What I am thinking: designer of glass structures, James O’Callaghan

Founding Director of the firm Eckersley O’Callaghan, James is acknowledged as an authority on the structural use of glass. He is perhaps best known for his innovative glass stairs, bridges, facades and other structural elements in a range of Apple’s flagship retail stores including Tokyo, Sydney, Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York and London. Demi Fang: What is something you are currently working on that excites … Continue reading What I am thinking: designer of glass structures, James O’Callaghan

What I am thinking: form making artist Maria Blaisse

Maria Blaisse is a Dutch visual artist and designer. She authored the book “The Emergence of Form”, in which she discusses her in-depth research into form in various materials and the numerous application possibilities, both autonomous and product-oriented.

Sigrid Adriaenssens: Why and how do you generate curved forms?

Maria Blaisse: discovering the curved lines .. while experimenting with incisions  in a rubber inner tube ( for a party of my children)  and while putting the forms on my head  something amazing happened. Then I realized I touched an energy field. I am still working with it.

I found the potential of the inner and outer curve of a torus. The inner curve generates energy and form, while spiraling centripetal. It was the most powerful thing to discover, the outer curve spiraling centrifugal loses form and energy. In my book the emergence of form you can see this research based on one form and one structure from here one can design any form or structure without any waste.

Variations on rubber inner tube – Copyright of Maria Blaisse

In your book “The emergence of form”, you state “form is ‘frozen’ movement”.  Please explain and illustrate that idea?

A form is always part of a movement. I found out while editing film that the stills have the most impact: the form is energized.

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Systematic variations in gauze structures based on one form – Copyright of Maria Blaisse

In your design approach, you emphasize beauty (wanting to ‘move’ people) but also material and energy efficiency. Why is that important to you and to society?

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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.

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South Elevation Xstrata Treetop Walkway showing the pylons
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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: Thorsten Helbig on Curiosity and Collaboration in Engineering

Despite my arriving twenty minutes early to Knippers Helbig’s office in New York’s financial district on a brisk Friday afternoon, I am warmly welcomed at the door by an engineer whose work I probably just interrupted. As he goes to summon a man around the corner, I peek at the office space: not enormous, but still spacious and pleasant, giving no sign of being too small for the number of engineers at work. Thorsten Helbig, principal of the Germany-based engineering firm Knippers Helbig (KH), emerges immediately, equally warm and welcoming as he ushers me into the office’s conference room. The room opens up on two sides to the office space, and Helbig goes to shut both doors; despite the auditory privacy, the work carried out in this room is always transparent: one wall of the conference is a glass window, allowing any passersby to glimpse at our meeting through the satisfyingly enormous letters “KH” staining the glass orange.

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The Knippers Helbig office space at 75 Broad St, New York. © Knippers Helbig

It is perhaps no coincidence that the office space articulates such clear architectural considerations. Helbig’s approach towards meshing engineering expertise with architects immediately becomes our first and most fruitful point of discussion. “In a relationship between engineer and architect, I think what is most important is that there is mutual respect and a communication,” Helbig asserts. “Ideally, the communication starts very early in the design process.” In many projects, he explains, Knippers Helbig is involved from the very beginning—ideally, at the competition stage—to the final completion and execution of the project. From the start, every decision made by the architects in organizing the program leads to consequences that require the engineers’ input regarding limitations such as soil conditions, column spacing, and slab systems. Inevitably, the engineers put forth decisions and recommendations that influence the project’s appearance, but Helbig underlines that “we as engineers should not try to be architects, but rather maintain an engineering perspective.” Projects can benefit so much more from an engineer’s engineering contribution, Helbig points out. “At the same time,” Helbig qualifies, “I expect that everybody at the table has a qualified opinion. As an engineer, we can question some of the architect’s decisions, which can—in the best case—make the architecture even better.” Helbig says that while there exists the notion of signature architects, he doesn’t believe in “signature engineering.” We can look at some buildings and often guess at the architect, but Helbig doesn’t find it “right” to be able to do the same with the engineers of building structures, even if the engineers’ contribution can be clearly read in many building types. “As an engineer, I want to be able to support architecture. We start with the same open-minded approach in every collaboration, but it consequently leads to different results when we work with Massimiliano Fuksas, Renzo Piano or Liz Diller because their individual architectural approaches require individual engineering solutions. I see us as collaborators in exploring the inherent potential of the architectural intention – and sometimes innovatively engineered parts act as catalysts for specific architectural expressions.”

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