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Aluminum

Curiosity still the mother of invention

By Lynn Stanley

Architect unlocking secret to self-supported metal surfaces

November 2015 - Singular structures and fantastic organic environments are Marc Fornes’ specialty. But some would say the permanent outdoor installations he is currently engineering shouldn’t be confused with art. 

A registered architect and the founder of a New York-based studio called Marc Fornes/Theverymany, Fornes is experimenting on how to make a self-supported metal surface with a double curvature. This application would be a first in large building construction. 

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Above: Louis Vuitton Pop Up - Selfridges, London

The idea isn’t just a theory. Fornes has won numerous design awards and exhibited at museums like the Guggenheim. He also currently teaches at Princeton University and at Harvard Graduate School of Design. His popup store design for Louis Vuitton & Yayoi Kusama, installed in 2012, represents the first carbon fiber self-supported shell structure applied to architecture. 

Conventional construction methods call for primary and secondary cladding which is generally fabricated from steel to protect a building’s exterior while providing an aesthetic element. It’s easy to see the intersection between art and architecture when one looks at the trajectory of Fornes’ test trials. 

Taking his work outside

The architect’s early prototypes attracted projects that ultimately landed Fornes in the art world where he began receiving commissions for original outdoor installations. Working outside has proved a plus for Fornes and his objective to develop design criteria for his product and provide it in the quantities needed to meet commercial and industrial infrastructure requirements.

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Above: NonLin_Lin - FRAC Centre, Orleans, France

“We are practicing a very fine line between architecture, technology and computerized computations,” he explains. “In simplest terms we want to make the surface skin of a building its own structure. That means metal has to curve in two directions. The challenge? How do you force metal to describe a double curvature?”

Fornes and his team used reverse engineering to determine the best approach for building the surface and the structure. Aluminum became the material of choice following test trials with steel and plastic. 

“It’s really the perfect compromise,” Fornes says. “Aluminum doesn’t rust, it’s softer and more malleable then steel and it’s lightweight. You don’t want to add additional dead load to the skin. It’s cost effective and it lends itself to all sorts of finishes such as powder coatings, alloys and anodized treatments.”

Though laser cutting and welding aluminum can be problematic Fornes says the material is easy to cut digitally. He also wants to eliminate the use of molds and scaffolding from his unique environments, “which are expensive.” 

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Above: Pleated Inflation - Argeles, France

“To grow this curvilinear system and identify the best methods for building it faster and cheaper, we’ve demonstrated performance through the installation of permanent sculptures,” he says. “Our goal though is to apply this technology to buildings, particularly those that require artistic treatments and configurations.” Some feel the self-supporting skin has the potential to influence architects to design buildings in ways they may not have thought of before.

Over the last 10 years Fornes has erected approximately 35 of these fluid shapes. This year in France, he built a structure measuring 23 ft. high and approximately 40 to 60 ft. long. In September his work moved to Texas where he raised an edifice 60 ft. long.

Fornes likens assembly of these projects to a gigantic 3-D puzzle. Thin metal strips are precisely placed according to complex and detailed plans.

His nonlinear, self-supported surfaces need to meet design criteria such as live load, dead load and wind uplift, but the architect says he isn’t looking just for performance. 

“People see different things when they look at our structures,” he says. “Each part is unique. People aren’t used to that. I want to provide double curvature surface skin systems that save time and cost, but also give people an extraordinary experience.”

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Above: Under Stress

To bring his product to market Fornes is employing advanced technology such as 3-D printing and digital fabrication. Metalforming and fabrication equipment have also been modified to meet his specialized demands such as a press brake that can bend and fold metal.

“We are pushing geometry and engineering,” says Fornes. A peer, Senior Executive Partner Grant Brooker Of Studio 1, Foster + Partners, summed it up when he said, “If you look at these extraordinary installations you think, ‘I wish I had done that! That’s incredible.’” FFJ

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