Wander wall

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Typical cladding systems use multiple layers and directions of secondary linear elements to support the panels forming the facade. Wanderwall’s unified skin is the structure.

Brightly hued aluminum, self-supported façade decorates the skyline of Charlotte

September 2019 - Poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” in the 1700s to describe a step of faith “whereby the reader would accept a poem on its own terms, temporarily giving over to the author’s vision of the world long enough to appreciate the work.”

Architect Marc Fornes made a similar appeal to the building and construction industries in 2007 when he conceived a self-supported metal surface with a double curvature. His novel approach to conventional cladding systems prompted him to walk a thin line between architecture, art, technology and mathematics. He chose aluminum as his medium and turned the outdoors into a laboratory.

In March 2019, Fornes and his 10-person team, through his New York City-based studio Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany, moved from the realm of faith to reality with Wanderwall—an eight-story architectural skin that wraps the southwest and southeast elevations of the Stonewall Station parking garage in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The 18,000-square-foot façade is the culmination of 28 projects or “crawling assemblies” as Fornes calls them. “To achieve a self-supporting structure, geometry has to curve in two directions,” he explains.

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Double curvature

Fornes and his firm invented a stripes-based system that uses thousands of digitally cut, flat, aluminum parts to delineate a form. “We describe this double curvature as linear and nonlinear computational stripes that are connected—one next to the other—to create a shell,” he explains. “You can have an endless number of unique single elements or stripes, with many more connected to neighbors. It’s a core element to gaining cost efficiencies in commercial and industrial buildings because it allows you to create façades without molds or temporary scaffolding.”

Fornes’ early prototypes garnered projects that ultimately attracted notice from the art world. He began receiving commissions for original outdoor installations. The work allowed him to develop and test design criteria and best practices for achieving commercial scale. “Production and scale have grown with each piece,” he says, pointing to mathematics and software code as his building blocks.

Executing designs with code has allowed Fornes to learn from failure on both the computational side and the physical side. “And we have extracted all kinds of statistics over the last decade or so that we used as a premise for the next project,” he says.

Field applications help Fornes understand whether or not a structure is scalable to the next level. “A protocol might work for a site-specific artistic installation yet, if it cannot reach the scale of architecture, that is a form of failure,” he comments. “We are always pushing to scale up.”

Fornes’ works, most of them appearing very sculptural and organic rather than strictly structural, have also helped him fine tune his digital production methods, explore materials and how to process them for specific programs. “We think about how we can optimize the reassembly of endless sets of parts,” he continues. “Can five parts become one? How can we arrive at that on the computational side?”

Wanderwall doesn’t use a secondary structure, but hangs as one continuous piece upon the parking garage structure. Unlike typical panelized systems, the skin—comprised of 5,768 1/8-in.-thick parts—was assembled on site as an integrated, ultra-thin surface that “drapes.” Fornes calls the skin’s 16-in.-deep directional pleats structural nappe.

“We aren’t aware of any precedent that is like our system,” he continues. “The typical parking garage cladding system uses multiple layers and directions of secondary linear elements to support the panels forming the skin or facade. On Wanderwall, the unified skin is the structure.”

Natural patterns

“We needed to create a self-supporting façade that did not require a secondary structural system,” Fornes says. “It meant we had to work within the parameters of creating a dynamic work with little room for projection. Our approach was that of a structural nappe,” which means tablecloth in French.

The technique gave the façade the required depth needed to continuously span the parking garage’s elevations. “Our second goal was to create a dynamic and free-flowing pattern without the interruptions of grids, panels, unsightly seams and joints,” Fornes says. “We developed a system of puzzle parts that allowed the natural pattern to be both modular and organic at once.”

The finished piece—now a distinctive addition to the uptown skyline—is a striking mix of blues and greens. Seen from a distance, Wanderwall’s sinuous, wavelike surface reminds one of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” But depending on your perspective, the organic nature of the chameleon-like structure reveals different layers and “faces” that each take on a life of their own.

The 1,350-space, aboveground parking deck façade was commissioned by Crescent Communities with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council (ASC) as part of the Novel Stonewall Station project, which includes 459 apartments, a supermarket and two hotels.

Limited space wasn’t the only constriction Fornes had to consider when designing Wanderwall. A new city ordinance dictated that parking decks be screened with metal louvers or grates to prevent cars and headlights from being visible at street level.

