Metal Architecture

Geometric gems

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Structural performance and spatial experience intersect in Pleated Inflation, an outdoor amphitheater in France. Photo: Brice Pelleschi

Juxtaposing aluminum with 3-D graphics and digital fabrication

March 2016 - Both dreamer and practical technician, the French-born architect mixes creativity with 3-D computer graphics, computer-aided design application software and computer-driven manufacturing techniques to convert multi-dimensional modeling into organic, aluminum structures aglow with color. Since his 2006 move to Brooklyn, where he founded Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany, his award-winning work sparked an ongoing debate. Is it art or is it architecture?

Fornes explains. “We’re at the cutting edge in the development of self-supported double curvatures made out of linear, planar elements designed to act as a structure, not as cladding.” Cladding systems in a range of materials from steel and stainless to copper and titanium have been the standard for all types of building construction to enhance durability, strength and surface appearance.

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Composed of 721 aluminum stripes in three thicknesses, Vaulted Willow explores lightweight, self-supported shells through the development of custom computational protocols of structural form-finding and descriptive geometry.

Fornes’ work could turn that standard on its head. “In simplest terms we want to make the surface skin of a building its own cost-efficient structure,” he says. “This distinction is what separates our work from that of architects like Frank Gehry.”

To achieve a self-supporting structure, metal has to curve in two directions. “We can achieve that by molding pieces or by laminating and articulating parts,” Fornes says. “Part size is one parameter. For example, smaller parts can be taken to a tighter radius of curvature for a stiffer structure. If you have a stiffer structure you can use thinner metal. That’s a win-win.”

Stepping stones

Gauge is another critical parameter—Fornes’ team is working with thicknesses of 0.024 in. up to 0.12 in. Fornes chose aluminum for cost effective properties such as corrosion resistance, light weight and malleability. The metal also lends itself to a variety of finishes such as powder coatings, alloys and anodized treatments and is suited to digital cutting processes. “It’s an important area of investigation for us to achieve lighter weight without sacrificing stiffness,” Fornes says. “Eliminating steps like molding, welding and the need for scaffolding produces the economies of scale that are necessary to ultimately build larger, more cost-efficient structures.”

Early prototypes attracted projects that ultimately brought the architect to the attention of the art world. He soon received commissions for outdoor installations and over the last decade he has erected approximately 35 permanent outdoor structures for a broad range of uses. Each project has been a stepping stone toward his goal to develop design criteria for his self-supporting product and provide it in the quantities needed to meet commercial and industrial infrastructure requirements.

When tackling a project Fornes starts with Rhino 3-D software, using an editor to write code in the Python language. “The application is a way to visualize what we do,” he says. Input includes performance parameters ranging from material strength (its capacity to withstand axial stress, shear stress, bending and torsion) to stiffness, deflection and dynamic response. The resulting custom computational protocols of geometry dictate the shape the structure will take. 

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Shingles—marked with rivet holes, text for identification and holes for fold lines— are bent prior to painting and then precisely placed and attached with aluminum rivets to prevent galvanic corrosion.

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Pleated Inflation, a recent Fornes commission, was required to withstand a wind load of 50 psf, for example. “The structure was a huge proof of concept for us because it had to resist very high winds,” he says. The government of Languedoc Roussillon, in the south of France, commissioned the piece as part the nation’s 1% Artistic Program to serve as an informal amphitheater for a new high school, Lycee Christian Bourquin, in the village of Argeles.

Forty-six ft. wide and 21 ft. tall, the structure was completed in November 2015 and is one of a series of pieces employing structural shingles made of pleated aluminum and engineered to perform concurrently as the project’s structure, enclosure and primary architectural component. Rigidity and structural strength is achieved by overlapping the shingles, according to Fornes.

Puzzle pieces

Project design and digital development can take up to three months. Cutting, folding, finishing and assembly are typically performed at the job site and can take up to 10 days. Painting is another critical step because the finish must be corrosion resistant. “It’s like a gigantic puzzle,” Fornes notes. “Each piece must fit together perfectly so fabrication must be precise.”

