Elytra Filament Pavilion

Institute for Computational Design as Educators

V&A reveals new installation fabricated by a robot for first ever Engineering Season Today, the V&A marks the start of its Engineering Season with the unveiling of the new installation, Elytra Filament Pavilion. The pavilion is the outcome of four years of ground-breaking research on the integration of architecture, engineering and biomimicry principles. The project explores how biological fibre systems can be transferred to architecture. The 200m² pavilion structure is inspired by lightweight construction principles found in nature – the fibrous structures of the forewing shells of flying beetles known as elytra.


Elytra’s components have been fabricated by a robot at the University of Stuttgart and assembled on site in the V&A’s John Madejski Garden. The pavilion will grow and change its configuration over the course of the V&A Engineering Season in response to anonymous data on how visitors use and move under the canopy. This, as well as structural data, will be captured by real-time sensors installed in its canopy fibres. Throughout the season the data will be mapped and made available online. On 17 and 18 June and 22 September, visitors will be able to see the pavilion evolve as new components are fabricated live in the garden by a Kuka robot.


In what is their first public commission in the UK, experimental architect Achim Menges with Moritz Dörstelmann, structural engineer Jan Knippers and climate engineer Thomas Auer have pioneered a unique robotic fabrication technique developed by the University of Stuttgart’s Institute of Computational Design (ICD) and Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE). This technique, developed by the team over several years of prior research, involves a novel way of winding composite materials by a robot arm. This innovative winding method has been designed to harness the material properties of carbon fibres to give them strength as woven structural components. A series of these individual cell-like modules have been used to create the pavilion’s distinctive shape. This production method integrates the processes of design, engineering and making and explores the impact of emerging computational and robotic technologies on these disciplines.


Elytra’s canopy is made up of 40 hexagonal component cells. On average they weigh 45kg each and take an average of three hours to make. These cells and the pavilion’s seven supporting columns were created by a computer-programmed Kuka robot in a four-month construction process at the ICD’s Fabrication Hall in Stuttgart. To make each component, the robot wound resin-soaked glass and carbon fibres onto a hexagonal scaffold, before hardening. Each cell and column is individual. Its final form of densely-knit fibres is a direct result of the changing stress conditions determined through structural simulation and testing carried out in advance by the ITKE. This enables an exceptionally lightweight structure that weighs less than 9kg per m², which equals 2.5 tonnes for the entire pavilion.


Achim Menges said: “Advances in the technologies of making have always been a catalyst for design innovation, which is nowhere more evident than at the V&A. With Elytra Filament Pavilion we aim to celebrate a truly contemporary and integrative approach to design, engineering and production, resulting in a distinctive spatial and aesthetic experience. Based on the biological structure of beetles’ hardened forewings, we have created a novel architectural system that covers parts of the John Madejski Garden with an intricate, extremely lightweight structure made entirely from glass and carbon fibres. The canopy grows from an onsite robotic fabrication unit in response to real-time sensing data, showcasing the profound impact of emerging technologies and related new alliances between the fields of design, engineering and natural science. Through this we seek to provide visitors with a unique experience of the garden that offers a glimpse of novel architectural and engineering possibilities, which may transform our built environment in the future.”


Elytra Filament Pavilion is one of the highlights of the V&A’s first ever Engineering Season, which is curated by Maria Nicanor and Zofia Trafas White of the Museum’s Design, Architecture and Digital department. The season is complemented by the exhibition Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design, which opens on 18 June, as well as a series of other displays, events and digital initiatives dedicated to global engineering design. The V&A Engineering Season highlights the importance of engineering in our daily lives and consider engineers as the ‘unsung heroes’ of design, who play a vital and creative role in the creation of our built environment.


Elytra Filament Pavilion

Achim Menges Architect as Architects

The Elytra Filament Pavilion celebrates a truly integrative approach to design and engineering. As a centrepiece of the V&A’s Engineering Season it demonstrates how architectural design can unfold from a synergy of structural engineering, environmental engineering and production engineering, resulting in unique spatial and aesthetic qualities. It showcases the profound impact of emerging technologies on our conceptualisation of design, engineering and making, by intensifying the visitors architectural experience of the museum’s central garden. But instead of being merely a static display, the pavilion constitutes a dynamic space and an evolving structure. The cellular canopy grows from an onsite fabrication nucleus, and it does so in response to patterns of inhabitation of the garden over time, driven by real time sensing data. The pavilion’s capacity to be locally produced, to expand and to contract over time provides a vision of future inner city green areas with responsive semi-outdoor spaces that enable a broader spectrum of public activities, and thus extend the use of the scarce resource of public urban ground.


