my third year teachers, Alan Dempsey and Yusuke Obuchi, taught me the not so distant concept of Emergence in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Many components together could form something greater than themselves — and the components can be very basic, it is together that they form something beyond the imaginable. Another great teacher from the AA, Eugene Han, started showing me how to model things in 3D and how to fabricate them, explaining the difference between NURBS surfaces and mesh-subdivision for example. Once I reached the point in which I needed to do a physical model, he showed me how to 3D print (ten years ago) so I sent my first 3D print. When I received the printed object I understood I could have access to the machines that build my own designs, what a revelation.
Continuing on with that journey, I had two inspiring teachers Anne Save de Beaurecueil and Franklin Lee with whom I understood that my emergent “bricks” could be linked and looped with structural or environmental simulations as they grow in the computer. This constant loop of creation and feedback is very similar to the evolution of living organisms through time. In parallel to the digital process, we researched the work of Oscar Niemeyer and visited most of his masterpieces in Brazil. Niemeyer gave a political, social and poetic function to modern architecture, unlike many architects, he spoke about beauty and emotions and most importantly about the people and the society they live in. His buildings are democratic grounds, infused with his belief in humanity and his joie de vivre. He is my all-time architectural hero. At that time, we were all using a very clever software called Generative Component (or G.C.) to design, it was a “parametric software” as we did not design a final form but a set of relationships. Luckily, Anne and Franklin had a special arrangement for us to test a new parametric plugin for the 3D modelling software Rhinoceros which was called “Explicit History”. The talented software developer David Rutten, showed us how we could connect most design parameters together into a playful network revealing the history of our 3D model, hence its name. Seven years later, the same software, now called Grasshopper, has not only influenced my entire career but the face of Architecture itself.
On starting his own firm
Throughout my studies I tried to work in as many practices as I could to see the different facets of Architecture — one was Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), another one was Ateliers Jean Nouvel (AJN). Both firms constantly push the possibilities, and you can see it in the permanently tired yet excited eyes of their young and talented staff. The short time I spent at Zaha Hadid was incredible, mostly because my desk neighbours were Alvin Huang, Marc Fornes, Marco Vanucci, Simon Kim, Mariana Ibanez, Daewha Kang, Nick Puckett, Eugene Han…etc… quite a lot of talent in one little room. I remember Marc and Alvin were doing a giant flowing roof in carbon fibre and were really excited as it was going to be the first one in the world. There was an enthusiasm around new technologies, new forms that were “generated” through computer scripts instead of modelled in a conventional way. At Jean Nouvel, it was a much more poetic approach in which forms were driven by a story or a sequence of emotions. I graduated from the AA in 2008, the year of the sub-prime crisis. It was a hard time to find a job. I was fortunate to find a job at a firm called Proctor and Matthews Architects. At the time, they won a competition for the Heart of Africa, a giant roof covering a Central African-like eco-system in Chester, north of England. Their proposal was very curvy unlike many of their previous projects so I thought it was a great opportunity to use the knowledge I had acquired throughout my education and internships on a real project with more responsibility. The two years spent on this projects were great, collaborating with the directors Stephen Proctor and Andrew Matthews, but also with Gareth Wilkins who worked on the Esplanade Singapore, one of my favorite buildings. This project was my first opportunity to use Grasshopper on an architectural project. I worked with so many specialist consultants, horticulturalists, veterinarians, suppliers, manufacturers, engineers…etc…
The parametric model was central to these collaborations as we could integrate feedback and exchange information with everyone involved. A central platform, independent from us, that everyone could feed into. As I was learning how to create this complex parametric model, I would teach the software itself every Saturday morning at the London Metropolitan University (with Kengo Skorick). The classes pushed us to explore the tool and plugin with abstract examples. I learned that teaching was the best way to learn. I was also asking a lot of questions and shared a lot of my struggles on the online forum, this caught the attention of Simply Rhino who asked me to teach their official classes in the UK. This was a game changer as it connected me (and still does) to a huge network of like-minded professionals. A friend of mine and colleague from the AA, Toby Burgess, asked me to come and teach a Diploma Studio at the University of Westminster with him. This incredibly influential and ongoing collaboration led to five students projects at the Burning Man festival and our academic blog WeWantToLearn.net which was viewed to date by one million people in the world. Finally, a private client took a leap of faith and asked me to work on the refurbishment of his Ottoman flat in Jaffa, Tel Aviv. All these activities brought enough income for me start my company Mamou-Mani ltd., I also just got my certification to be called an Architect (RIBA part 3) so it was all great timing!
