HANSMEYER Michael Subdivided Columns (2010)

This project involves the conception and design of a new column order based on subdivision processes. It explores how subdivision can define and embellish this column order with an elaborate system of ornament. 

An abstracted doric column is used as an input form to the subdivision processes. Unlike the minimal input of the Platonic Solids project, the abstracted column conveys significant topographical and topological information about the form to be generated. The input form contains data about the proportions of the column’s shaft, capital, and base. It also contains information about its fluting and entasis. 

The input form is tagged to allow the subdivision process to distinguish between individual components. This allows a heterogeneous application of the process, with distinct local parameters settings. 

The initial subdivided column was fabricated out of greyboard at ETH Zurich in 2010. Subsequently, four CNC-milled ABS columns were produced for the Gwangju Design Biennale 2011. The project was revisited for the Expo 2017 in Astana, making use of a new high-speed serial laser cutter.


For the subdivided columns, the architect effectively designs a process that produces a column, rather than designing a column directly. This process can be run again and again with different parameters to create endless permutations of columns. These permutations can be combined into new columns, and can form the point of departure for new generations of columns. The architect assumes the role of the orchestrator of these processes.

Unlike traditional design processes, the single subdivision process generates the form at all its scales: from the overall proportions and curvatures, to smaller local surface formations, down to the formation of a micro-structure. The process adds information at all scales, without resorting to any type of repetition. The result is a series of columns that exhibit both highly specific local conditions as well as an overall coherency and continuity. The ornament is in a continuous flow, yet it consists of very distinct local formations. The complexity of column contrasts with the simplicity of its generative process.


The initial subdivided column is full-scale, 2.7 meter high variant of the columns was fabricated as a layered model using 1mm sheet. Each sheet was individually cut using a laser cutter. Sheets are stacked and held together by poles that run through a common core. 

The calculation of the cutting path for each sheet takes place in several steps. First, the six million faces of the 3D model are intersected with a plane representing the sheet. This step generates individual line segments that are tested for self-intersection and subsequently combined to form polygons. Next, a polygon-in-polygon test deletes interior polygons. A series of filters then ensures that convex polygons with peninsulas maintain a minimum isthmus width. In a final step, an interior offset is calculated with the aim of hollowing out the slice to reduce weight. 

While the mean diameter of the column is 50cm, the circumference as measured by the cutting path can reach up to 8 meters due to complexity of its surface.

Undrawable, and Unimaginable?

The subdivided columns are purely algorithmic forms. They are  undrawable using conventional means – whether by pen or by mouse – as they have too much detail and differentiation.

But are these forms imaginable? Can we as designers conceive of such forms from the outset? Even in working with the generative algorithms, there are features that cannot be foreseen; there is an element of surprise. Ultimately, this approach redefines the process of design: the designer works in an iterative feedback loop with the machine, moderating processes, and incorporating feedback, surprises and proposals. Knowledge and experience are acquired through search, demanding heuristics that work in the absence of categorization. 

What we stand to gain are entirely new spatial and haptic experiences. A playful design that stimulates the senses, elicits curiosity, and invites interaction. A design environment that simultaneously allows control and surprise, and that embraces and celebrates the unforeseen.