What I am thinking: the budding glass engineer/artist Gregor Hortsmeyer


Design Review with colleague; EOC

A native of California, Gregor Horstmeyer is an enthusiast of performance-based seismic design, in addition to glass, timber and concrete design. Growing up working in a glass blowing studio, he eventually combined his interest in glass with studies in engineering by writing a final year thesis on hyperbolic glass shell structures at the Form Finding Lab . Since joining Eckersley O’Callaghan in 2011, Horstmeyer has worked on projects of all scales in numerous parts of the world.

Sigrid Adriaenssens: Where does your fascination for glass stem from?

Gregor Hortsmeyer: I attended a public high school that had an incredible visual arts department. The dedicated teachers there worked tirelessly on behalf of the students and the program to find funding for study in various media. Specifically, David Camner was awarded grants to promote teaching the fiery arts: ceramics, bronze casting, and glass blowing.  Interested in art, I signed up for the program as soon as I entered high school.

(In the glass studio; Paly Glass) 

As a young individual with an affinity for science, time spent in the glass studio became the tactile and physical counterpart to the phenomena I studied in my chemistry and physics classes. Working with glass connected me to processes in action: phase changes, centripetal force, viscosity, thermodynamics, fracture mechanics, and thermal strain. All are simultaneously at play, and many of the properties inform one-another.  What on a whiteboard is a complex system to describe and understand, is in the art studio an active experiment.  I spent those four high school years arriving at studio before sun rise and staying after hours to experiment with glass as much as I could.

What is the most interesting property of glass and how can you exploit it in design?

Glass is a non-crystalline solid that is made of disordered SiO2 molecules held together by strong and stable atomic bonds. One consequence of this atomic arrangement is that the electrons inside glass are not excited when bombarded with photons across a range of energy levels, namely the energy levels corresponding to the visible light spectrum. As a result, the material is transparent – non-reactive to visible light, allowing it to pass through largely unabsorbed and unaltered.

To exploit the transparency of glass, we try to better understand the physical characteristics of the material so that we can create structural elements and systems such as glass walls and glass roofs.

What is your most daring structural glass project? What was the challenge and how did you solve it?

A recently completed tower in Salt Lake City has a large glass apron at the entry level that is designed to offer maximum transparency.  Additionally, the structural glass facade is designed to tolerate extreme building movements.

Kinematic Façade Global; EOC

The slender building core that supports all 24 hanging stories is set back from the perimeter to allow for an expansive and column-free thirty-five-foot-tall lobby entrance. This design results in significant building movements during seismic events. While all hanging floor plates above the ground move together uniformly, the lowest hung floor (Level 2) interfaces with the stationary base-supported entry façade. This presented a challenge.

The critical design challenge was to dissect and understand how the building moves during wind storms and seismic events.  A study of deflections, rotations, supports, and rigidity was conducted to define a realistic solution to enclose the building with glass and accommodate the building displacements without developing undesired forces in the structural glass assemblies.

Kinetic Façade Hinge; EOC

To address these challenges and meet the design intent of a transparent all-glass facade, a kinematic hinge system was developed to accommodate the building vertical movements. Precision linear slide bearings were used to absorb the building’s lateral drifts which allowed us to avoid an opaque movement joint and ultimately create a facade that provides an incredible view into and out of the building.

What is your advice to young engineering students wanting to pursue a career in innovative and creative structural design?

As engineers, we are being asked to provide solutions to problems. We do not search for a singular scientific answer, but instead consider the constraints and offer one of often many possible solutions.

These possible solutions might be easy or difficult, simple or complex, cheap or expensive. It is the engineer’s job to determine the best solution given the project’s constraints.

Always be willing to consider creative solutions; don’t fall victim to the “it hasn’t been done, it can’t be done” mindset.

I believe that this creative approach should be an office philosophy. The engineering team should look beyond the obvious, most pragmatic solution. To be able to deliberate these alternative solutions you need to be surrounded by people with experience who you can look to for guidance – engineers who will challenge your assumptions. This mentality for solving problems should be fostered from the beginning of a career and I suggest young engineers to look for design offices where the Principals are actively involved in the design process themselves. In such a setting, a young engineer can gain confidence and experience in approaching problems with an open and creative mind.

What question do you never get asked and would like to be asked? What would be the answer?

It is not so much “what” I am asked but rather “when” I am asked. I think we, as engineers, should be engaged in answering questions much earlier in the design process. We need to understand the constraints and goals of a project prior to design conception. In that way, we can use our knowledge of structures and materials to inform the design right from the beginning. A great example of this is a staircase we designed in Uruguay.

We sat down in a meeting with a fabricator and he pulled out a piece of scrap paper that he had been given by the architect in Uruguay. The paper had a single line spiral drawn in the middle, and a vertical line on one side of the spiral. He clarified that this drawing was the design intent – a spiral staircase cantilevering on the side of a building. Then he left.

Being engaged with a design so infant, we were able to examine the fundamental behavior of the staircase and let that inform the design and material pallet. The final design impressed both the fabricator and architect.


Transistioning into our 2nd Anniversary!

As we enter into the 3rd year of the Form Finding Blog, we look back at all the inspiring people we have met and interviewed and all the amazing design and scholarship we have written about.


Posts like “Assessing the stability of Masonry Structures Part 1 and 2” (research) and “Higrow – Hygroscopic properties of wood used as programmable matter in lightweight construction” (design) and the Interview Series “What I am thinking” (with record-breaking skyscraper engineer Bill Baker and the net artist Janet Echelman) have caught your attention.  The intersection of research, design and art continues to shape our thinking about how we can transform our approaches to engineering design for a more sustainable and resilient urban environment.


