Article by Eden Muir for le Tour Sutton, October 2012... THIS ISSUE'S THEME WORD: "EXUBERANCE"

The Return of the Curve: Architecture's New Exuberance

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Gaudi In the recent past, curved forms were often considered to be expensive and hard to build. Some critics went further, calling them frivolous, decadent and only suitable for a Las Vegas casino. Elegant and serious architecture was to be found in the rigid geometries of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1967 Westmount Plaza or I.M. Pei's 1962 Place Ville Marie--the lines all straight, parallel, perpendicular and not a curve to be found. These exemplars of the International style were precise and logical, but quite lacking in exuberance.

Today, the curve is making a comeback, and architecture will never be the same. From Dubai to New York, from Rio to Toronto, there is a new three-dimensional playfulness in buildings that can taper and twist, soar and swagger, curve and cantilever, and even appear to dance, as in Prague's "Fred and Ginger Building" by Frank Gehry. Architects have not had this much fun since the days of elaborate Art Nouveau facades, a century ago.

exuberance An early champion of curved shapes in architecture was Antonio Gaudi of Barcelona. Begun in 1882, his Basilica of Sagrada Familia (1) is still under construction and provides one of the most enchanting architectural experiences to be had in Europe. Muscular tilted columns and plant-like ornament delight the eye as they defy gravity, and you can almost hear the ghost of Gaudi challenging you to find a single straight line. With the shaping of the stones now done off site with robotic technology, the completion date is said to be 2026

Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry is today's master of the complex curve. His addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario, shown here under construction (2), creates a remarkable glass-roofed hallway by slightly rotating each structural fin. The New York Times said "its billowing glass facade...evokes a crystal ship drifting through the city" and said it balanced exuberance with delicious moments of restraint.

exuberance The secret behind the recent blossoming of the curve in architecture is, of course, the computer. Imagine being able to reduce any complex 3D shape to a series of easily manufactured 2D components. Whether they be glass skylight panes or steel struts, the software instantly "unfolds" the 3d surface like peeling an orange. As shown in the simplified diagram, different cutting patterns can be selected, in order to reduce wasted materials and time. (3) The system knows the precise size and shape of each triangular or rectangular fragment, and the robotic laser cutter or other device automatically mills them with astonishing speed and precision.

Frank Gehry's design process combines the old and the new. He sculpts physical models from cardboard and other studio materials. Then he does a 3d digital scan of the model and imports it into CATIA where it can be further refined. The software analyzes the surfaces and shows, for example, the optimal pattern for cladding a convex surface in glass or with flat rectangular sheets of titanium.

exuberance The cost-efficiency of these 3D digital design and manufacturing systems is increasing so rapidly that it will not be long before you will be able to incorporate complex, custom-designed curved elements in regular construction. This development promises to unleash the creativity of designers, sculptors and artists and usher in a new era of exuberant and expressive architectural design.

Meanwhile, the lack of a robotic mill should not stop Do-It-Yourselfers from trying their hand at exuberant expression (4). Curves can be conjured up out of thin air just by varying the gaps between standard building components, as in this fan-shaped Frelighsburg pergola.

Text and images by Eden Greig Muir, Architect. © Tous droits réservés