DESIGN EXPLORATION

While allowing for a glimpse of the future, the pavilion also draws inspiration from a striking architecture of the past: the Victorian Greenhouses. They embody the profound impact that the first industrial revolution had on architecture and showcase the experimental spirit of architects and engineers that embrace the adoption of new modes of making and materials in a truly explorative manner. In a similar way, the installation seeks to forecast how the so-called fourth industrial revolution of robotics and cyber-physical production systems enables the emergence of new structural and material systems. In the Victorian Greenhouse, the convergence of constructional and environmental aspects results in the unique experiential environment of an interior green space. Through a transparent, adaptive and growing canopy the installation aims to extend this precedent towards evolving and adaptive semi-outdoor urban green spaces.


A second design inspiration is the unsurpassed effectiveness and resourcefulness of living nature. Today, with the help of advanced computational design, simulation and fabrication we can tap the vast reservoir of biology and explore the underlying working principles of natural systems in design and engineering. The pavilion is the outcome of four years of research on the integration of architecture, engineering and biomimetic principles. It explores how biological fibre systems can be transferred to architecture. The 200m² pavilion structure is inspired by lightweight construction principles found in nature – the fibrous structures of the forewing shells of flying beetles known as elytra.


ENGINEERING INTEGRATION

Fibre composites are the building systems of nature. Most load-bearing structures in biology are fibrous systems, in which the fibre organisation, directionality and density is finely calibrated with the occurring forces. The resulting high level of morphological differentiation and related resource efficiency is emblematic for natural structures. The biomimetic principles of using “less material” by having “more form” have been investigated for several years by the project team, and they directly influence the conception of the installation’s structure.


The fibrous composite structure of the installation only consists of two basic cells, the canopy cells and the column cells that interface between the inhabitable ground and the canopy, which is also equipped with transparent roof panels. Both cells are made from the same load-bearing fibre material: transparent glass fibres and black carbon fibres. The production itself is an innovative robotic winding process developed by the project team, which in contrast to most other composite fabrication processes does not require any mould, and thus reduces waste to a minimum. To make each cell, a robot winds resin-saturated glass and carbon fibres onto a hexagonal winding tool. In this process, the transparent glass fibres form a spatial scaffold onto which the primarily structural black carbon fibres are applied, as they offer significantly higher stiffness and strength than the glass fibres. Once the robotic fabrication is complete the composite material hardens and the winding tool can be taken out and reused. Despite the similarity in basic make-up, the robotic fabrication process enables an infinite range of morphological permutations of the cells.


Instead of a linear workflow the design, engineering and production of the installation’s fibrous system is based on a continuous feedback loop. As the design, structural analysis and adaptation of each cell is a fully digital process, the machine control code for the robotic fabrication can be directly derived. Each canopy cell is adapted to its specific loading condition through a differentiation of its fibre arrangement, density and orientation, resulting in a very material efficient and light structure, which weighs just 9kg/m².


EVOLVING SPACE

The installation exploits the compactness and universality of robotic fabrication as a model for local manufacturing. While the majority of composite building elements have been prefabricated at ICD’s laboratory in Stuttgart, production continues in the V&A’s garden during specific fabrication events. Here the raw materials – simple, small and lightweight spools of fibre that are pre-impregnated with resin – are used for the onsite production of composite building elements that form additional cells of the canopy structure.


As there is no predetermined final state, the canopy is equipped with fibre optical sensors that allow for the real time sensing of the forces within the structure. This allows monitoring the changes to the structural systems caused by the further growth and adaptation of the canopy, which is driven by anonymous data on how visitors use the canopy space captured by thermal imaging sensors and interpreted in conjunction with the measurement of environmental parameters such as temperature, radiation, ambient humidity and wind. The real-time sensing combined with the onsite fabrication renders the canopy a learning system and evolving structure that will grow and reconfigure over the time of the exhibition, based on the behaviour of the garden’s visitors, and their preferred places to walk, stroll, rest or meet.


The canopy constitutes a fibrous tectonic system that is as architecturally expressive as it is structurally efficient. It provides the visitor with a unique spatial experience that transforms and evolves over time. The canopy also represents a live research project, which is most fitting for the history and ambition of the V&A.

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