At the same time, we look forward and wonder how we can serve you, our readers, better: give you what you really want. More thoughtful and better curated discussions of cutting edge-research and design. More attractive visuals and inspiring interviews with the prominent designers and researchers. Better info about significant events and articles. And free access to our published scholarship.

12-Light Earth Designs vault interior
(Light Earth Designs)

Here is how we will do this:

  • An new Form Finding Lab INSTAGRAM: a curated visual experience, with opportunities to explore the stories behind the images;
  • A revamped Form Finding Lab blog with two posts per month that will focus more on research and inspirational interviews;
  • The Form Finding Lab facebook page with all this information plus any attractive articles and events we want to bring to your attention; and
  • The Form Finding Lab ResearchGate where you will find our papers and can connect with us intellectually.
Exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum (Photo: Edmund Sumner)

We hope you will like what you will find.

Happy 2nd Anniversary!

The Form Finding Lab

Structures designed in the Low Countries: the ice shell Flamenco tower

The Flamenco Ice Tower in Harbin, China

With the cold weather upon us, we wanted to share this fascinating ice shell project with you.

An international team of students and professors from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), Summa College, the Netherlands, and Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT), China, have completed the largest ice shell ever after two years of preparation.

by Qiyu3

TU/e and HIT realized this architectural ice structure, the “Flamenco Ice Tower”, in the ice capital of the world, Harbin. This Chinese city is well known for its international ice and snow sculpture festival. The ice tower is located at the Maple Village Outlet Company. The team improved the 2015 record of 21 meters to 31 meters in 2018. In previous years, Dutch students completed various ice structures in Finland as well: the Pykrete Dome in 2014, the Sagrada Familia in Ice in 2015, and the Bridge in Ice 2016. Further, in cooperation with HIT they realized a small pilot of the Flamenco Ice Tower on the architectural campus of HIT China last winter.

The design of the Flamenco Ice Tower is based on the shape of traditional Chinese towers and the flamenco dress. The thin shell structure of 31 meters is made with an average thickness of 25 cm of fiber-reinforced ice sprayed on a huge balloon. It is possible to build large thin-shell structures by reinforcing ice with natural fibers such as wood fibers. These fibers make the ice much stronger and create a reliable building material. This sustainable, fully recyclable building material can be a solution for temporary constructions in cold areas, events or even Mars missions. HIT and TU/e intend to cooperate in the realization of ice structures for the Olympic Winter Games that will be held in China in 2022.

For more information, see www.structural-ice.com.




Art and Engineering: testing he boundaries of the physical world: allowing large deformations

Structural engineers envision, design, and construct the bridges and long‐span buildings people depend on daily. Traditionally, the structural engineer’s approach has been to control and limit the stress levels, deflections, and natural frequency in structural systems. While the structural engineering discipline rarely challenges this dogma of limitation and control, this is a fundamental question in art. Many artifacts show that testing the boundaries of the physical world is an inherent part of a successful artwork.  Drawing inspiration from the large deformations achieved in the Pore rubber dance/sculpture installations (Miami Art Basel, Martha Friedman, 2015), our research showed in several lines of inquiry how allowing excessive deformations can also benefit the structural performance of flexible structural system [1,2].

Large deforming rubber sheet in Pore sculpture (Martha Friedman, Miami, 2015)

For instance, we investigated how polyester rope, a product of local home‐spun industries, can be an alternative to steel cable in suspended footbridges because of its low weight, low cost, low creep rate, and durability.

The only existing largely-deforming polyester rope suspended bridge (Ait‐Bayoud, Morocco, 2016 image credit: Engineers Without Borders Columbia University)

However, polyester’s low material stiffness – its Young’s modulus is 70 times smaller than that of steel – results in large static bridge deformations and increased walking slopes. We found that when relaxing traditional bridge deflection limits, the polyester rope’s low stiffness leads to large deflections that give rise to a nonlinear increase in the bridge’s geometric stiffness and, beneficially, leads to high levels of safety against overloading.  This overload capacity has great potential for bridges in the context of resource-constrained environments where larger walking slopes are acceptable.

We established its static and dynamic behavior of the Ait-Bayoud bridge and performed our physical testing on it. (image credit: Ted Segal)

In the future, the Form Finding Lab will continue to envision and develop structural systems by drawing on approaches and phenomena found in art, craft, and nature. This line of scholarship is aligned with the STEAM vision (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics). In this context, we would like to bring the following Symposium to your attention: “Living at the Intersection” (April 12-13, 2018 on the Princeton University campus). It will engage participants in the exploration of “living at the intersection” of engineering and the arts with thought leaders, researchers, artists, faculty, students, and professionals who create at or near this intersection. More about this symposium later.

[1] E. Segal, L. Rhode-Barbarigos, S. Adriaenssens and R. Filomeno Coelho, ‘Multi-objective optimization of polyester-rope and steel-rope suspended footbridges’, Engineering Structures, vol. 99, pp. 559-567, doi:10.1016/j.engstruct.2015.05.024, 2015.

[2] E. Segal, L. Rhode-Barbarigos, R. Coelho, and S. Adriaenssens, ‘An Automated Robust Design Methodology for Suspended Structures’, Journal of the International Association of Shell and Spatial Structures, vol. 56, pp. 221-229, no.4, 2015.