Fornes envisioned a façade capable of providing different levels of experience whether giving drivers on nearby I-277 a flash of color, inviting passersby to take a closer look or elevating the moods of those inside the parking garage. “We pushed the limits of architectural design, space planning and material innovation,” Fornes says. “We wanted people to be able to discover a different aspect of the façade with each encounter.”

Fornes also wanted the wall to evoke a sense of Charlotte’s “swirling activity—ecological, social and economic—and describe elements of flows and networks, with a labyrinthine porosity that allows light to permeate the interior.”

“This was new territory for everybody,” says Jim Kwasnowski of Crescent Communities.

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Upon close inspection from the interior of the parking garage, Wanderwall’s surface depth (up to 16 in. in some areas), intricate connections and pattern flows offer a different view.


While one could certainly call Wanderwall art, the addition to the garage was subjected to a full range of finite element analysis (FEM) and testing following the design phase. Navier-Stokes differential equations are used to simulate airflow around an obstruction. For Wanderwall, analysis focused on the structure’s ability to withstand high wind loads. “There were very strict, natural ventilation standards and requirements for surface area openings that the work had to meet,” he says.

Yet despite the complexity of the façade’s design, fabrication and installation were relatively simple and cost efficient.

Cladding systems are standard for different types of building construction to enhance durability, strength and appearance. Traditional cladding products use copper, carbon and stainless steels and zinc, among other materials. Fornes chose aluminum early on. “We did some trials with steel and plastic but felt that aluminum offered the perfect compromise,” he says. “It doesn’t rust, it’s more malleable than steel and lighter weight. You don’t want to add dead load to the skin. Also, the material is economical and lends itself to different types of finishes such as powder coatings, alloys and anodized treatments.”

Aluminum blanks are cut digitally to eliminate the problems often associated with laser cutting and welding the material. Part size can also be used to enhance performance characteristics while reclaiming costs. Smaller parts, for example, can be taken to a tighter radius of curvature for a stiffer structure. Stiffer structures allow the use of thinner material.

Folding aluminum

“We provide the fabricator with the entire set of machining files,” says Fornes. “That’s different from conventional architecture, which often stops at shop drawings. For most of our installations, we use a specific machine we developed to fold aluminum. With the exception of one brake tool that has been continually tweaked and developed from one project to the next, our fabrication equipment is fairly standard. Essentially, we rely on metal brakes and paint for our colors and folds. We’re able to achieve a better paint finish without the need for extruded profiles.”

Once aluminum sheets were laid or cut, the pieces were folded and assembled with rivets and folded into the façade. “We didn’t wait for all the parts to be cut before we started to construct the façade,” Fornes says. “Every two weeks, we would ship a batch of parts to the site. It was like putting together a gigantic 3D puzzle.”

Fornes’ process eliminates the need for a general contractor or heavy equipment like cranes. “Each part can be carried by an individual,” he says.

The project took Fornes and his team about 18 months to complete, including fabrication and installation.

“When we were initially asked to participate in the project, the developer had allotted about $900,000 for an additional secondary structure and $200,000 in chain link skin,” says Fornes. “With our system, we were able to pool those funds from both budgets and offer more intricacy and continuity in the surface pattern and coloration.”

With the success of Wanderwall, Fornes and his team are slated to work on a second parking structure façade and have other projects in the pipeline that promise to push the boundaries of both architecture and art.

“We are in development for an extra-large structure at the Austin Bergstrom Airport, and we will also be taking on a pedestrian bridge for the first time.” FFJ



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Building blocks

Computational design: Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany writes code into a computational syntax to aid in the development and design of complex geometry, the resulting constituent parts, and fabrication files for digital manufacturing.

Invention of stripes: In 2009, the design firm invented Structural Stripes, an original building process that uses thousands of individual parts to describe a form. The parts are digitally cut from flat pieces of aluminum and fastened to neighbors—achieving curvature and constructing the form in physical reality. Projects employing the system of structural stripes continue to increase in scale and complexity.

Art of the prototypical: This process begins with a sample (a test of a precise element within a unit), a prototype (a unit or relationship between units) and a mockup (a number of units set up and not assembled completely). Defined architectural characteristics are subjected to empirical and serial experiments in both computational descriptive geometry and material systems. The scale of a unit develops from a system of units to an entire project where it is tested at a 1:1 scale.

Coloration versus color: Coloration is defined as the procedural art of applying multiple colors across sets of parts, whereas a single color is only one element of that system.

Factory of experiences: Marc Fornes/TheVeryMany has developed and advanced the concept for self-supporting structures through the design/build of thin-shell pavilions and installations.


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