Reimagining traditional Chinese gardens with parametric geometry
For MoCA Shanghai’s exhibition MoCA Mock-ups: The Architecture of Spatial Art, USC American Academy of China (AAC) Summer Studio 2012 spent six weeks designing, fabricating and constructing “Minimal Relaxation,” a parametric canopy and undulating, LED-lit landscape that creates prime skyline viewing locations on the museum’s rooftop terrace. Inspired by Frei Otto, an architect and structural engineer famous for his complex canopy structures, “Minimal Relaxation” extends his body of design research into physical and digital form-finding processes for minimal surface structure through “dynamic relaxation techniques.”
Faculty advisor, Alvin Huang of Synthesis Design + Architecture, explained that dynamic mesh relaxation is a digital simulation process in which the net, in this case, “is placed into continuous tension through the combination of the organization of its mesh network (the net), and the position of its fixed edges (the perimeter) and points (the poles) to find a stable force equilibrium. This results in a minimal surface, where each node within the surface has zero mean curvature.” The students then manipulated funicular form parametrically to accommodate the canopy’s holes, or viewing portals, and reverse engineer the construction process. For a 2,000 square foot rooftop, the students ordered a custom made 55’ x 55’ net with a 3,025 square foot reach that allows for the undulations in the design.
The viewing portals were positioned to frame points of interest for viewers, such as the surrounding high rises. Once the students derived a geometry that incorporated these elements they were able to design an internal tension in the net so precise that its bamboo support poles didn’t require any additional attachments or securing. The canopy was so taut, in fact, that since its installment in early August it has already outlasted multiple monsoons. Though the construction of the net is basic (nylon string knotted into diamond shapes, much like a soccer net), the play between the parametric geometry and the net is what lends the materially basic structure such strength and staying power.
The same idea of minimal surface for maximum impact was applied to the shrink-wrapped MDF landscape furniture, “where the plastic membrane is constantly trying to minimize itself over its rigid constraints.” Justin Kang, the Landscape Team Leader, explained how the landscape forms were designed to emulate the ripple effect of water droplets. “Wherever the canopy feature drops down the landscape feature dips up to meet the canopy.” Kang also positioned the forms “where the canopy opens so patrons can look through these apertures and see the framed Shanghai skyline.”
The furniture does double duty as a lighting element, too. Each form is lit from within by 20V LED strips linked to motion sensors attached to an Arduino board that, ideally, would be programmed to produce light patterns in waves, but due to time constraints the lighting is controlled by a remote, allowing the museum to decided on the kind of lighting to play on the surface of the landscape. Even if visitors aren’t aware of the complicated geometry at work above their heads, the experience underneath the canopy and the view it provides, as well as the light show on the ground, have turned MoCA Shanghai’s previously underutilized and seldom visited rooftop into a nighttime destination. “Minimal Relaxation” was only scheduled to be on view for two weeks, but now the museum has announced that due to its popularity it will remain up indefinitely.
Faculty: Neil Leach (USC/AAC Program Director), Wendy Fok (Univ. of Houston/We Designs), Alvin Huang (USC/Synthesis Design + Architecture)
Canopy Team Leader: Ty Harrison
Landscape Team Leader: Justin Kang
Photography by Wandile Kraai