What I am thinking: structure-inspired artist Lancelot Coar

Lancelot Coar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, specializing in undergraduate and masters level design studio and construction technology lecture courses and is a researcher at the Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (CAST). His research includes the development of building systems using fabric formed concrete, fabric reinforced concrete, fabric reinforced ice structures, bending active fiberglass frames and post-tensioned wood. For more information about the projects referenced here and Lancelot’s other work, check out www.lancelotcoar.com

Sigrid Adriaenssens: What is the relationship between material and design in your work? 

Lancelot Coar: For the way I work, material governs design, not only as an outcome, but as a process. It guides the design and construction methods I develop in order to provoke material to achieve a mutually agreed upon result. I say mutual because I view the will of material as a source of intelligence, a collaborator and guide if you will. Because of this, choosing what material to work with directly impacts my design approach, so that I can respond to that material’s nature.

Fabrigami (2016), a fabric formed origami ice shell (with C. Mueller, L. De Laet, J. Hare, K. Wiese) being pulled into tension prior to application of water onto fabric (photo by N. Bava).

Since all matter provides a distinct territory for force to move through, as well as a unique response to that force, selecting what material to work with is effectively choosing what type of forces I want work with in a design process. For example, membranes and shells offer a 2-dimensional field for stresses that demand very particular approaches to designing; one dealing with tension and the other predominantly compression. While slender elastic materials in bending active systems, like fiberglass bars, give rise to a very different set of design constraints that result in establishing equilibrium through a network of pure bending. And working with phase changing liquid-to-solid materials (like concrete, ice, resin, etc.) requires negotiating a material that is able to change from being formless, animate and highly susceptible to the influence of forces, to becoming rigid and resistant to stress in the form it hardens in.

Fabrigami following the icing of the fabric.

Despite the diverse ways that materials relate to stresses, the nature of materials is always revealed in how they seek equilibrium. Therefore, I find it important to witness the event of materials seeking equilibrium. These observations are what guide my understanding about them, my approach to designing, methods for making, and ideas for how they may be useful in producing efficient building systems. In some projects, I have attempted to incorporate the active participation of multiple materials with very different natures to yield exciting and productive results.

An example of this can be seen in a recent project, entitled “Ice Bloom”, carried out in January 2017 with Dr. Sigrid Adriaenssens and Michael Cox (Princeton University), Dr. Lars de Laet (Vrije Universiteit Brussels), and Mark West (University of Washington). This project tested how three highly dynamic material systems (fabric formwork, shell construction, and bending active frames) could work together to create a synergistic building system that builds off of the efficiencies and nature of each material in it. This project involved the creation of an 8m x 8m x 4m fabric formed ice vault, shaped by a bending active frame covered in a fabric formwork and sprayed with water in the extreme winter climate of Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

Ice Bloom (2017) during the watering of the fabric formwork, supported by a bending active frame (photo by N. Bava).

This project provided an opportunity for three material systems to influence the formation of each other in order to produce a materially and structurally efficient result, otherwise impossible to achieve with a single material system alone. For example, the elastica geometries formed by a fiberglass rebar bending active frame was discovered to be capable of following the principal stress patterns of the vault design, thus a construction method was developed to guide the fiberglass bars to follow that pattern. Once erected the elastic frame supported a fabric formwork textile to create a ribbed pattern that followed the topology of the bars supporting the fabric. The result was that when the water was applied, the saturated fabric deformed following the bar patterns and collected more water in the concave valleys between the bars. This allowed for the ice to not only form a contiguous structural shell over all of the fabric, but to also create thickened ice beams along the principal compression pathways of the vault shell. The self-organizing behaviour of each of these materials resulted in the creation of an integrated building system that aided in the design process, intelligently organized material massing, and generated an efficient structural form as a result.

Ice Bloom after a 2cm snowfall onto the freshly frozen ice shell. The ribbed pattern of the snow reveals the valleys of the principal stress lines created by the bending active frame.

SA: What is your preferred material and why?

LC: Flexible and wet materials, mainly because they are expressive and animate, both qualities I am trying to better understand and use in form-generation and the construction processes.

For a long time (even before pre-industrialization), building materials have been conceived of and treated as silent agents of our design will. Their characteristics have been muted and generalized by the massiveness of how we use them in construction. Because we largely wish our structures to be static (even though they never truly are), we have established our design processes, methods of analysis, definition of failure, and construction tolerances to all infer a predilection for rigidity. This frame of thinking has impacted how we have come to think about materials as instruments of stasis and not as mediums possessing expressive and dynamic characteristics that might perhaps be useful.

Pre-stressed wood research exploring deployable expanding frame systems (2008, with D. Blouw).

Even the tools we use to shape building materials are designed to control the characteristics of matter in the name of geometric dominance; namely the industrial single-axis machines that are used to cut, press, and roll prismatic “sticks” and “sheets”. Because of this, our design practices, construction traditions and even our teaching of material sciences has passed down this presumption of rigidity to new generations of engineers and architects, including myself. So, by working with expressive materials, I am in essence inviting matter to help me decouple my preconceptions about materials from their actual expressive nature in order to explore how they might become active participants in our quest to shape them.

What is your design process?

Left: Heated wax modeling table used to create fabric formed wax shells through improvisation and scalable construction methods (2009, with Z. Lebel). Right: Once a design is finished, the heat is turned off and a rigid fabric and wax model is formed.

