Grace Under Tension

Grace Under Tension

Volvo Car Italia wanted a classy way to exhibit their V60 Hybrid Electric Diesel car, a pavilion that was portable, easy to assemble, and gave a design-nod to some sort of three-ness, referencing the car’s three modes of propulsion (diesel, electric, and hybrid). The competition was won by Synthesis Design + Architecture (SDA), of Los Angeles, California, who proposed a tensioned-membrane pavilion with three apices that is not only  portable but actually fits into the trunk of the car.  Moreover, when assembled, it functions as a solar-powered charging station for the car’s electrical system.

The project, called Pure Tension, won a 2015 R&D Award from Architect Magazine.

“The project aspires to reinvent the typical trade show pavilion through its combination of dynamic form, optical effects and flexibility and adaptability to the space,” says SDA’s website.

The pavilion is made of two vinyl-encapsulated, polyester-mesh membranes supported and tensioned by a framework of 3-inch diameter aluminum tube.   The 24 pre-bent tube sections are assembled, neoprene sleeves are zipped around them, and then the membranes are zipped on.

The fabric has 252 flexible photovoltaic cells hand-stitched to it to provide juice for car-charging.

SDA founder and principal Alvin Huang, AIA, and his team took inspiration from the work of Frei Otto, the German architect and engineer who began working with tensile and membrane structures in the 1950’s, and won this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize shortly before his death at the age of 89. SDA had some advantage over Otto in being able to use the Grasshopper plug-in Kangaroo to simulate material response to forces. The result, however, is… inspired.  Its appearance is the embodiment of lightness, resembling a three-winged extraterrestrial butterfly the size of a two-car garage.

They originally designed a structure supported by carbon fiber tubes. When they won the competition and had four months to build the actual pavilion, they found that the carbon fiber plan would be too costly. In collaboration with the Los Angeles office of BuroHappold Engineering and Fabric Images, a fabricator in Elgin, IL, they developed the aluminum framework.  They simplified the geometry into five arcs. Huang calls the result, “a hybrid between a hyperbolic paraboloid and a minimal surface.”

The prototype can be assembled and disassembled by two people in less than an hour. Folded up, it fits into two packing cases, 15” x 15” x 65” each. It’s PV cells can generate 450 watts in the best sun conditions, enabling it to charge the fully-depleted car battery in 12 hours.

SDA is reportedly working with Volvo’s technical tem in China to create a smaller commercial edition that will also be more efficient in terms of charging.

Images via