“The Hearth,” part of Rael San Fratello’s Mud Frontiers series of 3D-printed adobe structures, La Florida, Colorado. Photo by Chris J. Gauthier

This fall, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum will present Mud Frontier: Architecture at the Borderlands, a feature-length documentary about Studio Rael San Fratello’s work to connect contemporary technology with the legacy of pottery making and adobe architecture in the Southwest United States. The 60-minute film will be made available to the public to watch free of charge during its premiere Nov. 17 at the virtual Architecture and Design Film Festival (ADFF). A virtual panel discussion and Q&A session with the filmmakers and studio founders will be held immediately following the premiere, co-hosted by Cooper Hewitt, ADFF and Smithsonian Affiliations.

Mud Frontier follows the studio’s founders, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, as they return to Rael’s ancestral land to reconnect with the past and forge new methods of creative production. Motivated by the neglect of traditional adobe houses that once covered the San Luis Valley region and the rise of concrete buildings, the studio is exploring the use of 3D-printing technology to build adobe structures in Rael’s familial village of La Florida in southern Colorado.

A remote and rural area with a distinct culture, language and landscape, the San Luis Valley region at the headwaters of the Rio Grande has historically been the location of a unique cultural and racial confluence. Indigenous and Hispanic communities have lived in the region, in harmony and in conflict, since the late 16th century. The tradition of adobe architecture—a building technique developed and adopted by Native Americans and European colonists—stands as evidence of the complex socio-cultural history of the region.

Over a two-year period, the film follows the studio’s experimentations in the design and production of the first 3D-printed adobe structures in the United States. Widely celebrated for its pioneering work in the field of additive manufacturing, the studio’s explorations range from ceramic wares to architectural forms that seek to provide more ecologically friendly, energy-efficient and affordable construction methods. It is an analytical exercise that strives to hold on to cultural traditions while pushing the limits of a humble, naturally occurring material with the help of 21st-century technology.

Mud Frontier: Architecture at the Borderlands was directed by Chris J. Gauthier, manager, video productions, Cooper Hewitt. Executive producers include Cooper Hewitt; Smithsonian Latino Center; Christina L. De León, associate curator of Latino design, Cooper Hewitt; and Pamela Horn, director of cross-platform publishing and strategic partnerships, Cooper Hewitt. The documentary film was produced with support from the Latino Initiative Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.