Exhibition: Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures

After the revolution, Fidel Castro ordered the National Art Schools to be built on the site of a country club, a move to enrage wealthy capitalists.  The post-embargo material shortage resulted in the curved thin shell brick shell of the School of Modern Dance, designed by Ricardo Porro.  This shell reflected the sensuality Castro thought to be unique to the Cuban spirit. While four other … Continue reading Exhibition: Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures

Prof. A’s Tedx Talk: Designing for strength, economy and beauty

  Check out this video and like it on YouTube. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Structural engineers envision, design and construct the bridges and long‐span buildings those city dwellers depend on daily. The construction industry is one of most resource‐intensive sectors, and yet our urban infrastructure continues to be built in the massive tradition in which strength is pursued … Continue reading Prof. A’s Tedx Talk: Designing for strength, economy and beauty

How to describe the esthetics of structural surfaces? (2/2)

In an earlier post, I wrote about how and why we seem at loss for words when describing the esthetics of a structural surface. I continue that discussion here and analyse what vocabulary layman use and make suggestions for where we might seek additional jargon. I  build my argument upon the results of an experiment carried out by graduate student Rebecca Napolitano in Fall 2016 on the Princeton University Campus.  In the physical experiment, a membrane was installed on a highly frequented location on a central location next to a neo-gothic medium size building.The  membrane was shown in an existing built environment, which might have caused distraction from observing the pure membrane form, but allowed for a full 3D perception of the membrane deforming in the wind.  Randomly selected 138 undergraduate students who passed by the installation, were asked to describe the membrane structure with one word.  If their response coincided with an already recorded word, they were prompted for another defining word.

This physical experiment yielded a plenitude of words which can be catalogued according to formal analysis or subjective response classes. The first category, formal analysis, is grounded in the fine arts and Vitruvian architecture tradition. This type of analysis disassociates itself from reactions such as elation, fear and awe.  These words describe emotions or subjective responses and constitute the second category.  The subcategories in both classes were pre-established before the collection of data and are based on the ones discussed by [1].

Formal Analysis

We first investigated the vocabulary pertaining to the category of formal analysis. This category holds the subcategories of form, proportion, space and visual mass.

Observing the 3D form of the membrane is not a simple process. In the past, built form has been discussed as a hierarchy of simple forms combined according to rules, into an assembly of complex forms [2].  The words in the experiments refer either to the simple or the complex form or the rule.  Simple form descriptions in Rebecca’s experiment included words such as “round”, ”bulbous”.  Complex form descriptions included  “nurbs”, ”free form” and rules included “tangent continuity”, “cambered”, “periodic”, “smooth”, “logarithmic”, “interlacing”, “weaving”, “optimized” , ”linearly disruptive” and “bendy”.

Nurbs, non-uniform rational basis spline (image credit bluesmith.co.uk)

The subcategory proportion evaluates the geometric relationships between the different parts. Traditionally formal rules for proportioning have been defined buildings composed out of analytical forms including hemispheres and cylinders. Unfortunately, they are not that relevant for force-modeled systems such as the membranes in the experiments, because these membrane geometries are far more complex.  These geometries are generated by the laws of physics and are more difficult to proportion and steer than analytical ones.  A few words like “contrived complexity” hinting at these characteristics, showed up in the experiment.

A number of words in the experiments related to space.  The observers understood space as the Aristotelian idea that the membrane created both a positive space and a negative space or “embrace and grows space”. Words like “encompassing“ (positive space, the membrane itself) and, “limitless” and “unconstrained” (negative space, the space that co-exists separately alongside the space occupied by the membrane itself) exemplified the subcategory space.

Visual mass as opposed to actual mass can be achieved by the perceptions of light, color and texture. The untrained observer tends to make a connection between visual and gravitational mass.  Previous studies show how white surfaces, such as the one in the physical experiment, and the smoothness of the membrane in the experiment helped the structure as being perceived as lightweight [1] . These perceptions were captured in the experiments in the words “sinuous” and “slim”.

Subjective Responses

Besides the words that fall in the category of formal analysis, we closely examined the second category, called subjective responses. The results showed that the observers felt that the membrane has a certain character that spoke to them.  The words were distributed over the subcategories anthropomorphism, sensuality allusion, physical security and empathy.

