by Lars Spuybroek
Around the beginning of the 1990s, Frei Otto and his team at the Institute for Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart studied what they called “optimized path systems.” Previously, similar to the chain modeling technique Gaudí used for the Sagrada Familia, they had experimented with material systems for calculating form. Each of these material machines was devised so that, through numerous interactions among its elements over a certain time span, the machine restruc- tures, or as Frei Otto says, “finds (a) form.” Most of them consist of materials that process forces by transformation, which is a special form of analog com- puting. Since the materials function as “agents,” it is essential that they have a certain flexibility, a certain amount of freedom to act. It is also essential howev- er, that this freedom is limited to a certain degree set by the structure of the machine itself.
The material interactions frequently result in a geometry that is based on complex material behaviour of elasticity and variability. Sand, balloons, paper, soap film (including the famous minimal surfaces for the Munich Olympic Stadium), soap bubbles, glue, varnish, and the ones I will be referring to here: the wool-thread machines. This last tech- nique was used to calculate the shape of two-dimensional city patterns, but also of three-dimensional cancellous bone structure or branching column systems. They are all similar vectorized systems that economize on the number of paths, meaning they share a geometry of merging and bifurcating.
Wool Thread Experiments | Frei Otto + The Institute for Lightweight Structures
“The computer can only calculate what is already conceptually inside of it; you can only find what you look for in computers. Nevertheless, you can find what you haven’t searched for with free experimentation.” – From A Conversation with Frei Otto, by Juan Maria Songel
For Frei Otto, experimentation with models and maquettes was a fundamental part of his work as an architect. In 1961, he began to conduct a series of experiments with soap bubbles (featured in the video above). His experiments centered on suspending soap film and dropping a looped string into it to form a perfect circle. By then trying to pull the string out a minimal surface was created. It was these created surfaces that Otto experimented with.
Through these types of experimentation he was able to build forms and structures that were previously believed to be impossible. “Now it can be calculated, but for more than 40 years it was impossible to calculate it. I have not waited for it to be calculated in order to build it.”
Insight, 27. March 2015
…After the rigid, weighty formalism of the Third Reich, post-war architecture in West Germany strove above all for lightness and openness, transparency and elegance. More than any other German architect, Frei Otto embodies this endeavor to create lightweight structures that, being derived from nature, make efficient use of materials – designs that are both stunningly beautiful and functional. His work was soon given labels such as “organic”, “Gothic” and “democratic.”
His first name, Frei, which also means “free,” matched his thinking. For him, an architect was simultaneously an explorer, an inventor, an engineer, a humanist and, above all, an interdisciplinary team-worker. Otto’s designs are all the product of collaboration. He worked with Rob Krier, Günther Behnisch, Christoph Ingenhoven and Shigeru Ban – some of the most interesting architects of the twentieth century. It says a lot for Otto that he engaged with the work of such very different architects and cooperated with them so successfully. He referred to himself as a “source of ideas” who “has built little and instead devises ‘castles in the air’” – an understatement if ever there was one.
…His designs, which followed the principle of “do more with less,” were simultaneously experimental, original and unprecedented. Otto’s sophisticated and almost sculptural lightweight structures, using cable nets, lattice shells, or other tensile constructions, made him one of the most important architects and engineers of the twentieth century. His thinking harmonized structural engineering with spatial composition in a way equaled only by Richard Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s and Santiago Calatrava today. Frei Otto was mostly inspired by natural phenomena such as skeletons, spider webs and bubbles – his works express both lightness and stability, fusing architecture with landscape, wall with ceiling, and interior with exterior.
German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal (Photo: Burkhardt)
Working model of light scoops for the main station Stuttgart (Photo: saai)
This model uses the process I have previously explored, of minimal path systems by Frei Otto, but attempts to take the concept a stage further to create a minimal structural system.
Le Ricolais was considered along with Fuller & Otto a leading expert on structural morphology in architecture. He was an engineer, architect, poet and painter, known for his theoretical research on trellis structures and tensegrity during the 1950’s. His work’s roots are in nature and science, in a seashell, a soap bubble or le Ricolais’ fantasy of ‘going inside a rope’ to find a new way to realize his central vision of zero weight, infinite span.
