Critical Mass: A Studio Tour with Greg Lynn

Critical Mass: A Studio Tour with Greg Lynn

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to interview Greg Lynn at his studio. We featured his most recent project, the Nike Microclimate Chair, two weeks ago.

Lynn is an architect, designer, and visionary with a long track record of accomplishments and innovations using composites. Some would call him a composites guru (a term he himself might back away from). He is, at the very least, a designer with unusual expertise and experience in the use of composites in new and insightful ways.

His studio is located on a busy thoroughfare in Venice, California (the beach town that is part of the City of Los Angeles), in a nondescript building that was originally a storefront.

3-D Prinouts of project models decorate the walls of the Greg Lynn Form studio - photo by Steven H. Miller

The first thing you notice on the interior is the variety of strange shapes decorating walls and shelves everywhere, many of them 3-D print-out models or prototypes for various projects. There is no “reception” area. It’s a work environment for people who bring shapes and concepts from an inner vision, to software, and then into physical reality. There’s a conference space, a couple of rows of computer workspace and, walled off in the rear, a small machine shop for cutting and milling molds, 3-D printing, and other acts realization.

Greg Lynn Form studio - photo by Steven H. Miller

Greg Lynn Form doesn’t just think stuff up, they make it, too… At least in prototype.

Frankly, it was hard not to be distracted by all curious forms lurking on all sides. But, having an innovative visionary sitting in front of me, it was even harder to resist the temptation to ask his opinion about the future of composites in architecture. At first he tried to dodge the question by deferring to a greater authority.

“You should talk to our students,” he suggested, referring to the studios he’s been involved with at Julia Koerner’s programs at UCLA IDEAS. “That’s always where you see change happening. Digital tech, [20 years ago], you could have talked to practitioners, and they would have had all kinds of opinions, but if you would have talked to the students, you would have known what was coming.”

As we talked more, though, the term “critical mass” came up. Critical mass is a concept that comes from nuclear physics. It refers specifically to the minimum amount of fissionable material necessary to create a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. What this means if that, for a particular radioactive material such as uranium or plutonium, there is a specific amount of the stuff that needs to be gathered together at a certain concentration for a nuclear chain reaction to initiate and keep itself going. Any less (sub-critical mass) and the subatomic particles being emitted from the unstable molecules won’t hit enough other unstable molecules to emit enough other sub-atomic particles to keep the reaction going, and it fizzles and dies. But above that minimum quantity, critical mass, the reaction continues and grows larger. Nuclear bombs are made by taking two separated sub-critical masses and bringing them together, rapidly, into a single critical mass. An electricity-generating nuclear reactor works on the same principal, except that crossing the threshold to critical mass is done in a more controlled manner.

The concept of critical mass has been extended widely in society, talking about a critical mass of believers in one particular movement, or a critical mass of knowledge about certain subject being necessary for growth. In industries, it often refers to the combination of a) enough people who want to use a technology (demand) to make it economically feasible to manufacture and market the tech in question, and b) enough of the tech available to enough people (supply) to create the basic interest that drives demand. A chicken and egg problem.

Lynn's associates, Melissa Shin (largely hidden) and Sean Boyd, in the studio - photo by Steven H. Miller

“There now is a critical mass of people who understand composites,” continued Greg Lynn, still referring to the students. “It’s like what Geofff Van Oeyen is doing at USC. I would say it’s starting here in Southern California.” The programs at ITK-ICD in Stuttgart, Germeny, and at the Illinois Institute of Technology were also mentioned. “I don’t know of other schools looking at this stuff. But you hear people talking about it a lot. At MIT, Harvard I think it tends to be more an of academic discussion more than practical knowledge.”

“I think a lot of it is because of a very small network of people. At UCLA for the last 3 years now, we’ve been running these two to three day long intensive workshops with our students with Composites One, with Kreysler and Associates… There’s three or four key people who’ve been coming down. The students have now hit that threshiold where you can say, ‘build a mock-up, build a model’ and it’s not even a discussion. Just three or four days later, it shows up built in fiberglass. They know infusion, they know mold-making, they know laminating. Now they have the skill set. They understand materials so they’re not asking the materials to do things that are needlessly complicated. They have a working knowledge now of composites.”

On the other side, fabrication (supply) Lynn thinks we’re almost at critical mass. He describes a recent project, a free-standing composite monocoque, built at a public university. The design was approved, bidding presented a challenge.

“Because it was a public uiversity, they needed three bids, so they were scambling. They needed three [companies] at a certain scale with a certain experience to qualify.” They got three bids, but one of them was not a big enough company to get the necessary bonding, and their bid got thrown out.   “Until the industry gets scaled up, it’s going to exclude them from a lot of public projects. So that’s probably the other thing that’s just now starting to happen.”

Fiberglass tabletop on a pedestal of repurposed recking horses. Model of the Curbside pickup pod and something else on the table - photo by Steven H. Miller

Lynn also mused about how the unfamiliarity of composites to the larger construction industry presents difficulties. “All of its benefits make it really intriguing, but in a funny way it’s almost too good to be true. Like when you say, ‘This is a monolithic enclosure, we’re going to just bring it in on a crane and install it…’ that sounds pretty good. But then everybody is worried about what if it doesn’t line up? What if it’s not plumb? How is it going to change? [With thermal expansion and contraction.] How is a big monolithic thing going to change, there’s no expansion joints, there’s no control joints? The monolithic nature runs counter-intuitive to most contractors. So nobody wants to be first. But I think as everybody sees it, and benchmarks it, it will get adopted. For a decorative material, everybody knows a lot about it. But as a structure, it still hasn’t happened yet.”

“I always like to say that Architecture is much more on the cutting edge of things than people give it credit for, but in the case of these materials… Aerospace made the move. You saw the impact of the move five or six years ago with the Dreamliner and a couple of Airbus wings and tail-sections? So that move was made 15 or 20 years ago, they just decided, ‘it makes no sense to rivet airplanes anymore. Let’s just make the commitment and go to composites now.’ Now, it’s a race to see who can get there quickest. That’s one of the reasons Boeing is so profitable over Airbus, they made that shift. The car companies saw that, and BMW moved the quickest, and now everybody’s chasing into it.”

Fiberglass first began to appear on buildings about 60 years ago. Even for the very conservative construction industry, that’s long enough for it not to be a “new material” anymore. Yet, after all that time, we are just now getting to critical mass.

The newly-minted Master of Architecture grads who are walking the commencement stages this month will be walking into architectural offices next month looking for jobs. A few of them bring with them a knowledge and experience of composites that makes them, professionally, just about Composite Natives.

Enough composite fabricators have reached beyond their origins in aerospace and boat-building, and ventured into the architectural realm, that large projects are now constructable.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Expansion has just opened to the public, with it’s 10-story fiberglass façade, and attendant publicity. People will see it, more people will learn about composites as an architectural material.  The critical mass that Greg Lynn is talking about is gathering.

It’s starting to be a thing.

Images by Steven H. Miller