Some observers saw the membrane as a living creature (eg. “sting ray”, “cocoon”) and endowed it with personality and intent. This association is called anthropomorphism.  The membranes were also perceived as “pregnant in the breeze”, “in bloom” and “about to take flight”.

Many observers found that these surfaces had a sensuous quality and captured those impressions in words like “sensual”, “voluptuous” and “calliphygian”. These words refer to the movement of the membrane as it progresses to a visual climax, followed by a relief of tension. In particular the inward and outward curving membrane surfaces have a particular sensual quality, which is missed by forms with single curvature.

Some spectators covertly or indirectly referred to an object from an external context.  The membranes evoked allusions with words such as “Rubenesque”. This word for example refers to the works of the Baroque painter Pieter-Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and means plump or rounded in an attractive way.  Other images included poetic metaphors such as “symphonic”, “motion frozen in time”, “essence of motion”, “natural choreography”.  Other allusions included scientific, artificial natural associations such as “meniscus”, “satin/silk, “hilly” and “motion of water”. These references to physical objects, although they are not grounded in the innate perception of the observer, contributed to aesthetic experiences while viewing the membrane.

Anthropomorphism, an association to a sting ray (left ), allusions to Ruben’s works (right), ,silk (bottom right) and hilly (bottom left) call the membrane in the wind to mind without mentioning it explicitly. (image courtesy Flickr the Commons)

Continue reading “How to describe the esthetics of structural surfaces? (2/2)”

How to describe the esthetics of structural surfaces? (1/2)

It has been said that the work of Frei Otto (Germany, 1912-2015) has a sculptural quality to it [1]. Although Frei Otto’s parents were sculptors, he insisted that the shapes he produced were rigidly grounded in the laws of physics [1], and was very reluctant to describe their aesthetic value. This observation hints at the questions that this paper starts to address, namely how can one describe the aesthetics of a curved structural surface?

It is observed that structural aesthetic critique is a little practiced discipline. In engineering education, students generally are not encouraged to express their emotions about the built environment, and are not frequently encouraged to develop an enthusiasm for visual experiences [2]. Beauty seems to engineers such a vague concept, hard to define accurately to others.

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What I am thinking: Structural designer Jane Wernick

Jane Wernick is a British Engineer who has distinguished herself in the field of structural engineering. She has taught at Harvard University and has been the Chair of the Diversity Task Force of the Construction Industry Council, in addition to managing Ove Arup and Partner’s Los Angeles office from 1986 to 1988. In 1998 she founded Jane Werwick Associates Ltd., a superb engineering design consultancy which has worked on countless projects across the United States and Europe. I talked to Jane at the occasion of the Structured Lineages: Learning from Japanese Structural Design event, held earlier this year at MOMA. 

Sigrid Adriaenssens: You have worked with world-renowned architects, what is the value for you of working in a design team versus solo engineering?

Jane Wernick: I have only ever worked as part of a team. I very much enjoy the process of trying to work out and understand the aspirations of the client, architect and other consultants, and then trying to find structural solutions that support or even enhance those aspirations.

What objectives do you set for yourself when designing a structure? How would a trained audience recognize a structure designed by you?

I am keen to propose solutions that give delight, that are buildable and that give good value. As well as designing structures that are strong enough, stiff enough, durable etc. it is also important that, as engineers we appreciate what the structural elements will look like. For example, I think that a circular hollow section is likely to look much larger and heavier than a fabricated section with sharp corners. The triangular cross section is one of my favourites. This is what we used for the pylons of the Xstrata Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens. Because we used weathering steel (because it didn’t need to be painted with an ‘un-natural’ colour) we couldn’t use rolled sections. And a tapered triangular cross-section was the most efficient we could use. It also looked more slender than the equivalent circular section would have appeared.

South Elevation Xstrata Treetop Walkway showing the pylons
Close-up Xstrata Treetop Walkway (Image credit LondonTown.com)

You once said “structural analysis is not a precise science, but difficult statistically; it is chaotic, and it is part craft” in the context of your work with the Fiat Team. This statement might seem upsetting to engineering students. Could you elaborate on this?