On specific principles he strives to adhere to
For the first few projects, The Magic Garden or The Origami Tree, I would rent other people’s laser cutters and 3D printers to make the pieces with my team but as soon as I could, I started buying my own digital fabrication machines. This allowed us to create hundreds of prototypes and sophisticated proposals for each project such as the Wooden Waves for a very reasonable price. Our process in the practice is to establish a creative loop between the digital and the physical models, applying intelligence to very inexpensive materials — maximizing simple components through clever relationships. Having digital fabrication machines in our office allowed us to test the final product directly, without any middle man, which directly informed the parametric model in return. Now comes the challenge of doing it on a larger scale because so far it was mostly pop-ups and window displays. The main challenge for me now is to find out if we can scale up our approach and design an actual large scale building component and make the whole project ourselves. I believe this process will bring architects closer to the great master builders of the Cathedrals, when design and building was a constant empirical and direct loop unlike the distance that the Renaissance established between a visionary top-down designer and his creations. The master builders learned from live failures, from material testing and a close proximity to their creations. I believe we can build cathedrals again thanks to digital fabrication and parametric modeling.
We can now create incredibly sophisticated and responsive buildings made from cheap materials but intelligent connections, integrating cultural and natural forces in the design with an accelerated empirical and digital loop and we can build them with no middle man.
On projects that represent his approach
When I worked on the flat in Jaffa, the client was a psychiatrist and said that he wanted to live downstairs but might work upstairs. There was a conflict between private and public spaces. Jaffa is one of the oldest cities in the world, and was very influenced by Islamic architecture and their understanding of geometry. When I presented my diploma at the AA, I remember the famous structural engineer Hanif Kara saying to me “why is no one looking at Islamic architecture? They invented parametric design?” I thought this project would be an interesting opportunity to interrogate this link so I “parametrized” a traditional Islamic pattern to play with its density in order to block views at eye level whilst letting light go through. This was the first time I used a culturally charged component to react with contextual parameters. I could directly connect a parametric model with people’s circulation and later send it in Israel to be cut with a CNC machine. I was not working on a drawing of the project but the file of the actual project.
After that, an artist and colleague from the University of Westminster, Guan Lee, asked me if I would like to collaborate on designing a cloud for the V&A. Instead of thinking of clouds in metaphorical terms, we just looked at how they work in nature — Particles of dust that accumulate water around them and scatter light into a white mass — We started making lots of Cartesian planes that would scatter the light inside the computer and used different ways to spread them. We ended up with something that’s much more like a mushroom than a cloud but it kept the properties of what a cloud is. We used a plugin for Grasshopper called Kangaroo which simulates physics in the computer to inflate light scattering layers, or “cloudlets”, which we 3D printed into very efficient shells which we later connected together.
The British fashion company Karen Millen could relate to the maker’s approach to design as they had an in-house atelier in their London office. This is the main reason why my company was asked to design their flagship store window display as part of the RIBA Regent Street Window Project 2013. We started experimenting with a fascinating material which acted a bit like clouds called 3D spacer fabric; a sponge-like polyester in which light scatters. We then used a fashion motif called the “smocking pattern” in a parametric way, linking its density with the structural resistance of the fabric. This project was on Regent Street, next to the Mac Store which gave us great exposure. It also raised the store’s income by a considerable amount which showed the commercial of pop-ups. After that Karen Millen asked if I could do another shop window and in total I worked on five projects with them which really helped my start-up.
Buro Happold Engineering later contacted us to do their ceiling and parts of their interiors. There’s a continuity in all the projects, from the psychiatrist’s home all the way to the ceiling of the engineering firm, we link digital tools with the properties of the materials to create augmented and functional architectural pieces with a slightly confusing and magical touch. Our aim is to make you wonder how the project works, mystery brings magic which brings poetry. The Wooden Wave components regulate temperature, diffuse light and scatter the sounds. It attempts to show a hands-on understanding of scientific principles through a sinuous and nature-like architectural organism built in our own studio — it also shows that wood can act like fabric, magic!