For the most part, I begin by playing. Play is a vital part of the decoupling process I was speaking about. It is one of the few ways I know how to have my presumptions confront the realities of material behaviour, and be forced to reconcile what I assume with what I am witnessing. Playing is an act of improvised negotiation between the unconscious (intuitive) and the conscious (intellectual) through direct experience. By playing, in this case with materials, we are discovering them on many levels, and thereby actively re-forming our intuition about them. As many past masters have reminded us, from Nervi to Maillart, structural intuition is an important part of designing if we are to understand the fullest essence of structural behaviour. When speaking about our awareness and fascination with complex geometries, Nervi points out that although we observe innumerable examples of form resistant structures in nature and everyday life, resistance through geometry is not a part of our heritage of study, analysis or representational traditions. As a result, it has not yet become a part of the intuitive structural language we draw from to design structures. “In other words, we are not yet used to thinking structurally in terms of form.” I would extend this to also include us not yet being able to think structurally in terms of behaviour.

He goes on to say that “In order to develop this kind of intuition, form-resistance should be studied in our schools of architecture through the critical analysis of structures, and above all through models” (Nervi, 1956). Despite this statement being made over a half-century ago, we have only begun to find ways of working that invite us to understand structures through form and behaviour in our recent efforts to link computational modeling systems with physical prototypes.

A superimposed photograph of a load test of a post-tensioned bending active spline (2017, with J. Piper and V. Jiang; photo by J. Piper).

In reference to my design process, I would point out that each material system presents a unique set of constraints, opportunities, and roles for the designer to take in shaping that system. What I mean by this is that with self-organizing or parametric material systems (i.e. bending actives frames, fabric formwork, etc.) a designer/builder does not shape the structure, they establish boundary conditions within which a material finds equilibrium through form. Therefore, the conventional approach of design being provided by the will of the designer does not apply here. With these systems, a designer is only one half of the equation, material will is the other half. As a result, in each project I become interested in playing with the design constraints of the site, construction sequence and assembly techniques that compel the material to arrive at a desired result.

SA: What is the importance of ‘making’?

LC: Making is central to my research. Typically, I begin exploring a material by examining and testing full-scale samples to see its characteristics. From that I try to find an analogous material to test in model form. Although at a smaller size, the selected material is chosen so that its behaviour is scaled, and thus the model itself performs at “full scale”. I always use physical modeling to begin research, but then I turn to digital modeling tools (like Rhino/Kangaroo, FEA, etc.) to provide computational insight not provided by physical models. Yet, while digital tools are able to produce curated depictions of material systems, they can never render their full nature, nor can they provide insight into constructability (both in terms of sequence and technique). Therefore, digital tools are a discrete and important part of the work, but not the complete work.

Left: Digital models of a bending active frame with a bar pattern following the principal stresses of a vault. Center: Physical model of the frame used to verify construction sequence and methods. Right: Completed frame erected in place at the Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (CAST) (2017, images and photos by V. Jiang, J. Piper).

Form-finding is a term used quite often in recent years, most often referring to the results of producing a form through working with a parametric design or material system. In form-finding processes like the ones I describe here, I am primarily interested in the act of forming itself, and the formal results secondarily. By working with physical models at multiple sizes, the act of negotiation between the construction acts of the builder and the behavioural response of the material establish the methodology, construction techniques, and construction sequences required to arrive at a congruent construction logic. Once this is established, the final forms can then be explored. Unless the dance of action/reaction and designer will/material response is understood, the intention of the designer inevitably becomes in conflict with the will of the material. The goal is to avoid this conflict as much as possible. This avoidance is the key to construction and material efficiency, and if lucky, structural efficiency as well.

Left: Testing a construction technique to produce an origami geometry using a tension net. Right: applying a fabric formwork to the tension net to create an origami form.

Another result of aligning the work of the designer/builder with the material systems is that the formal language of a resulting structure often is unexpected and not based solely on the predilections of the designer. Besides efficiency, another aim of this work is to uncover new structural and architectural formal languages that are not necessarily based in the industrial design traditions of our training, but instead from the lexicon of the natural world.

Shadow patterns created by a bending active frame and fabric skin structure for On the Road/en Route (2010).
Fabric formed paraffin wax shell and black sand (2014).

SA: What is your greatest achievement and why?

LC: Personally, of course being a father.

Professionally, I would say sustaining a high degree of fun in my work. Although this may seem frivolous, I believe that finding pleasure in one’s work is essential to being productive and encouraging imagination and persistent curiosity.

Coar and J. Hare attempting to put point loads on to Fabrigami once the tension net was released and the fabric and ice shell was freestanding (photo by D. Rey).

SA: What question do you never get asked and would like to be asked? What would be the answer?

LC: “Why build in this way?”

Primarily because of our need for significant improvements in building efficiency.

We are living in increasingly unstable environments resulting from centuries of unrestrained energy and material consumption. At the same time, large populations and entire communities are being forced into migration due to food scarcity, conflict and a changing climate. If we are to respond to these pressing challenges in a meaningful way, our buildings cannot continue to rely only on the assumption of stasis, nor the requirement for large quantities of energy, material or expense in order to be realized.  While iterative improvements to the industrial building trade are continually being made, I believe that we should at the same time, be exploring radically alternative approaches to design and construction. These approaches might instead emerge from the inherent efficiencies of the material world to achieve new directions toward minimal construction energy, reduced material mass, and simplified construction methods. These methods are not intended to replace our existing technologies in construction, but to instead expand our ability to respond to a greater range of human needs and situations, and to align more closely with the living systems of our world, of which we are an influential part.