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What I am Thinking: Architectural Fantasies with Mister Mourão

While at the 2016 International Conference on Structures and Architecture, we had the opportunity to meet Mister Mourão, a highly creative mind who describes himself as “an architect turned illustrator with a tendency for obsessive drawing.” In this interview, he shares his beginnings in drawing, his productive workflow, and his inspiration (or lack thereof).


When, what, how and why did you start drawing?

Drawing was always one of my favourite things to do. There’s something in the effort, dedication and loneliness of the work that resonates with me.

One of my first memories is being on my parents’ living room floor drawing, so I guess I started pretty early… And for some unknown reason I was obsessed with horses. That’s basically what I drew from 4 until 18 years old. Horses!


What was your formal training and how does it relate to your work now?

I studied and worked as an architect so my lexicon is deeply rooted in the city, structures and urban environments.

Basically, I learned how to design and build through architecture, and now I can distort, exaggerate and repeat all those architectural elements that make up a building or a city and rearrange them in my drawings.


What is your process?  

First I have to confess something about myself. I (obviously) love to draw but I’m quite lazy and restless, and it’s very hard for me to focus.

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A New Design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium

Looking ahead, the next Olympic Games will be hosted by Tokyo in 2020. The initial Zaha Hadid design for the Tokyo National Stadium helped secure the city’s bid, but was quickly ditched due to its exorbitant cost.  After two international design competitions, Japan settled on the latticed green clad stadium by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. This new stadium is far more subdued than Zaha … Continue reading A New Design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium

A Delightfully Sweet Pavilion

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Close-up of the puzzle-key connection in the chocolate pavilion. (Image credit Axel Kilian)

On July 21st every year, we celebrate Belgian National Day and think about all the good things Belgium has to offer: Tintin, cycling, soccer, and– from a more gastronomical perspective– waffles and chocolate. This is an ideal time to reflect upon our chocolate design project from 2013.

A pavilion made out of chocolate must be a cocoa lover’s wildest dream. We teamed up with Prof. Axel Kilian (Princeton University) and the Belgian chocolate manufacturer Barry-Callebaut to discover chocolate’s structural properties and let them inform our methodology for finding the shape of such a pavilion.

The R&D branch at Barry-Callebaut developed a cocoa compound of sugar, cocoa powder, milk permeate, and vegetable oil that would be structurally strong enough to support the pavilion’s own weight at room temperature. We tested the compound mixtures and found that the strength-to-weight ratio of chocolate compounds is quite low — about 24 times lower than standard concrete.

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Testing material properties in the lab

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Do utilitarian silos have any esthetic value?

In ‘Vers une architecture’ Le Corbusier praises the aesthetics of silo buildings, tall machines composed of geometric shapes, designed and built by engineers for strictly utilitarian criteria. He refers to examples such as the silo Bunge y Born (Buenos Aires), shown in the book ‘Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes’, and claims: “The engineer, inspired by the imperative of economy and guided by calculation, sets us in accordance with the … Continue reading Do utilitarian silos have any esthetic value?

What I Am Thinking: Biologist-Turned-Architect Doris Kim Sung Makes Buildings Breathe

During my Art Residency  in Bellagio, Italy, I had the privilege of interviewing USC Architecture Professor and Princeton alumna Doris Kim Sung. In her work, Doris interprets architecture as an extension of the body and explores how buildings can passively adapt to their environment through self-ventilation and shading by using smart materials and design. 

Russell Fortmeyer, Doris Kim Sung and Sigrid Adriaenssens in conversation in Bellagio, Italy.

Sigrid Adriaenssens: What are the research questions that your designs address?

Doris Kim Sung: Can the geometry or the unit design of a smart material such as thermobimetal affect the architectural performance of a larger tessellated surface intended to shade, ventilate, stiffen, or propel? 

What is “unplugged” architecture? Can you exemplify that concept with one of your projects?

This reference from rock or pop music means without electronic amplification or disconnected from the world of gadgets. I have a deep-seated interest in finding solutions that don’t require added electrical energy or computer controls. For this reason, I have been working with smart materials such as thermobimetal, a material that reacts to heat (it curls), and developing for building use (for auto shading and ventilation in “Bloom”) and construction techniques (for one-hand/one-person assembly systems). Because the use of the material does not require energy, it is a “passive” type of system, but the responsive nature of the material to the sun and ambient temperature make it surprisingly active.

What can you tell us about your latest innovative project?

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