Martin Tamke - Reinventing architecture: building spaces with Dyneema®


Dyneema® fiber has long been embraced by high-end ultra lightweight tent and shelter manufacturers. But until recently, the material’s use in large-scale architecture has remained largely theoretical, with architects coming up with designs for its application for a flexible tsunami barrier or as the basis for a 3D printed Mars Ice House. Until now…

Conceived by the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture (CITA) in Copenhagen, the Dyneema® fiber - powered Isoropia project is currently making waves at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018 – the largest architectural event in the world – as part of the Denmark pavilion. We speak to CITA professor Martin Tamke about the project and the future of Knitted Dyneema® fabrics as the basis for monumental constructions that are both adaptable and sustainable.

What do you do and why do you do it?
I work at the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture (CITA), an innovative research environment at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen. We explore the emerging intersections between architecture and digital technologies – and how to apply these intersections further. We do this to help develop sustainable and resource-efficient building practices for the future.

One important shift that we are following – and this shift is actually taking place across all disciplines – is how digital tools can allow us to form a direct bridge between design thinking and fabrication. So at CITA, we explore how this approach can lead to better building practices. We are integrating the once-separate tools used for designing and simulating of space, structure and material and linking this directly to fabrication and assembly processes and machines. We do this both in existing industrial set-ups and in speculative ones in our own robotic lab. Our approach is holistic and our work needs to cross borders between disciplines and sectors. Once these bridges are established, new possibilities emerge in terms of spatial creation, structural thinking and material specification.

How do textiles fit into your work?
We are fascinated by textiles. The wide array of available fibers and the existing technologies to combine these fibers offer a vast amount of ways to address new needs in materials in terms of performance and expression – especially for architecture. And since textiles can be designed and produced digitally, this provides a common platform for all the other involved disciplines. Together with our partners from textile design and engineering, we are able to connect our tools for design and specification to CNC – Computer Numerical Control – machines, which can then produce loop by loop the highly bespoke fabrics required for large-scale architecture.

Can you describe Isoropia to those who may not have seen it yet?
Isoropia – which in Greek means balance, equilibrium and stability – allows us to demonstrate the possibilities and potential of our many different developments. The structure itself is 35-meters long and made of over 40 customized CNC knitted membranes of up to 7-meters each. These different membranes achieve structural equilibrium through the use of bendable glass fibre rods of varying strengths. The structure creates a spatial and structural continuum through the Danish Pavilion, forming differentiated outdoor canopy structures on the two outer sides and a vaulted space in the interior.

"Isoropia – which in Greek means balance, equilibrium and stability – allows us to demonstrate the possibilities and potential of our many different developments."

What led you and the team to seek out Dyneema® fiber to use in this construction?
We explored the scaling up of computational knit to an architectural level with our Portuguese knit fabrication partners AFF in a previous project called ‘Tower’. While we did manage to develop the basic technologies and processes required for working with technical textiles and high-performance yarns, we were not sufficiently able to control the material behaviour of the knitted fabrics – their stretch was too high and anisotropic. In other words, the geometries would deviate under load from how they were designed. By turning to a fibre with minimal stretches, such as Dyneema®, we found our solution.

How did you come across Dyneema® fiber?
AFF had been testing Dyneema® fibers for use in personal protection wear. And luckily, they were able to transpose their tests in this area to the requirements for architectural textiles. We then contacted DSM and they quickly gave us the right people and support to develop the project further.

So how exactly was Dyneema® applied in the Isoropia installation?
The use of Dyneema® fiber allowed us to develop a novel type of CNC knitted structural membrane whereby the structural properties of the membrane can be varied within the material itself. By linking the design with the production, a highly efficient and sustainable approach to production without waste is established.

Isoropia shows that our newly developed set of tools and materials allows for new spatial expressions and atmospheres in textile structures. These tools and fabrication methods in textile hybrid structures provide architects and engineers with a means to adopt the geometry of a chosen textile system to the requirements of a given site. In short: we can build structural systems that can morph and change – as well as adapt to existing buildings.

Within Isoropia we could integrate all details for construction, assembly and lighting within the CNC knit. This eliminated the huge amounts of time usually needed to cut, sew and glue the membranes and allowed us to fabricate and set up the structure in under four weeks time. This was enabled through a still prototypical, but already effective, collaborative process of recurrent prototyping and testing on a 1:1 scale.

Within Isoropia we could also test a new, highly efficient structural system made with minimal amounts of material, which withstands forces in a new, intelligent way. This resembles more the way nature reacts to forces than classic buildings: instead of resisting external loads such as wind and storms through stiffness, Isoropia is flexible and gives in.

“Isoropia surrounds the visitors and invites them to touch—which the visitors do a lot of.”

What is the general response from the crowd at the Venice Biennale?
For us, it was especially fascinating to see how visitors approached the textile structure. Structural textiles, such as stadium roofs, are usually removed from human reach; they also have a plastic feeling that’s not very pleasant to touch. In contrast, Isoropia surrounds the visitors and invites them to touch – which the visitors do a lot of.

What’s next for the Isoropia installation?
We are hoping to develop the structural system further. Currently, we are working with our Master students in to explore the potentials of soft textile structures in kinetic structures, which adapt and transform. This is an interesting avenue, which is not only needed in order to create the adoptive homes of the future, but that is visually fascinating as well.

For those not too familiar with architecture: why is the emerging field of ‘architextiles’ so important?
Textiles are actually quite common in our constructed environment. However, they are only currently used for the purely structural – such as for membrane roofs – or for the more decorative, such as curtains, sofas and carpets. Other sectors, such as automotive or aeronautics, have already seen a material revolution based on all kinds of high-performance fibre-based materials. Now it’s time for architecture to search out its own benefits. Our research shows that novel applications of textiles in architecture are possible, which are not only structurally highly efficient and sustainable but open new avenues for spatial expression.

What other products or implementations can you envision with a material such as a Knit with Dyneema®?
Fabrics with Dyneema® are fascinating and I think that our research has only scratched the surface of its potential application in architecture. In Venice, we observed how resistant the material is to environmental influences and the absorption of water. This is a property that can be particularly leveraged in our constructed environment – where longevity is key for, in particular, outdoor materials.

Finally, would you share with us which innovations outside of your immediate professional field you're most excited about at the moment?
The move towards networked and circular thinking in economics and other areas, such as energy production and consumption, I find fascinating. The idea that processes around material and energy are not finite, but can constantly repeat and renew is a very inspiring goal.

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