In addition to his original application of geometry, 3-D design and computer-aided manufacturing methods, Fornes has modified the production equipment that his firm uses.

For example, the shingles for Pleated Inflation were bent prior to painting and installation on a press brake with modifications that Fornes invented. The firm also tested the use of cut-outs on temporary installations before adapting the approach for use on Pleated Inflation. “The cut-outs are driven by structural stress flow and then projected onto the piece,” he says.

For Pleated Inflation, a 2-D footprint made up of a network of lines was dilated to create a voluminous space or web-like canopy. The design was then tiled to form a continuous pleated surface of 990 aluminum shingles. “Each pleat lends structural depth, thinning the required profile of each panel,” says Fornes. “The skin meets the ground on 26 base plates.”

During assembly each shingle is placed according to a pre-specified protocol that identifies exact placement and correlation to neighboring shingles. Aluminum rivets attach the shingles to prevent galvanic corrosion. 

“Each part has its own ID card,” says Fornes. “Properties, placement, angle, fold line measurements and fold direction are spelled out.” Following digital fabrication, parts for Pleated Inflation were installed in 10 days by a team of four people. Comprising archways, columns and walls, the shingles’ perforated pleats create a compelling play of light and shadow.

“It’s important that people experience a piece at different levels, whether from a distance or close enough to touch,” Fornes explains. “It’s not just about what can be achieved structurally it’s also about building relationships between viewers and the piece.” 

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A geometrically accurate axonometric drawing creates exportable line geometry for 2D plans that show true measurements on all axes for the Pleated Inflation project.

Playing with light

On a slightly larger scale, Fornes completed a permanent outdoor installation for Woodlawn Lake Park in San Antonio  during October 2015. Employing 986 aluminum shingles sporting 22 colors and 20,000 rivets, Spineway—at 70 ft. wide and 20 ft. tall—is illuminated.

Using a similar design approach, Fornes says this piece featured extremely tight angles. “Most of our structures are more open,” he notes. “This was the first project that presented such a tight profile. Each part had to be folded using a very precise technique. The advantage is a stiffer structure with tighter tolerances.”

The advances Fornes makes with each project builds upon the success of previous proofs of concept and experiments, like Vaulted Willow completed in 2014. Springing from the ground like a petrified tree or giant mushroom at the Earth’s core in Verne’s novel, 721 aluminum stripes in three thicknesses are fastened with 14,043 connectors to form a pavilion that offers an enchanted space for exploration or hide and seek. Erected at Borden Park, Edmonton, Canada, the structure is secured with 60 epoxy concrete anchors that attach 24 base plates to a 240-ft.-long concrete pad. In this case, Fornes’ shingles were fabricated with extended tabs to provide a striated skin that draws its rich hues from its surroundings. 

In what Fornes calls an interesting shift, the body of knowledge the firm has built up has pushed the team toward fabricating fewer parts for faster, more economical assemblies. “But we’re achieving the same intricacy of parts which is crucial to maintaining visitors’ experience,” he notes. “Our challenge is to continue to grow economies of scale but with every leap forward we are presented with a new set of problems and the opportunity to develop technical solutions that advance structural mechanics but also drive aesthetics and ultimately a visitor’s experience.”

The firm’s name offers another look behind the curtain at the processes that help birth Fornes’ projects. “TheVeryMany refers to the numerous trials, errors, tests and reboots that factor into the design of each piece,” explains Fornes. “Every system in nature, mechanics and robotics is made out of many parts and can represent the sum total of many sub-elements.”

The name is also a nod to the number of collaborators that contribute to each project. As for Fornes, he is already looking ahead over the next horizon. “I like to think about what the next problem will be and how we will solve it.” FFJ

For more on Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany and additional projects/photos, read this FFJ web exclusive > 

Photos: Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany, except where noted



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