ABSTRACT | The Dragon Skin Pavilion is an architectural art installation that challenges and explores the spatial, tactile, and material possibilities architecture is offered today by revolutions in digital fabrication and manufacturing technology. The pavilion, built in the winter of 2012, is a study on how architects can reassert control over parts of the construction process previously surrendered to manufacturers and contractors, and how this enables them to materialise discoveries from the digital into the built environment.
The Pavilion is a non-ruled, double curved, freeform structure which uses gravity as a driver for its shape and combines its geometric considerations with mechanical aspects of its fabrication and assembly. The structure starts from an equilibrium surface derived from two catenary lines that form the intersection with the ground plane. Within the constrained working space of this surface wooden shells are distributed. Their location and orientation is iteratively fine-tuned to allow for a rigid interlocking with a simple sliding joint. The shells are made from a new environmentally friendly “post-formable” plywood, which incorporates layers of adhesive film to allow easy single-curved bending without the need for steam or extreme heat. The dimensions of the shells are selected to avoid material loss: a CNC mill divides twenty-one 8x4ft plywood sheets into eight identical square panels, and accurately cuts the unique connection slots that are programmed into the pavilion geometry. Using one single mould, all panels are bent into the same single-curved shape. Within six hours these numbered shells are assembled by slotting them into place without using any plan drawings, glue or screws. The underlying equilibrium surface geometry removes all internal forces and deformations from the pavilion, which becomes a self-supporting, free-standing, light-weight skin.
By radically disintegrating the enclosing shell, the feature one counts on for structural stability dissolves, making the whole pleasantly risky. The simplicity of the components and the familiarity of the single material contradict with the scale and visual complexity of the project which is absent of any additional support. The resulting exhilarating confusion is complimented with caution, caused by the aggressive, animal-like exterior skin full of spikes, a design feature that followed gratis from the fabrication concept. Upon entering the space one feels a thrill from the discomfort of needing to solve the structural puzzle before feeling safe enough to absorb the twisting perspectives and the light bouncing off the rich, natural textures.
By actively working with plywood’s high structural performance, and by connecting geometry with mechanics into one single integrated system, the unlimited design freedom we experience digitally can be grounded and materialised in a sustainable way. By combining fully controllable, scripted environments, engineering-driven geometries and real-time performance evaluation tools with developments in digital fabrication, the door is opened for architects to incorporate the efficiencies, low cost and sustainability from conventional mass–production into their formally liberated digital world. In addition, the inherent aesthetic values and effects of informed computational processes open the door for a challenging new architectural design language.