A synergy of structural, environmental & production engineering – The Elytra Filament Pavilion, London 2016

In nature, fibre composites are the basic building systems, and most load-bearing structures in biology are fibrous systems, in which the fibre organisation, directionality and density is finely calibrated with the occurring forces. The resulting high level of morphological differentiation and related resource efficiency is emblematic characteristic of natural structures.

This principle is a basic “biomimetic” principle whereby nature opts for using “less material” by having “more form”. A large and diverse project team, including the ICD (Institute for Computational Design) and the ITKE  (Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design) institutes at the University of Stuttgart (see below for the full project team) have been investigating this principle for several years, and this has directly influenced the conception of the Elytra Filament Pavilion at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (2016).

The Elytra Filament Pavilion celebrates a truly integrative approach to design and engineering. As a centrepiece of the V&A’s Engineering Season it demonstrates how architectural design can unfold from a synergy of structural engineering, environmental engineering and production engineering, resulting in unique spatial and aesthetic qualities.

Instead of being merely a static display, the pavilion constitutes a dynamic space and an evolving structure. The cellular canopy grows from an on-site fabrication nucleus, and it does so in response to patterns of habitation of the garden over time, driven by real time sensing data. The pavilion’s capacity to be locally produced, to expand and to contract over time provides a vision of future inner city green areas with responsive semi-outdoor spaces that enable a broader spectrum of public activities, and thus extend the use of the scarce resource of public urban ground.

While clearly exploring aspects of the future, the pavilion also draws inspiration from both the past (Victorian Greenhouses) and from nature. In the case of the latter, it is the unsurpassed effectiveness and resourcefulness of living nature which provides the direction.

The pavilion is the outcome of four years of research on the integration of architecture, engineering and biomimetic principles. It explores how biological fibre systems can be transferred to architecture.

The fibrous composite structure of the installation only consists of two basic cells, the canopy cells and the column cells that interface between the inhabitable ground and the canopy, which is also equipped with transparent roof panels. Both cells are made from the same load-bearing fibre material: transparent glass fibres and black carbon fibres. The production itself is an innovative robotic winding process developed by the project team, which in contrast to most other composite fabrication processes does not require any mould, and thus reduces waste to a minimum.

The installation exploits the compactness and universality of robotic fabrication as a model for local manufacturing. As there is no predetermined final state, the canopy is equipped with fibre optical sensors that allow for the real time sensing of the forces within the structure. This allows monitoring the changes to the structural systems caused by the further growth and adaptation of the canopy, which is driven by anonymous data on how visitors use the canopy space captured by thermal imaging sensors and interpreted in conjunction with the measurement of environmental parameters such as temperature, radiation, ambient humidity and wind. The real-time sensing combined with the on-site fabrication renders the canopy a learning system and evolving structure that will grow and reconfigure over the time of the exhibition, based on the behaviour of the garden’s visitors.

Here are the full details of the design, engineering and fabrication team:

Achim Menges with Moritz Dörstelmann
ICD – Institute for Computational Design, University of Stuttgart
Achim Menges Architect, Frankfurt
Team also includes: Marshall Prado (fabrication development), Aikaterini Papadimitriou, Niccolo Dambrosio, Roberto Naboni, with support by Dylan Wood, Daniel Reist

Jan Knippers
ITKE – Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design, University of Stuttgart
Knippers Helbig Advanced Engineering, Stuttgart, New York
Team also includes: Valentin Koslowski & James Solly (structure development), Thiemo Fildhuth (structural sensors)

Thomas Auer
Transsolar Climate Engineering, Stuttgart
Building Technology and Climate Responsive Design, TU München
Team also includes: Elmira Reisi, Boris Plotnikov

With the support of:
Michael Preisack, Christian Arias, Pedro Giachini, Andre Kauffman, Thu Nguyen, Nikolaos Xenos, Giulio Brugnaro, Alberto Lago, Yuliya Baranovskaya, Belen Torres

Photo credit: “ITKE / University of Stuttgart”. Material used in the preparation of this article has been drawn from ITKE / University of Stuttgart.

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