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.



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