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Future Tense

The Pure Tension Pavilion, an automobile exhibition space by Synthesis Design + Architecture, meshes architecture with advanced digital visualization, fabrication, and sustainability

By Nalina Moses, AIA

Though its creators have compared it, without irony, to a camping tent, a laundry hamper, and a haute couture gown, the Pure Tension Pavilion was designed to display a car. Last year, Volvo launched an open competition for a display to launch a new electric hybrid model at the 2013 Milan Auto Fair. From 141 international entries, they selected the one submitted by Synthesis Design + Architecture (SDA), a Los Angeles firm led by Alvin Huang, AIA, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Architecture.

Extravagant forms, pragmatic function

SDA’s design—recently honored by an AIA Small Project Practitioner’s Award—built on their ongoing research in digital imaging and tensile structures. It’s a single, double-curving surface with a round footprint whose perimeter frame touches the ground at three points. The Pavilion’s lace-like outer skin shades the car while offering tantalizing glimpses of it. Its undulating, arching shape feels both organic and high-tech, both restful and dynamic.

Despite its eye-popping geometry, the structure is a pragmatic one, with a purpose beyond the display of automotive fashion. The structure consists of a continuous aluminum tube frame and two large wing-like surfaces of a vinyl encapsulated polyester mesh that are slipped onto it like a jacket and zipped together at a center seam. These primary materials are both inexpensive and lightweight relative to their volume. The two assemblies pull against one another to fashion a rigid, self-supporting surface. It’s a phenomenon called “double mesh relaxation.”

These sail-like forms also contain 252 small photovoltaic panels stitched onto individual leaf-like vinyl panels that are, in turn, tacked to the mesh with double-sided rivets. Wires from each panel run to a conduit concealed in a seam with the zipper, and then to a battery at the base. If left in sunlight for 12 hours, the Pavilion can fully charge the car’s battery. And the structure is portable so that two people can take it apart and pack it into the car in about half an hour.

The Pavilion's seemingly baroque form is loaded with common-sense functionality. “I'm super, super interested in the reciprocal relationship between form and performance,” says Huang. “Before 2008, there were a lot of extremely excessive forms in architecture and design. Then, with the economic crash, form-making became more restrained. I'm interested in how we can push the agenda in terms of form, but at the same time incorporate structure, efficiency, and sustainability.”

Digital modeling was indispensable in the Pavilion’s design, engineering, and fabrication. SDA modeled it with different software, including Rhino, which was developed for boat building to ease dealing with curved geometries. They also studied the form with digitally printed models. Huang relies on 3D modeling to assist in all phases of a project, from conceptual design through fabrication. “3D modeling has historically been used for visualization and representation, but it can also be a design generator and design deliverable,” says Huang. “Our work is not only conceived digitally; it is also documented digitally, allowing us to save time and money.”

Structural engineers BuroHappold constructed their own model using engineering software, which deviated from SDA’s model geometrically by only 2 percent. These digital models were used by the fabricator, Fabric Images (FI) in Chicago, to cut the pieces of mesh. Though the Pavilion is small—only 23 feet across—its complex geometry was a heavy lift to create. FI studio designer and project manager Jason Gillette explains, “Because of the unique complexity of the project, we had two engineers on it. Then we brought seamstresses and fabricators in as required. There were times when five seamstresses were working around the clock while the fabric designers simultaneously revised their sewing pattern for the next day. This was being done while others were wiring the solar panels and adjusting the frame to accommodate the principal tension forces of the new sewing pattern. So it felt like we had a small team of two plus a team of 100 occasionally.”

High-tech and handcrafted

Despite the high-tech image of the architecture, it took quite a bit of manual craftsmanship to get the project built in the two months allotted. “There is only so much accuracy you can predict on a computer,” Huang says. “The pieces were sewn together like a tailor would, and finished by looking at how the fabric fit the frame and saying, ‘Take it in half an inch here.’ This is something the seamstresses were brilliant at.”

While the Pavilion is a one-of-a-kind structure, envisioned and crafted with a jeweler's care, there’s hope that structures similar to it will one day be commonplace. “The Pavilion is not yet seen as a product for mass production but rather an operable prototype that proposes a vision for the future of personal mobility,” Huang says. “In that sense, you can draw a parallel to a concept car.”

An architecture in motion

Of all the objects the Pavilion’s shape conjures—fishing nets, oyster shells, orchid petals—a winged animal might be the most evocative. The Pavilion's architecture suggests motion and translation. It’s a fitting image for this global project, which has flitted about the globe like a migrating bird: commissioned by a company in Sweden, designed and engineered in Los Angeles, fabricated in Chicago, and assembled and displayed in Milan and Palm Springs, Calif.

The idea of a nomadic architecture is very much on the architect's mind. “Rather than a garage, a structure that is a destination that you'd drive to, we thought of the Pavilion as a backpack, an accessory that travels with the car,” Huang says. “The entire demounted assembly can fit into the trunk of the car,” he boasts, “though the back seat needs to be down.”

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The Pure Tension Pavilion installed in Palm Springs, Calif. All images courtesy of Synthesis Design + Architecture.

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The Pure Tension Pavilion installed in Milan.

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The Pavilion being assembled at the Fabric Images studio in Chicago.

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Schematic design models of the Pure Tension Pavilion from a 3D printer.

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