What I am thinking: interplanetary architect and technologist Xavier De Kestelier

Xavier De Kestelier is the Head of Design Technology and Innovation at HASSELL studio. Prior to this he was co-head of the Specialist Modelling Group, the research and innovation arm of Foster + Partners. Xavier has led several multidisciplinary research projects in the field of large scale 3D printing. In his latest work with NASA and ESA he researched the potential of 3D printed habitats on the Moon and Mars. In 2010 he became one of the Directors of Smartgeometry, a non-profit educational organisation for computational design and digital fabrication. He has held academic positions at the Syracuse University (London), University of Ghent (Belgium) and The Bartlett (London). He is also a member of the RIBA’s Research and Innovation Group.

Giulia Tomasello: To what extent is the work you do today as an architect similar to the one you imagined as a student?

Xavier De Kestelier: When I started my architecture education it was mainly drafting with pen and paper. But by the time I graduated we all shifted to digital design tools such as CAD and Photoshop. I started with quite a traditional view of what an architect does and imagined that I would have a practice with a couple of friends doing mainly residential housing or small commercial projects in Belgium. My perception of what an architect was completely shifted once I studied at The Bartlett, where I was able to combine some early computational skills that I picked up at secondary school with digital modelling tools from my architecture education. I continued working at the crossroads of architecture and technology for the rest of my career.

Xavier De Kestelier

GT: What is the most challenging project you have been working on? Why?

XDK: I think it’s not a design project, nor technology – it’s change management. How do you get people to pick-up new technology, use it and embed it in their design process? In the early 2000’s I brought in the first 3D printers at Foster + Partners. We were one of the first architecture practices to bring 3D printing in-house. The hardest part here was to convince traditional model makers to pick up a piece of technology that, at surface level, seems to completely automate their work. In reality 3D printing just enhanced their traditional model making techniques and model making expanded extensively with its implementation.

GT: How has 3D printing affected the design industry? What may be future applications in this field?

XDK: There’s 3D printing of actual buildings and 3D printing of physical models and both have progressed and impacted very differently. The latter has been a game changer – giving us the tools to make more physical models and faster, which is absolutely essential for a design process. 3D printing buildings is quite different – there has been a lot of hype about this, and often these processes are nothing more than vapourware. Quite often people are amazed that a building or part of a building is 3D printed. The real questions to ask are if the3D printed building is stronger, lighter, more beautiful, quicker, cheaper, or in any way better than a building constructed in another way? Often the answer is unfortunately no. Finding really good and economical applications for 3D printing of or in buildings is pretty hard.

The really successful applications of 3D printing is often in industries that have highly customised geometries in small batch  and small formeg. Hearing aids and dental fixtures. Architecture is often on the other side of that scale – large highly standardised parts.  A really exciting and realistic application of 3D printing in buildings is 3D printing  Moon or Mars habitats. In these cases it makes a lot of sense because it’s incredibly expensive to take material to the moon – here we can use moon dust.

Xavier De Kestelier and his team working at Smartgeometry, a non-profit educational organisation for computational design and digital fabrication.

GT: How do you see the intersection between architecture and engineering? And their interactions with other disciplines?

XDK: I think that we’ve split these fields too far apart, when in actual fact they don’t need to be and shouldn’t be. Computation could be the process that connects the two disciplines. My experience is that engineers get a formal introduction to coding at university and don’t get an opportunity to use it, whereas architects often don’t get that much training in computational tools, but they need to use them extensively and continuously in their design projects. It means that by the time they graduate, they never had a coding course at university, but they are super skilled in it as they have been using these tools almost daily throughout their studies. We’ve got to look at the logic behind this and I think we should introduce more collaboration between the two.

GT: What question are you never asked and would like to be asked? What would be the answer?

XDK: What would you have done if you didn’t do architecture? I was really drawn to the field of theoretical physics. It’s the combination of hard-core science with creativity and imagination that attracted me to it. You have to come up with these weird concepts that you cannot prove. You have to be imaginative enough to somehow grasp extremely abstract concepts. But in the end I guess architecture might not be that different as it’s also a way to deal with rather technical subjects in a really creative way.


You will see Xavier’s TED Talk here.


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