Nervi, P. L., 1956. Structures. 1st Edition ed. Ann Arbor: F.W. Dodge Corp.


HyparGate: Italian researchers reviving the ancient art of stereotomy

Italian architects of the New Fundamentals Research Group (Polytechnic University of Bari) and engineers from Roma Tre University are designing and constructing innovative reinforced stone shells and reviving stereotomy, the ancient art of cutting stones.

(Image: S.N.B.R.)

Using advanced modeling and analysis software, and robotic fabrication, the team, coordinated by Prof. Giuseppe Fallacara, has designed the HyparGate, the first discrete hyperbolic paraboloid made of stone. The HyparGate covers a free area of 22 square meters thanks to the cantilever morphology of the shell. The hypar is a well-known ruled surface that has been used in the last decades for many structural applications related to reinforced concrete shells. The full-scale construction is located in France, representing the entrance portal to the headquarters of the French company S.N.B.R.. The main idea is to replace reinforced concrete with pre-stressed stone in order to reduce the use of artificial materials in architecture as much as possible.

Focusing on the hypar’s morphological properties, an aspect of considerable importance in terms of structural analysis and fabrication is that it can be easily described in an analytic way as a parametric surface. The mathematical description allows the direct calculation of some geometric quantities that characterize the structural behaviour. Furthermore, it is one of the most famous ruled surfaces: it may be generated using two families of line segments called “generatrices.” This feature is particularly important in this case because it implies a simple way of dividing the stone into modules, and above all, it permits the use of post-tensioning with rectilinear steel bars in order to eliminate residual tensions along the generatrices.

The main intent is to establish an innovative connection between shape, structure, and fabrication, and to generate a series of new self-supported vaulted morphologies through integrated parametric analyses. This computational approach underlines the potential of robotic fabrication in architectural fields, making possible the fabrication of optimized voussoirs modelled using parametric software. The fabrication process includes the use of robotic arms in combination with CNC manufacturing techniques like circular saw cutting, milling, and diamond wire cutting. The whole research aims to demonstrate that by seamlessly combining digital fabrication tools, architectural design, and mechanical analysis, it is possible to develop innovative structural morphologies with intrinsically high aesthetic value and a high degree of sustainability.

Title: HyparGate

Concept & design: Prof. Dr. Giuseppe Fallacara

3D drafting and optimization: Giuseppe Fallacara, Nicola Martielli, Maurizio Barberio, Bertrand Laucournet

Structural analysis (prestressed reinforced stone): Prof. Ing. Nicola Rizzi, Valerio Varano, Daniele Malomo

Fabrication and construction: S.N.B.R. Société Nouvelle Le Batiment Régional

Location: SNBR Bureaux – 2 Rue Alcide de Gasperi, 10300 Sainte-Savine, Troyes (France)

Chronology (design, fabrication and construction): 2014 – 2016

Stone type: Armenian travertine

Structures in the Low Countries: Port House, Antwerp

The third interesting structure we discuss in the series Structures in the Low Countries is the Port House in the city of Antwerp, Belgium.  This building, designed by Zaha Hadid, is the brand new Port House. It was opened 6 months after Zaha’s sudden death  and the population of Antwerp is still making up their mind whether they like it or not.  In any case, we liked it a lot. As the Antwerp-based graphic designer, Stephanie Specht,  says

“Bateau c’est un batiment sur l’eau” 

The Diamond Ship (Zaha Hadid) with the Ark (bOb Van Reeth) in the forground

The president of the Port of Antwerp, Marc Van Peel, has called it a “Diamond Ship” which refers to the context of Antwerp being famous for its diamond trade and the site location right in the middle of the Antwerp Port.

In 2008 Zaha and her office entered a design competition with hundred other design teams to upgrade and expand an existing early 20th century fire station into an office building for the port authority. The original brick building, which is a copy of a 16th century Hanseatic building, has a historic designation and had in the original design drawings an eye-catching spire which was never built.

Original drawing of the Hanseatic fire station, Antwerp, Early 20th century. City Archives

The addition of the triangulated glass volume seems to defy gravity and is a signature piece, like the spire was meant to be. This four story volume of offices is supported on a sculptural column, holding the fire escape, and on an elevator core that rises up from the original courtyard.

By off- setting the glass faceted volume from the geometric center of the brick building, the architects created compositional tension while allowing daylight to filter into the courtyard.  In addition, the shape of the glass “diamond” volume seemed to be bent and stretched by invisible forces, generating the feeling of movement.  The glass facade whose edges are beveled and cut, reflects the light during the day time and at night shines as a diamond beacon. This in contrast with the brick building, which seems very grounded and celebrates repetition and symmetry, a exemplary product of early 20th century bricklaying techniques.  The city of Antwerp has been the Diamond City since 1447. 2017 was inaugurated as the ‘Diamond Year’ , the Port House is an excellent icon to celebrate this legacy. This is our last post for this year, we wish you Happy Holidays and inspiration for the new year!  from all of us at the Form Finding Lab

Beveled cut edges in a parametrically designed facade

Thin Vaulting: Rwanda National Cricket Stadium


YorkshireTea_RwandaCricket_25.10.17 - Team Yorkshire Tea playing at the Rwandan Cricket Stadium - credit Jonathan Gregson_preview
Team Yorkshire Tea playing at the Rwandan Cricket Stadium (Photo: Jonathan Gregson)

This project is part of a 5-year collaboration between Light Earth Designs and the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation, which focuses on how Rwanda can transition away from a purely agricultural economy using local home-grown, labour-intensive construction techniques, thereby avoiding imports, lowering carbon, and building a skilled workforce.

