I peer up at the clouds and squint as raindrops splatter my glasses. Up above, far beyond my reach, is a sparse canopy woven together by an extraordinary mixture of carbon and glass fibers. They stick, curve and cross over one another to form wide hexagonal discs, spreading out across the lawn like a fleet of flying saucers. As I walk underneath, I reach out and touch the pillars that keep the entire structure afloat. They're narrow at the base, but shoot upward and outward like saplings craving sunlight.
The unusual shelter has been constructed at London's Victoria & Albert Museum as part of a new "Engineering Season" that runs until November. It was created by a group from the University of Stuttgart in Germany: Achim Menges, an experimental architect and professor; Jans Knipper, a structural engineer and professor; Moritz Dorstelmann, a research associate and doctoral candidate at the university; and Thomas Auer, a climate engineer.
It's called the Elytra Filament Pavilion, and it takes inspiration from the hardened "elytra" wings of flying beetles. While they're shooting through the air, these insects raise their forewings into a flat, open position, revealing a pair of softer and more powerful sails underneath.
Credit: Getty Creative
"The shell of the flying beetle is a very light structure because, well, the beetle has to fly," Knipper says. "It's also a system which consists of two layers, which are connected by fibers to create a load-bearing, strong system. We took this idea from the elytra and adapted its orientation and the layering of the fibers to make a very light, wide system at the V&A."
The carbon and glass fibers allow the team to mimic the elytra's design on a much larger scale. Each hexagonal piece weighs around 35 kilograms (77 pounds), making them easy to pick up and attach to the structure. "They're interesting materials because they start off soft and flexible," Menges says. "But then they cure when they are infiltrated with resin, becoming some of the stiffest and strongest materials that we have at our disposal."
Those properties are useful because the team wants the pavilion to evolve over time. Sensors inside the glass fibers are able to measure the forces and structural stresses weighing on the canopy. Thermal imaging cameras can figure out where people are standing and moving underneath, either to find shade or avoid Britain's nastier weather patterns. All of this information will be stored and analyzed to determine how the structure should change during what the museum is calling "events."
A robot's helping hand
The events will be shaped by a robot near the back of the pavilion. I can see it lurking behind a transparent cover, winding stringy fibers around an enormous steel hexagon. The machine was developed by Kuka, a German company that develops factory robots for automakers such as Audi and BMW, as well as brands like Adidas and Carlsberg. When a new event occurs -- three are scheduled for June 17th, 18th and September 22nd -- the team will look at the data that have been collected and identify a spot for expansion. The robot will then generate a new custom roof piece.
The robot takes three or four hours to complete each segment. The carbon and glass fibers are stored in cylindrical rolls before being wound onto the steel scaffolding. Menges says the robot can determine the exact shape and pattern required for the structure "almost by itself," using its knowledge of the pavilion and what's required to keep it upright. When the piece has been completed, the metal skeleton is then collapsed and taken out, ready to be used as the framework for another piece.
The process is fast and flexible. The team hopes the robot and the lightweight materials will inspire people to rethink how structures can be built. So often construction is a long, arduous process involving huge construction crews and machinery. Architects design the building with a single look and purpose in mind; success is dependent on it looking and functioning the same for many years. The Elytra Filament Pavilion, meanwhile, takes an adaptive and free-spirited approach to design and manufacturing.
"It's a form of feedback between what has already been built and what may come next," Menges explains. "So it's very interesting to think about an architectural system that doesn't come to a determined end. Something that can sense its current state, that can gather its own data and then expand, contract or reconfigure on the basis of that. It's nowhere near as intelligent as natural growth, but it begins to work in that direction."
I happen to be visiting the pavilion on a dreary morning, peppered with showers and the occasional gust of bone-biting wind. The pavilion offers little shelter -- there are no walls or doors -- so I beat a hasty retreat inside the museum. During the summer months, I can imagine the pavilion being a comfortable, exciting spot for visitors to take a break from the rest of the V&A's offerings. The shape and materials are eye-catching, and I could watch the robot work for hours. The structure's true beauty, however, should reveal itself later in the year. Like a garden or national park, the pleasure will come from seeing how it's grown since last time.
"We really don't know what is going to happen, where it's going to grow or what exactly the form of the next element is going to be," Menges stresses. "This is what makes this [project] a really exciting endeavor, and also makes it interesting to come back and see what has happened."