Geometry of light
Matthew Smith, Partner at BuroHappold Engineering, explains how we realised the illuminated ResoNet Pavilion in Shanghai
The dawn of a new year is a time of celebration. Festivities around the Western New Year, Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day bring with them a sense of hope and optimism for what lies ahead – and that was exactly the feeling we wanted to capture in our latest collaboration project with ResoNet.
Set amid the beautiful backdrop of Sinon Mansions in Shanghai, the ResoNet Pavilion was conceived to create a captivating centrepiece for the shops, hotels and eateries that are now housed in the historic 1920s and 1930s buildings. A temporary installation for the first three months of 2017, the Pavilion needed to perform as both a space to host events and a dynamic sculpture with which people could interact.
Our relationship with William Hailiang Chen and Mark Francis Tynan of ResoNet was born at Beijing Design Week 2015, where we worked with them to develop a light installation that stretched like a delicate spider’s web between trees in the Bataizi district.
ResoNet use Low-Fi techniques to create installations that are able to express vibrations caused by the surrounding environment as a visual cascade of light. As structural engineers, our role is to create the frameworks upon which these dramatic plays of light can take place. For Beijing Design Week 2015, we developed 3D printed top and bottom rings between which a cable net of lightweight, movement sensitive LEDs was strung that flickered as the sculpture moved in the wind and responded to passing people.
Due to the constraints of the 2017 Shanghai site, however, a similar hanging structure was not appropriate. Instead, we devised a raised platform that elevated the Pavilion above street level and formed a foundation for the canopy of light that would enclose it. The bottom supported canopy would need to act in compression as opposed to the top hung sculpture acting in tension. This led to the need for a different structural response, using heavier material than the cable net used in Beijing.
Our engineers experimented with a variety of different design iterations, ranging from a compression shell to structural ribs that could be clad. The final design is a hybrid of these concepts, comprising a series of plastic sheet lozenges that form a very thin surface (2-3mm), and whose folds act as ribs, with the whole assembly providing geometrical stiffness. These lozenges also created a visual effect reminiscent of feathers, to reflect that 2017 is the Chinese Year of the Rooster.
Every module in our design was a slightly different size. Working from a 3D model created by Mamou-Mani Architects, we were able to fine-tune the geometry involved to optimise the ability of the canopy to resist wind loads and its own weight. A fine net of LEDs was embedded within this shell, which illuminate the public sphere in response to stimuli from the surrounding environment and the people who choose to interact with the installation.
Throughout the first three months of 2017, the dynamic ResoNet Pavilion responded to the changing seasons and festivities around it. It captured both the mood and the imagination of the visitors who encountered it and, by doing so, united the realms of art, culture, architecture and technology under one beautiful canopy.