In 1935, as a practicing hydraulics engineer, he introduced the concept of corrugated stress skins to the building industry and was awarded the Medal of the French Society of Civil Engineers. Then in 1940 his work on three-dimensional network systems introduced many architects to the concept of ‘space frames.’ After years of research he was well established as the ‘father of space structures.’
Le Ricolais quote : ‘the art of structure is where to put the holes.’
Harvard GSD | Fall 2013 | Studio Patrik Schumacher & Marc Fornes
Fall 2013 | GSD Studio-project : Patrik Schumacher & Marc Fornes
Parametric Semiology – High Performance Architecture for Apple, Google and Facebook
All problems of society are problems of communication. Especially within post-Fordist network society, total social productivity increases with the density of communication. High performance organisations are thus marked out by a high density/intensity of communication. The life process of society is a communication process that is structured by a rich, diversified panoply of institutions and communicative situations. It is the built environment that stabilizes this matrix of institutions and makes it navigable. The built environment is society’s physical memory; it functions as a system of signification that we all intuitively navigate to find relevant communication partners or situations. The societal function of urban and architectural design is the innovative ordering and framing of communicative interaction. The architectural frames – the designed settings/spaces – are themselves communications: they are communications that define, premise and prime the communicative interactions that are expected to take place within the respectively framed territory. Each territory/frame is embedded within a system of frames that can be understood and designed as a system of signification.
Every talented/successful designer adapts to and intervenes intuitively within the spontaneous and historically evolving semiological system of the built environment. The aim of the project brief is it to move from an intuitive participation within an evolving semiosis to an explicit design agenda that understands the design of a large scale architectural complex – like a corporate campus – as an opportunity to design a new, coherent spatio-morphological system of signification. High performance, creative organisation like Apple, Google or Facebook are the perfect clients for a design approach that aspires to become a global best practice for 21st century architecture. Organisation like Apple, Google or Facebook entail a sufficiently large and complex matrix of social institutions and specific communicative situations, so as to warrant and enable the design of a rich architectural language. The designed Apple campus, Google campus or Facebook campus should be an information-rich, densely articulated environment that orders and encodes the manifold social interactions to be expected and thus facilitates orientation and communication.
The designed semiological system should be conceived as a parametric system, i.e. the various distinctions and their correlations are subject to parametric variation. The programme domain, the domain of the signified, is best understood in terms of interaction patterns or communicative activities. These patterns of communicative interaction can be modelled via programmed agents that respond to the coded environmental clues. This implies that the meaning of architecture can enter the digital model (design medium) and thus becomes the object of cumulative design elaboration. The system of signification works if the agents consistently respond to the relevant positional and morphological clues so that behaviours to be expected can be read off the articulated environmental configuration. As agents cross significant thresholds their behavioural rules are modulated. Territorial distinctions thus order and coordinate interaction patterns. The meaning of architecture, the prospective life processes it frames and sustains, can be modelled and assessed within the design process, thus becoming a direct object of creative speculation.
A great set of 4 mini-documentaries about Tensile Structures, very complete and informative.
Interested in knowing more about tensile fabric structures and the technology behind them? From yurts made out of animal skins to modern and even futuristic building schemes, this video series shows just how exciting and inspiring tensile membranes can be. Divided into four bite size videos, this series covers: Part One: The Materials & Forms of Fabric Architecture Part Two: The Benefits of Fabric Architecture Part Three: The Practicalities of Fabric Architecture Part Four: The Process of Fabric Architecture
You can find them here:
See also : http://fabricarchitecturemag.com/
Design experiments with analogue and digital form-finding of tensile structures
Lecturer: Ioanna Symeonidou, Dipl. Eng. MSc AA EmTech
The workshop will explore lightweight structures through the use of mixed media, like analogue form-finding models with membranes and elastic textiles, as well as digital simulations, mainly dynamic relaxation in Rhino.
This intensive hands-on approach will familiarize students with physical simulations, and more specifically spring-particle systems. Digital experiments will be carried out in Rhino, using Grasshopper and Kangaroo plugin, a specifically architectural physics engine.
“To work with a minimal amount of materials using a minimum of energy, this can lead to a new architecture of lightness.”
— Frei Otto