3D shapes can now be pre-printed onto flat sheets of uncooked pasta and only revealed during the boiling process, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Nestlé’s food-science labs.

[Image: Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon’s Morphing Matter Lab, via New Scientist.]

“The 2D pasta morphs into 3D shapes when boiled because each piece is lined with tiny grooves, less than 1 millimetre wide, in particular patterns. The grooves increase the surface area of some parts of a piece of pasta. Areas with a higher surface area absorb water and swell faster,” New Scientist reports. “The groove pattern in terms of the depth, the height, and then the spacing are all very important,” researcher Wen Wang tells the magazine. “By utilizing this we could bend the pasta into the shape we would like.”

The idea is that this can dramatically cut down on packaging costs, material use, and food’s spatial footprint, eliminating the need for bulky boxes currently used to store not just pasta but empty air around all those imperfectly jumbled shapes.

While this is interesting in and of itself, it’s difficult not to wonder about the architectural possibilities inherent in such an approach. You could take advantage of perforations, cuts, grooves, and incisions in otherwise flat materials to hide 3D shapes that are only later revealed under very particular circumstances. This could, in fact, have quite ominous uses in, say, combat robotics—flat pieces of metal that crease and unfold into pop-up weaponry—but also humanitarian possibilities for self-constructing emergency shelters.

A new architectural avant-garde, inspired by science fiction and pasta, designing a world of flat surfaces awaiting future transformation.

Flat-pack architectural components, of course, are a very old story! I’m nevertheless intrigued by the idea of an imprinted 3D shape being only conditionally revealed: a flat board that becomes a building, say, but only at particular temperatures or humidities, perhaps even at certain altitudes or barometric pressures. You could imagine storm-triggered shelter pods, water-swollen coastal flood defenses, or even urban heat-warning architectures, among many other things, all based on similar materials.

Read more in the original paper, published by Science Advances.