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Werner Sobek—Art of Engineering

News | May 1, 2000 | By:

Mention of the Institute for Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart, Germany conjures inspiring visions of sweeping tensile fabric innovations and wafer-thin marvels of engineering artistry. At the heart of the Institute’s reputation for design excellence stands director Werner Sobek.

In his new book, Werner Sobek—Art of Engineering author Werner Blaser introduces us to the remarkable professional career and teaching philosophy of the man at the helm of the Institute’s study of lightweight structures.

Published with full English and German text, the book relates how Sobek continually applies his philosophy of self-adaptive systems to the process of engineering buildings that reconform their structure and function to accommodate both the changing needs of the occupants as well as the building’s changing external conditions. Many of Sobek’s creations are designed to imitate the adaptability of living organisms. One example is his Metafort office installation in Aubervilliers, Paris. Sobek created a building envelope made of “cell-like” tiles suspended in a lightweight grid structure. The building skin is composed of three types of cells: light-transmitting cells that control the amount of daylight entering the building, ventilation cells that control the air flow within the structure and energy-absorbing cells that use solar rays to power the other cells.

In the chapter “Convertible Structures,” Blaser shows how Sobek integrates his diverse knowledge of engineering (including architectural, aircraft, automobile, textile and structural engineering) to create structures that are a symbiosis of machine and fabric, such as the Couverture des Arénes de Nimes. This historic landmark Roman amphitheater in France was used extensively in the summer months for music concerts, tennis matches and other events, but the venue was unsuitable for winter events due to inclement weather. Sobek joined the architects Finn Geipel and Nicolas Michelin to create a temporary inflatable roof that, at the start of every winter season, hoists itself in place on hydraulically-operated mechanical arms. The robotic arms bring the roof down again every spring. Erected in 1988, this structure still stands as the largest-span inflatable structure in the world.

Another example detailed in Blaser’s book is the Arena in Zaragoza, a bullfighting ring in Spain that needed a roof—one which could be deployed quickly in the event of rain without disturbing the crowds of spectators. Sobek created a retractable roof spanning 95m (312 ft.) that gathers its folds in a tight blossom—high above the center of the arena—until the first warning of rain. At the touch of a button, the blossom unfurls, slowly and silently expanding to reach the perimeter of the sheltered area. Ring-side fans regularly applaud this five-minute spectacle, which is orchestrated with the help of 16 cable-crawling motors.

Another example is Sobek’s rotating umbrellas. In this prototypical Sobek creation, a textile membrane is centered at the top of a vertical mast and rotated by a built-in motor so that the fabric is opened and stretched by centrifugal force into the form of a shelter. Spinning patterns of color are the special appeal of this creation.

In addition to detailing Sobek’s buildings, Werner Sobek—Art of Engineering reveals a wealth of other innovative structures such as stairways, bridges and facades of stainless-steel fabric. In all, some 30 different projects are amply documented. Although the photographs are all in black and white, there is sufficient visual imagery to leave readers with a satisfactory understanding. The occasional line drawing detail adds spice to this engineering feast.

This book is a welcome find for those who have always suspected that engineering is as much an art as it is a science, and a thorough reference of Sobek, who practices engineering in just that way.

Percy Hooper, assistant professor at North Carolina State University’s School of Design, is a contributing editor to Fabric Architecture.

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