Structural stripes

By Lynn Stanley


Architect’s aluminum creations pioneer a path to self-supporting building surfaces 

May 2017 - Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock earned the nickname Master of Suspense for his ability to create a unique brand of psychological tension in his movies. French-born architect Marc Fornes is also a student of tension. But instead of inventive camera angles, plot twists and layered storytelling, Fornes mixes 3D graphics, computer-aided design software and digitally driven manufacturing techniques to transmute his concepts into permanent installations like Tour de Force(s). 

The 11-story piece—comprising 10,813 painted aluminum components, 44,700 rivets and 23 anchor points—was installed in a lobby of Royal Caribbean’s newest addition, Harmony of the Seas. Three times the size of the Titanic, the world’s largest cruise ship set sail in April 2016 carrying Fornes’ first fully suspended system aboard a seagoing vessel. Painted a fluorescent pink, the aluminum skin is a study in contrast, revealing bright neon yellow and deep blue surfaces depending on a passenger’s point of view. Fornes designed the piece of architecture in tension to express the dynamic flow of the ship’s “nevralgique” or central nervous system. 


Double curvature

“The ship’s atrium is the center of activity where all sorts of vertical flows of dynamic energy cross one another,” says Fornes, “from people traveling up and down in glass elevators, waiting or walking on different decks, to the pulse of electrical currents and hydraulic and mechanical operations. It’s a place of tension where different speeds and mediums converge. The idea was to express these tensions in an organic form.”

Like the brilliant simplicity of Hitchcock’s direction, the bold elegance of Fornes’ permanent installations also serve a pragmatic purpose. The pioneering architect founded his studio MARC FORNES/THEVERYMANY in Brooklyn, New York, in 2006 where he began his string of award-winning work in 2008. Since then Fornes has been designing increasingly larger and more challenging installations to achieve a double curvature in aluminum without the need to fold or mold metal. Instead, each piece within the system is cold bent. Fornes is credited with inventing "structural stripes," a building system that uses thousands of custom parts to create complex, self-supporting curvilinear surfaces.


“We want to make the surface skin of a building its own cost-efficient structure,” he says. The advantages? A tighter radius of curvature, for example, delivers a stiffer structure. A stiffer structure allows manufactures to use thinner metal. Rigidity and structural strength can be achieved by overlapping shingles. Speed of construction also adds value. “We had just four days to assemble and install Tour de Force(s),” Fornes says.

New possibilities

Aluminum blanks for the piece were laser cut and painted. On site, a team used a custom-built lift to help them pre-assemble 10,813 parts into 47 sections, each approximately 1m by 1.25m by 2m in volume. Electrical rivet guns were used to install the fasteners securing the shingles. A high-altitude rigger connected the sections to large anchor points on ship walls. 


“Aside from the short timeframe, the most interesting challenge was designing the structure in tension,” Fornes says. “We had to compute for pre-tension. This meant we had to apply more tension to the actual structure on site then the geometry our 3D model called for. This allowed us to achieve maximum smoothness for the double curved surface.”

For the building industry, designing and building at the scale of Tour de Force(s) opens up new possibilities for the way architects approach structural spaces. For passengers aboard Harmony of the Seas, the spirited, undulating aluminum skin invites them to step away from the familiar.


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