The primary enclosure of the cricket stadium, the vaults, adapts ancient Mediterranean tile-vaulting (using compressed soil-cement tiles) to a moderately active seismic area by using geogrid reinforcing in the layers and bearing the springing points of the doubly curved vaults on the ground.  The vaults follow the natural resolution of forces toward the ground, closely mimicking the parabolic geometry of a bouncing ball and evoking the cherished hilly topography of Rwanda. The masonry vaults are completely in compression, allowing the use of a simple layered thin shell composite of low strength tiles.

The tiles, which are hydraulically pressed with a small addition of cement and do not require firing, are produced on site using local soil and a combination of skilled and unskilled local labor. They are laid in layers onto a temporary timber skeleton and span up to 16m. A geogrid (developed by architectural and engineering researchers at Cambridge University) is added to give some seismic protection. The shells are waterproofed and topped with local broken granite (found everywhere across the country) to help the structure blend in with its surrounding as well as to add weight and stability.

Simple, efficient, and thin concrete tables are inserted into the vaults, providing space for the more enclosed functions: the service areas, the changing rooms, an office and a restaurant.  These tables are topped with natural Rwandan agro-waste-fired tiles made of commonly found wetland clay. The open mezzanines -a bar and a clubhouse -enjoy wonderful raised clear panoramic views over the Oval and wetland valley beyond.

Bricks are used to define edges and spaces -often laid in a perforated bond -allowing the breeze and light to filter through. These bricks are sourced from enterprises set up by Swiss NGO SKAT Consulting, and are also low carbon agro-waste-fired bricks manufactured using high efficiency kilns, further reducing embedded energy and carbon.  Waste stone from Rwandan granite flooring and worktops are used for flooring. The plywood rectangles used to press the tiles are reused as countertops while timber and plywood from the vault formwork is made into joinery and doors, ensuring that a maximum of waste material goes into primary production.  Local slate is configured to allow rain water to permeate and infiltrate the soil.  Retaining walls are either local granite boulders or are hollow to encourage planting.

The building grows out of the cut soil banking that was formed as the pitch was levelled, thus becoming part of the landscape. The banking creates a wonderful natural amphitheater with great views to the pitch and the wetland valley beyond.  Whilst the language of the building speaks about progression and dynamism through extreme structural efficiency, the materials speak of the natural, the hand made, and the human. It is a building made by Rwandans using Rwandan materials.

The design builds on vault design and research by Michael Ramage at the University of Cambridge Centre for Natural Material Innovation alongside Ana Gatóo and Wesam Al Asali, and extends the work of Ramage with John Ochsendorf (MIT) and Matt DeJong (Cambridge).

30- Rwanda_National_Cricket_Stadium-Credit Paul Broadie_Yorkshire Tea
(Photo Paul Broadie)

Peter Rich Architects with Michael Ramage and John Ochsendorf pioneered soil tiled vaulting at the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre (SA).  Light Earth Designs (Tim Hall, Ramage, and Rich) continued with the Earth Pavilion (UK), FR2 offices for Joseph Ritchie (Chicago, USA) and have undertaken research in the application of geogrids in seismic zones conducted at the University of Cambridge.

The vault construction proposes a mix of low skilled and skilled worker teams. The teams are trained by an expert mason, in this case James Bellamy (a mason from New Zealand). The tiles are laid with the inner layer resting on a temporary formwork (made of timber and scaffold) that allows the form to take shape. The inner layer of tiles is laid upwards from the perimeter and stays in place through the use of a quick setting gypsum mortar. As the first layer continues, successive layers of tiles are laid in a thin lime and cement mortar inlaid with geogrid. The number of layers is determined by the vault span (in this case up to six layers with a large span of 16m). The tiles are topped with a screed and waterproofed with a torched sheet membrane. On top of this a network of geogrid is laid with a composite granite stone and lime/cement/sand mortar mix.

14-Light Earth Designs Rwanda Cricket Staduim 3
(Light Earth Designs)

The imperfections are celebrated – they are human and beautiful – and when combined with the layering of natural textures the building becomes imbues and celebrates this wonderful place.

Rwanda cricket stadium poster
(Light Earth Designs)
(Light Earth Designs)

All Pictures © Light EarthDesigns unless otherwise noted: https://tinyurl.com/yb5t27qv

Project Location

  • Gahanga, Kigali, Rwanda


  • Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation

Light Earth Designs team

  • Tim Hall -Partner and lead
  • Michael Ramage -Partner and vaulting lead
  • Ana Gatóo -Project lead architectural engineer; on site lead
  • Ben Veyrac -Project architect at tender and architect
  • Wesam Al Asali -formwork design
  • Anton Larsen –architect
  • Marco Groenstege -architectural technician
  • Oliver Hudson -engineering support
  • Killian Doherty -project inception architect


  • Roko Construction, Kigali
  • James Bellamy, Vault Specialist

This post was adapted from a press release kindly provided by Michael Ramage of Light Earth Designs. For more information, please visit:  https://www.ribaj.com/buildings/cricket-pavilion-light-earth-designs-rwanda

The thesis: quintessentially Princeton 

the thesis: quintessentially Princeton” features the thesis-writing experiences of Princeton students and their advisers. From research conducted around the world to discoveries made in the library or the lab, students share their joy in doing original, independent work, while relaying some of their mistakes and tips for the next generation of Princetonians. The advisers then explain their side of the thesis journey—from the steps for writing a successful thesis to the close relationships that develop between students and faculty members in a way that is “quintessentially Princeton.”

