The big question that’s nagged 3-D printing from the start is just what is the technology good for, anyway? It’s been asked of every new material touted by enthusiasts of the tool, from plastic to metal to wax. And now, glass.

Neri Oxman and her team at the MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter Group, along with the MIT Glass Lab and the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, recently unveiled G3DP, a 3-D printer for glass. The machine, the first of its kind, heats glass to more than 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit in a kiln, then extrudes it through an aluminum nozzle. In the gif below, you see translucent goo piped out of a nozzle and drizzled like honey before crystallizing into a ribbed structure. It’s hypnotic, even beautiful.

glass MIT

Yet the question remains: So what? The 3-D printed pieces, which will be shown at the Cooper Hewitt next year, are decorative, like vases you might find in an armoire full of glassware. The objects are small, because the nozzle extrudes a filament 10mm in diameter and the machine can’t make anything bigger than about 10 inches long and 11 inches high. Still, it’s important to remember these objects are simply a proof of concept that demonstrate how various extrusion patterns and shapes impact optical quality and structural strength.

Oxman and her team are using this research to achieve a much bigger (quite literally) goal. She recalls seeing the G3DP prototype at work for the first time. Mies van der Rohe’s “skin-and-bone” architecture instantly came to mind. In the early 1920s, Mies introduced a concept for a Berlin skyscraper that resembled a metal frame wrapped in glass. At the time, stone was king; a wholly glass facade was a revolutionary vision. Glass always has evoked modernity, and everyone from Mies to Foster + Partners, with its 50-foot glass panels, has explored using technology to push its functional limits.

EXH_005_AR_LR Andy Ryan

Similarly, Oxman believes 3-D printed glass eventually will make building facades far more dynamic. “Could we design an all-glass building with internal channels and networks for airflow and water circulation?” she asks. “Can we surpass the great modern tradition of discrete formal and functional partitions and generate an all-in-one building skin.”

One of the big advantages 3-D printing has over traditional glass manufacturing is the ability to make the interior surface just as complex as the exterior. Blown glass is smooth inside, but the shape and texture of a 3-D printed object can be controlled to the finest resolution. With a little imagination, you can imagine how this creates many exciting possibilities in architecture. A building like the Centre Pompidou in Paris could for example have a single transparent facade that could integrate multiple functions. Think 3-D printing certain patterns for customized lighting effects or using glass channels transmit water, biological matter or even data if you were to build optical fibers into the facade.

It might help to look to one of Oxman’s other recent projects for more understanding here. In Wanderers, she and her team constructed wearable skins using microfluidic tubes that allow organic materials like photosynthetic bacteria to course through the wearable. The goal of transparency in the skins is to allow the designs to react and adapt to their environments. A machine that 3-D prints glass theoretically could do the same thing once it reaches architectural scale, a problem that Oxman says her team is working on.

If it all sounds a little hazy, that’s because it is. At this point it’s anyone’s guess what technology like G3DP will enable. Oxman and her team have ideas, but they’re still very much in the research phase. And no doubt, before we have buildings that pipe living matter through their facades, we’ll see far less exciting incremental innovations. For now, we’ll have to make do with baubles and vases, which if we’re fair, are pretty cool in and of themselves.

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How 3-D Printed Glass Could Lead to Some Wild Architecture