My co-tutor Toby Burgess and I have taught together for five years now and every summer we go to the Burning Man Festival to build students’ project in the desert. The desert does not forgive! When we arrive there, it has to be a clever puzzle that assembles itself easily. It is the ultimate architectural boot camp for our “maker” approach. It also taught us that joy and happiness are a crucial component of any successful architecture. The projects getting attention there, are the ones that provide a unique experience, that can be climbed, that plays with your mind, with confusing and clever geometry and interactive light displays. These buildings are alive, they talk to you, they tell you that life is mysterious and profound, that it is worth living for. We learned so much from it.
On his aspirations for the future
I am obsessed with the idea of the architect fabricating parts of a large project — if not all of it, like a contemporary Jean Prouvé, the French metal-worker and self-taught architect who had a factory as a studio. Now that we can have easy access to digital fabrication machines connected to advance digital tools, can we design and test the actual building, not a representation of it? Can I send information to a 3D Printing crane? Can I use the machines in my studio to build the components of a roof that would interconnect like a giant puzzle on site and have the exact thicknesses that my parametric model would have defined? Through this process I believe architecture will become more nature-like and the parametric interface will allow the public to have direct access to the parameters that define a project. Forms will be the result of the many forces emerging from a project. Fabrication technologies will allow us to make cathedral-like architecture economically viable again so that we can reach for the divine and this comes from an atheist.
Our machines are not always used which is not very efficient so I set up another company called the Fab.Pub to allow people to use them when we are not. Anyone will soon be able to come and rent them per hour through our website and mobile apps. I love the idea of being able to share architectural ideas done in our studio and let other people try them out and develop them. I love teaching and sharing ideas with the world and therefore find it difficult to face the architect’s big ego. Fab.Pub will be my way of enabling and empowering people of all ages to create and share.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
The digital design world will continue to develop, increasingly migrating to the cloud. Our parametric models will be online and accessible by everyone similarly to what Google docs does. The online platforms will be linked to the fabricating tools, cranes with no operator acting like massive 3D printers. The concept of prefabricated modules or on-site fabrication will become more widespread and directly linked with your 3D interfaces. Buildings will take shapes could never be done before, custom shapes that would emerge from structural and environmental tests as well as artificial intelligence algorithm testing for qualitative aspects such as beauty, architects will become programmers and robotics expert. Everything could become bespoke. Our buildings and cities will look natural. Currently when you see a 3D printed building it still looks like a conventional building as opposed to using the 3D printing process and constraints as an opportunity to design which is what we did with the 3D Printing Pop-Up Studio. I’m hoping the new generation of architects will be more aware of the fabrication constraints and be more creative with these constraints.
On advice he would give his younger self
First of all I would tell the young Arthur: RELAX!!! — Do not worry so much — It’s funny because one of my students said to me today: ‘I don’t understand what the point of all this playing, what are we actually doing? Usually I’m given a site a budget and design from that’, so a very similar anxiety to the one I had. It took me a while to see that architecture was not just about choosing the right kitchen for a client — but this thought made me depressed because it made it all very subjective, I really struggled to understand what was driving the architect’s choices, why they took a path and not another one, it just seemed very egocentric and pointless. But then, I slowly understood the forces behind forms, through architects and engineers such as Frei Otto, Buckminster Fuller, Antoni Gaudi or Gustave Eiffel, Architecture can express ideas that are beyond subjectivity taking roots in the material and mathematical world. The creations of these geniuses show us new ways of building, new philosophies, new aspirations for humanity. When you stand back and see the greater picture it doesn’t matter if you go back to details, you’ve been inspired enough to know what drives you in life. I would tell my younger self to be patient, to learn as many things as possible including mathematics and computer science. I would tell him to take time to appreciate things around him and let himself be inspired by what is not necessarily architecture. If there’s something he finds beautiful then it could the start of a building or a creative process regardless of what it is. I do not believe that beauty is subjective, beauty just feels right for everyone, it’s beyond words, but it is worth spending time understanding where it comes from and how it can be created. The journey of an architect is endless, we are just continuing the ones of our predecessor, we are a link in a chain, the nodes of a network and what matters is the number of connections that you will make within that network, so be patient, learn as many things as you can, connect with many people, be as curious and hard-working as you can but don’t forget to be happy otherwise none of it will make sense.