Below is the account of one of Professor Adriaenssens first thesis advising experiences, when she worked with senior Gregor J. Horstmeyer on his project entitled Structural and Constructional Feasibility of Glass Elements: A Hyperbolic Umbrella.

This post originally appeared at https://www.princeton.edu/pub/qp/reflections/horstmeyer/ on March 3, 2011


Adviser reflection by Sigrid M. Adriaenssens: A few months into my February appointment as an assistant professor at Princeton University, Gregor Horstmeyer arrived in my office. I had never met him before, but he had learned about me and my research from reading my new website. From this initial conversation, I observed that Gregor had a passion for life. Not surprisingly, I would later find out that the time on his undergraduate thesis was in competition with glassblowing and top-level water polo (he was the 2009 captain of the water polo team!). It struck me that Gregor, a senior in civil and environmental engineering and a glass artist, would be the ideal researcher to investigate and “engineer” a solution for a conundrum that the American glass industry is currently struggling with. In 2006 at the Toledo Museum of Art, the $30 million Glass Pavilion opened as a symbol of America’s “Glass City.” This new structure reflects the legacy of its local glassmakers. One flaw with this image: The curved glass pavilion was completely imported from China, the new world-leading curved glass manufacturer.

Gregor wholeheartedly turned his hobby into his thesis topic and set about investigating the structural and constructional feasibility of a curved glass inverted umbrella shell. Over the summer vacation, prior to the official start of the thesis research, Gregor spent many nights and days in the heat of his hometown glass workshop in Palo Alto, California, making moulds, melting, slumping and fusing glass, and experimentally optimizing his “recipe” to make curved glass panes. My advice for senior thesis students is to start early. Gregor’s investigations confirmed that novel research never develops according to plan A. His physical experiments turned out to be more difficult than they originally seemed. In the fall semester of his senior year, Gregor unconditionally focused on the complex numerical finite element analysis of his shell, which is really a master’s thesis-level topic. His numerical findings confirmed the structural efficiency of the inverted umbrella shell. The shell proved to be extremely thin and could be constructed of minimal amounts of materials, use little resources, and be a showcase of sustainability. Over the winter break, Gregor completed the shell in Palo Alto and shipped the whole model to Princeton for assembly.

And then one day there it was. This extremely thin, strong, stable, and beautiful glass curved object was sitting in my lab. Apart from a single curved glazed dome in a German doctoral study, Gregor was the first to demonstrate the potential these curved glass structures hold. He disseminated the findings of his thesis in a publication in a conference held in fall 2010 in Shanghai, the host of the World Expo. But I am ahead of the story. On Class Day, I got to meet Gregor’s parents and brother. I enjoyed the ceremony in particular because I knew that Gregor was going to win not one but two prizes. He rightly won the George J. Mueller Award for “combining high scholarly achievement in the study of engineering with quality performance in intercollegiate athletics” and the Moles Award for “outstanding promise in construction engineering and management.” I enjoyed the close relationship that I formed with Gregor over my first year in Princeton. I think this friendship will last long past graduation.


Student reflection by Gregor J. Horstmeyer: Engineering students are afforded the luxury of considerable flexibility when choosing their theses. One can do anything from design and build a novel apparatus, undertake seminal research in unexplored areas of study, write a historical perspective on major contributions to a field of study, or anything in between. My thesis involved a physical project in conjunction with a numerical analysis and a written supplement—yes, even though you are an engineer, you do need to show you can form a complete sentence before they’ll hand you a diploma. My project combined three primary interests: engineering, materials science, and art. Ultimately, I designed, fabricated, tested, and analyzed a structural glass canopy.

In the spring of my junior year, I began to search for both an adviser and a topic. As I sat and spoke with Professor Sigrid Adriaenssens, she learned of my prior work with art glass and insisted that we undertake a project involving that surprisingly complex medium. Looking back on those early meetings, I recall the two of us in a frenzy as we brainstormed potential thesis ideas. After a few meetings, we settled on a topic that excited both of us. That brings me to my first point of advice: Investigate something that really excites you intellectually.


Leaving Princeton that summer, I had a general idea of the tasks I needed to accomplish before the start of the fall semester. My adviser and I drew up an initial timeline of objectives. It was necessary to explore the constructional feasibility of the glass canopy and the fabrication of the individual glass elements. Both of these tasks involved experimentation with glass heating and forming techniques.

It did not take long for me to fall victim to Murphy’s Law: What can go wrong will go wrong. Luckily, my lack of full-time summer employment allowed me ample opportunity to sort through all the problems that cropped up. As I troubleshot for answers, I had a glimpse into the world of experimental research. Starting my thesis work the summer before senior year was invaluable for the successful completion of my project. I returned to campus in the fall with a more refined idea of what I was going to be examining, a better idea of the scope of my project, and a long and clear list of questions I needed to address. Point number two: Start early.

Sifting through books, journals, and research papers in search of the answers to your list of questions can feel like an overwhelming task at the beginning. The research process actually adds questions to your list, and answers you think you arrive at are continually refined and updated. In biweekly meetings with my adviser, we were able to examine my work through my ever-changing list of tantalizing questions. No adviser will be upset with you for showing up at a meeting with questions; if anything, this demonstrates that you are actually doing the work. These regular meetings were great learning experiences for both of us. I would arrive with answers (hopefully) to questions posed the previous week and explain my reasoning. We would then discuss any new questions and possible avenues for answers. Point three: Meet often and regularly with your adviser.


