Best known for fusing the words ‘blob’ and ‘architecture’ into a – now infamous – portmanteau, the architect and designer Greg Lynn has been exploring the integration of structure and form since the 1990s. The highly technical areas of expertise that he explores with his FORM studio team in Venice, California are balanced by a surprisingly high level of handcraft – especially when it comes to working with carbon composites. He talked to uncube about the potential and pitfalls of working with carbon and how design thinking needs to shift to incorporate the properties of the material.
When did you first start working with carbon? What were your reasons for getting involved with it as a construction material?
I started using composites because I was looking for a material that was translucent rather than transparent. This is why I used glass fibre instead of carbon years ago, but the principles are the same for what I would call ‘rigidized cloth’ – fabric and woven goods that are stiffened with resins. The difference between carbon and glass fibre is really more about stiffness than weight and strength. Otherwise they are almost identical – especially for architectural applications. If you want to eliminate deflection and make something really stiff then you go for carbon – otherwise you use glass. But the black fibre aesthetic of carbon is really different and presently has cultural associations with high performance sports and luxury. I remember a series of magazine advertisements by Prada, who used 3DL™ load path carbon and aramid North Sails as a backdrop to their clothing ads. The network of curved lines of carbon twill looks like a drawing, similar to Piranesi’s hatching. And I know of architects who have noticed the material and worked it into buildings. Renzo Piano used it for his Americas Cup building in Valencia, where he draped the Team Prada headquarters in used sails. For Swarovski Crystal Palace’s exhibit at Design Miami in 2009 I designed hanging surfaces of carbon and dyneema made by North Sails with millions of crystals sandwiched into the gossamer translucent membrane. That was probably the first time I worked with carbon.
At the end of the ‘90s some of the Droog designers did some work with carbon fibre, notably Hella Jongerius with her Kasese Chair, Marcel Wanders with his Knotted Chair, and later Bertjan Pot. But they seemed to drop it again quite quickly. Pot told me that as a material “it has issues” and is very expensive…
Actually, it keeps getting cheaper. The real problem for the use of carbon in industrial products, or any composite for that matter, is cycle time. I designed what has to be the lightest hanging chair ever made as a prototype for the Art Institute of Chicago in soft flexible carbon pre-preg tapes manufactured by North Sails. They were placed and laminated manually from four-inch wide tapes and they take two people at least an hour, because you are really placing material at the fibre level in multiple orientations based on load paths. It is similar to tailoring in terms of time and labour. Because of the time it takes to laminate, cook and cure carbon objects it becomes prohibitive for the world of high volume production in furniture and automobiles. For Formula One cars, for example, there is not a piece of metal left on the structure and body of the car any more – only in the engine – and even most of that metal being replaced by handmade, labour-intensive carbon. A lot of people think these things are made by machines, but really it’s one of the last truly artisanal craft-based methods of construction. It will get more industrialised, but it hasn’t yet.
Isn’t the very nature of carbon composites environmentally problematic, in terms of recycling or breaking down the materials afterwards?
Not really. Michael Lepech at Stanford published his comparison of composites with other construction materials and, more often than not, because of their light weight and high strength, they often use less material and out-perform materials like wood, masonry and steel that take more energy to manufacture, transport, assemble and support. In Lepech’s comparisons, if you include the stuff they put in wood to keep it from rotting and to discourage insects from eating it and so on, a wood-framed building ends up being more toxic with a larger carbon footprint than an actual carbon fibre building. Yes, it is environmentally nasty to burn piles of sand into fibre using huge amounts of energy and then glue the sand together using petroleum resins around foam cores. But when you look at how little material is used, how much steel is saved in holding up these lighter materials, how much energy is saved in transport, longevity and performance, it is easy to see why composites are high-performance.
It sounds like we are still at the very beginning of using carbon composites in manufacturing, structures and objects. Because of these manufacturing difficulties do you think carbon will turn out retrospectively to be just some kind of interim material?
In the United States, the transportation infrastructure is dangerously antiquated and badly maintained. Much of the current reinforcing and retrofitting of bridges and overpasses is glued carbon strapping. For certain niche building industries, like bridge-building, retrofitting infrastructure and mining, carbon is already a mature material. It’s been around for 60 years or so. The capacity in China now far exceeds the demand – that’s because manufacturers such as airlines are eliminating aluminium and changing to composites. No one would consider designing a new commercial airplane in metal anymore – we have to go to carbon because it is so much more energy efficient. I think the issue with a delayed adoption of the material in buildings and commercial products is that designers frankly don’t understand the principles of it. Until designers understand at a conceptual level how to use carbon composites, they won’t use it appropriately and therefore it won’t be a sensible alternative.
Some have understood though, like Marcel Wanders with his Knot Chair.
That was a very smart way of understanding how to make a flexible thing rigid. What I’ve found is that there are a couple of really huge ideas in composites: like locating structure in load paths rather than consolidating structure into a frame and disengaging the structure from the lineaments defining a form. If you use the character of the material in all those ways, it not only becomes really practical but there is also a whole language of design that comes out of it. Another problem with the use of carbon in particular and composites in general is that, until 2009, building codes viewed composites as finishes, so the only way to use them without running your own tests was to use them decoratively. Most architects attempt to use carbon either like a steel frame or like a material swatch that’s purely decorative.
I read somewhere that you are good at predicting the future. How do you see our future as carbon-based life-forms in terms of our relationship with carbon as a material. Do you think we are going to move towards a more biological, organic relationship with our environment?
I’ve never tried to predict anything because I find it very tough to do, but I have had some success in influencing the field, in particular with digital technology. I see potential for my own exploration in the design of large-scale composite structures and I will publicize and explain the principles and possibilities to my colleagues and students as clearly and concisely as I can in the hopes of speeding their adoption. Over the last several years I have invested a lot of time, energy and money into mastering composite design and construction. We are even making composite parts and prototypes right in my office. I co-designed an ocean-going trimaran with Frederic Courouble and we built much of the tooling for it, as well as the carbon interiors and details that I built and supplied directly to Westerly Marine, one of a handful of builders in the world experienced in high-performance carbon yacht construction. I initiated the project mostly because I am interested in the challenge of using state-of-the-art software and construction to design a building-sized object that is under thousands of pounds of load moving at high speed, converting the wind into motion.
So you are saying that working with composites has fundamentally changed how you think about architecture?
Yeah sure, like Marcel did with that chair: it’s a macramé chair rethought with new chemistry. I look at everything totally differently now, through a cloth lens. So rather than trying to make wood behave like steel, which is what Richard Neutra and other modernists did, now I see wood behaving like, say, wicker or woven rattan. My personal design paradigm has changed.
From uncube magazine issue no. 16 “Carbon”, edited by Sophie Lovell