Norman Foster Explains How 3D Printing Will Transform Architecture

Super-starchitect Lord Norman Foster and his friends at the European Space Agency stunned the world last year with a plan to build a lunar base by 3D-printing it with moon dust. But what happens when you try something like that on Earth? How is 3D printing changing the way we build cities?

I got the chance to ask Foster just that question at the Center for Architecture in New York City last night. Foster had spent an hour discussing how his work was influenced by Beaux-Art legend Rafael Guastavino, who's famous for his patented technique of building fireproof tile arches and vaults. The talk concluded with Foster outlining his firm's plan to 3D-print vaulted, igloo-shaped structures on the moon.

It's a brilliantly bombastic plan in all the best ways and hearing the backstory was fascinating. And yet, it left me with so many questions that I was almost too shy to ask. Here's an edited version of my conversation with Foster.

Gizmodo: 3D printing is such gee golly technology—especially when you do it on the moon—but we're seeing it here on Earth, too. China was recently in headlines for 3D printing entire houses in not very much time at all.

Foster: Well, it's certainly having a transformative effect in the way that we explore designs and the fact that we can design something and then, by the end of the day, put it into the machine. By the morning you've got a 3D printout. That's tremendously exciting.

But I think you're right. I think that, in a way, the project I shared for the moon is an extreme example in relative terms. To print a building now in the benign environment of our planet is not a big thing, as you said. We're already seeing those signs.

Norman Foster Explains How 3D Printing Will Transform Architecture

Gizmodo: Is it something that is going to transform the way we build cities? Or is it something that is noteworthy because it's so new?

Foster: I think, yes, it will have a transformative effect, in the same way that the technology for driverless cars will. There will be pilotless aircraft. Maybe we'll need the psychological reassurance of something sitting up there and looking at the robot to make sure it behaves itself. Sing it lullabies.

No, never let anyone near those things, because we're human. We're imperfect.

Norman Foster Explains How 3D Printing Will Transform Architecture

Be sure to check out Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile at the Museum of the City of New York, which runs until Sept. 7.