There were always problems that we could not work through or that a paper would raise without sufficient explanation. In these instances, I found it to be incredibly helpful to go directly to the source and contact the author. Most academics will be more than happy to try to answer any specific questions you might have about their work. They are both excited and flattered to find that someone else is genuinely interested in their life’s work. Almost everyone was kind enough to give me an e-mail response to my queries, and in some cases I ended up meeting individuals for coffee. Advice from leaders in your field of research, in addition to the guidance of your adviser, often proves invaluable to your thesis. Number four: Be proactive and ask questions of the experts.

I highly recommend not working on your thesis over intersession. I found it really important to take a break and just let things simmer for a while. That meant no new research, no reading; just relax and think. By the time second semester rolled around, I was refreshed and my thoughts were clear. I was ready to tackle the majority of the writing. I met with my adviser, and we reviewed and updated the biweekly schedule deadlines we had planned for the spring. Every few weeks, I would show my adviser a portion of the thesis. She would review it and suggest changes. This allowed me to work on something new while she reviewed something old. When I received her corrections, I was able to incorporate changes she recommended as well as my own editing changes. Slowly, the project was coming together and taking shape. Section by section, and eventually chapter by chapter, the work began to grow more coherent. In late March, I went in for our biweekly meeting and sat down with my most recent time line of objectives and noticed I was almost completely done.


After that meeting, I went back to my room and looked over the first schedule of objectives we had made a year ago. So many things had changed. Comparing the two, I noticed tasks and objectives that were so different they seemed almost contradictory. It was as if each schedule was for an entirely different thesis. This was concrete proof that the thesis process is very dynamic. Ideas evolve and change as you learn new things and you grow sometimes more, or sometimes less, interested in certain aspects of the project. What seemed insignificant at the beginning of the enterprise now occupies 10 pages of text in my thesis. Don’t be surprised if what you end up working on is not what you initially set out to do. My hunch is that is not unusual. The work is going to follow a circuitous path and you are probably going to end up reading a lot about something you had never known about before. As long as the path tracks with what interests and excites you, you will enjoy the research and, ultimately, the entire thesis experience.

In the end, you’re the person who’s going to be up at night buried in books, running between experiments, and debugging code. If you are enthralled in your work and eager to investigate your topic, the project will be incredibly rewarding and well worth those innumerable cups of midnight coffee.

Paris, City of Bridges, a tour.

In Fall 2017, we experienced how the River Seine is central to the enjoyment of the capital of France, Paris. In an earlier post, we interviewed the French bridge designer Marc Mimram about his design philosophy and he showed us the elegant design of the Passerelle Solférino. However no less than 37 bridges straddle the water of the Seine and provide a link between the left and right bank and the islands such as Ile de la Cité.  These bridges visually show some of the history of bridge design in Western Europe.

Map of the location of the 37 bridges over the river Seine in Paris

Initially the Ile de la Cité island provided an intermediate landing between the two rivers banks and thus reduced the bridge spans needed.  As a result, the Petit Pont was initially built over the smaller branch of Seine and Grand Pont over the largest one.

1550 Map showing the bridges leading to Ile de la Cite and the petit pont is shown to the right of the island

Both bridges were initially built in wood. Although floods and fires destroyed them,  craftsmen rebuilt them again and again and even added houses, shops and even mills on top of them.

La joute de mariniers entre le pont Notre-Dame et le Pont-au-Change, by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, 1756, shows the houses atop the Pont Notre Dame bridge.

The Pont Neuf even had waterworks Pompe de la Samaritaine installed on its deck.  The Pont Neuf marked the change of an era and was the first bridge built in stone and decorated.

The Pont Neuf, a stone masonry bridge, lit at night.

And although stone remained one of the more noble construction materials until the French Revolution, the sophistication of Parisian bridges came to full expression in the Belle Epoque with the arrival of metal ornate bridges at the beginning of the 19th century.  At that time, Paris was showing the world  its prowess in technology and the arts by holding World Fairs. The most elegant bridges of that period such as the Pont Alexandre III and Pont Mirabeau are all found near the Champs de Mars, which was then the heart of the large-scale international World Fairs.

Pont Alexandre III, ornate metal bridge, built around the time of the World Fairs
View of the structure below the deck of the Pont Alexandre III

The new city rail system and Paris’ expansion demanded a whole new series of bridges which would only carry trains. However, the new construction material, reinforced concrete was deemed to be too unattractive and was rarely used for bridges crossing the Seine.  One exception maybe, the Pont de la Tournelle , built in 1927, was built in reinforced concrete but then clad in stone to harmonize with the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Pont de La Tournelle, a stone clad reinforced concrete bridge, near the Notre Dame.

At the end of the 20th century, the Seine riverbanks became UNESCO World Heritage.  This listing led to the design and (re) construction of a number of  elegant bridges such as the Passerelle des Arts, rebuilt in 1984;

The rebuilt Ponts de Arts.
5 series of metal arches supporting the deck of the Pont des Arts.

the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor (ex-Solférino) which links the Tuileries to the Musée d’Orsay in 1999 designed by Marc Mimram; and, most recently, the daring Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir.

Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor, has 2 intertwining pedestrian decks.
Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor,

A boat tour on the river Seine really immerses you in the history of bridge design.  You might want to take a virtual tour yourself here . Enjoy!