Invited for the 15th International Architecture Exhibition by Alejandro Aravena, NCCR Principal Investigator Prof. Dr. Philippe Block’s and his research group at ETH Zurich exhibit the project “Beyond Bending”. The exhibition combines knowledge of the past with present-day technologies such as novel structural design tools and digital fabrication in order to highlight the strong architectural potential of compression-only forms.

Beyond Bending is a joint project realised by NCCR Principal Investigator Prof. Dr. Philippe Block and the Block Research Group (BRG) at ETH Zurich together with the engineering firm Ochsendorf, DeJong & Block as well as The Escobedo Group. The exhibition confronts visitors with the question: “What can we regain from the past, and how can we reshape or innovate upon that knowledge to fit present and future needs?”. The different elements of the exhibition – four prototypes of vaulted floor systems, a series of graphical force diagrams, and an expansive stone vault – demonstrate that compression-only forms are not only aesthetically appealing, but also contribute to the elimination of excess steel, the conservation of natural resources as well as to the re-imagination of humble materials such as earth or stone.

Beyond Free Form – The Armadillo Vault
The Armadillo Vault is an expansive stone vault comprised of 399 individually cut limestones. It has a span of 16 metres and a minimum thickness of only 5 centimetres, and it is a truly unique structure because the stability of this irregular form is achieved without any reinforcement or mortar. The expressively flowing surface of the vault challenges the misconception that complex geometries are typically associated with inefficient use of material. Steel tension ties at ground level lock the footings of the vault, balancing the form and funicular geometry, allowing the stone vault to stand in pure compression.

An Interdisciplinary Achievement
The building process of the Armadillo Vault required close collaboration of architects, engineers and skilled masons. NCCR principal investigator Prof. Dr. Philippe Block and his group designed the vault’s complex form with the support of computational graphic-statics based design and optimisation methods; the engineers of ODB Engineering were responsible for the computational assessment of the vault’s stability; while the Escobedo Group completed the interdisciplinary team with its expertise in fabrication and construction. The Armadillo Vault is an excellent example that demonstrates how scientific progress and innovation occur when traditionally separate disciplines collaborate and build on a clear understanding of precedent.

Beyond the Slab – Novel, Funicular Floor Systems
A further element of the “Beyond Bending” exhibition are a series of compressive vaults one of which is an ultra-thin concrete floor and the other one a structural 3D-printed floor. The innovative, ribbed floors are inspired by historical tile vaults. The ultra-thin concrete floor which was realised by the BRG and Dave Pigram, the NCCR’s first researcher in residence, consists of a remarkable 2 cm-thick shell in unreinforced concrete. By activating compressive forces while externalising tension with ties, the amount of concrete used can be reduced by more than 70% compared to conventional concrete floor systems. The second exhibited floor, a project which was implemented by NCCR researchers Matthias Rippmann and Ursula Frick together with further members of the BRG, has been 3D-printed. All its elements have been structurally optimised to control the compressive force flow for all potential loading cases. This opens up fully new possibilities in the challenge to enclose space and is another proof for the opportunities offered by such exciting digital fabrication technologies.

A Noticeable Answer
“What can we regain from the past, and how can we reshape or innovate upon that knowledge to fit present and future needs?” This was the question which inspired the exhibitors in their work. Their exhibition provides a clear answer: the work on exhibit addresses constructional principles used in stone cathedrals of the past, now enhanced and extended by computational analysis and digital fabrication. The combination of these methods with new technologies not only enables architectural structures with uniquely expressive aesthetics, but also has an inherent potential to increase efficiency and stability while curbing material waste.

Besides their main exhibition “Beyond Bending”, NCCR principal investigator Prof. Dr. Philippe Block and the BRG’s work is also shown in the project “Droneport” with Lord Norman Foster at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and in the Zaha Hadid memorial exhibition at the Palazzo Franchetti in Venice. On August 27th, 2016, Prof. Dr. Philippe Block will furthermore participate in one of the official “Meetings on Architecture” at the Biennale in Venice (details listed below).

Exhibition Venues in Venice
“Beyond Bending”: Main exhibition, Corderie dell’Arsenale
“Droneport”: Main exhibition, Arsenale
Zaha Hadid memorial exhibition: Palazzo Franchetti

“Meeting on Architecture” with Prof. Dr. Philippe Block
August 27th, 2016: Structures / Materials, with Werner Sobek, Solano Benitez, Philippe Block, Simón Vélez, moderated by Alejandro Aravena: Teatro alle Tese, 3pm

Exhibition credits “Beyond Bending”
Concept: Philippe Block and John Ochsendorf
Design: Block Research Group, ETH Zurich
Authors: Block Research Group, Ochsendorf DeJong & Block, The Escobedo Group
Lighting: Lichtkompetenz, Artemide
Sponsors: Kathy and David Escobedo, ETH Zurich – Department of Architecture, MIT – School of Architecture + Planning, NCCR Digital Fabrication, Swiss Arts Council – Pro Helvetia, Artemide

Further Informations “Beyond Bending”
Official project website of the Block Research Group: Beyond Bending – BRG at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
ETH press release “Beyond Bending”: Beyond Bending – Factsheet
ETH press factsheet “Beyond Bending”: Beyond Bending – Factsheet
Additional images: Block Research Group at Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

Further Informations “Droneport”
Official project website of the Block Research Group: Beyond Bending – BRG at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
Images: Block Research Group at Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

Image credits: Iwan Baan