When Art, Architecture and Engineering Collide 1

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Monday, September 1st, 2014
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An Australian engineering icon has helped inspire a team of engineers, architects and artists win a national design competition.

The Engineers Australia Freefall Experience Design Ideas Competition invited engineers, designers and other creative professionals from around the country to design a major sculptural installation for the Engineers Australia Freefall Pin Oak Forest at the 250-hectare National Arboretum in Canberra.

The winning design was created by a collaborative team led engineers by Bligh Tanner and which included artists Susan Milne and Greg Stonehouse and architect Nick Flutter.

‘Freefall’ is a transparent flowing sculpture of corten and stainless steel and rock that moves through the trees, terminating as a spiral. Despite the complex form, the basic parts are very simple, consisting of weathering steel angles and stainless steel rods so standard, steel fabrication techniques are possible.

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“Considering the scale of the work which is 35 metres long, we are looking at automating the process with computer controlled CNC fabrication technology which would fabricate from the 3D model,” said Bligh Tanner director and principal structural engineer Rod Bligh.

The shape and sensory experience is inspired by the Cochlear implant – a world renowned Australian engineering feat.

“The sensory enhancement and enablement afforded by the Cochlear implant was a major inspiration for the design,” explained Bligh. “The intent is that the sculpture works at a passive level to enhance the sensory experience of the forest, however also uses an interactive system that senses the surroundings, interprets and stores this incoming data and then interacts with the visitors.”

To detect these stimuli, the sculpture will have a number of robust speakers and sonic actuators. Access will be real or Wi-Fi connected.

The response to the site was another core driver for the design – the sculpture is approached via the meandering line of a stormwater swale and uses the steep banks of the swales that it sits above to gain elevation while retaining a horizontal datum across the landscape.

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“This response, which combines an architectural approach to man-made intervention in the landscape, artistic integration of the landforms and movement across the site and engineering understanding of structural forms, materials and stormwater flow, is an example of the collaborative processes at play,” said Bligh.

3D computer modelling on Rhino proved an invaluable tool considering the scale of the work, which was overlaid on the sloping ground and moved through the trees. The modelling enabled the form of the sculpture to respond to and accentuate the ground form with manipulation of the model akin to clay being moulded by a sculptor’s hands. The team explored a variety of structural geometries, including cellular configurations that also played on the structure and patterning of shells in nature.

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The interplay of engineering, art and architecture has clearly helped deliver a response which works on many levels, and Bligh suggests that this may have been due to the fact that an engineer was in the lead role.

“Artistic egos were not challenged,” Bligh said. “It was all about how well we could realise the concept. I suspect that often in building projects where art commissions are included that fruitful collaboration is often not achieved, with each discipline protecting territory and the art being project managed independently.”

“In some sense this is understandable considering the separate commission and roles. But it is not hard to envisage improved outcomes from close artist and architect collaboration, along with other design professionals. The team is already looking at future art installation commissions beyond the traditional engineering role if only because every additional creative input can potentially improve the result.”

The judges described the winning entry as “superbly elegant in its engineering, immersive and contextual and above all intriguing for visitors to the forest.”

Realisation of the physical structure is intended to coincide with the 2019 Centenary of Engineers Australia, with further enhancement to correspond with the Centenary of the Canberra Division in 2027.

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  1. Joel Roberts

    What a beautiful looking structure! It blends in perfectly with its surrounds.

    This is another example of the overlap between architecture and engineering. It's good to see that instead of conflict, such an overlap in this case produced something wonderful.