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Light Structures-Structures of Light

News | January 1, 2006 | By:

This 2nd edition of Horst Berger’s latest book will be highly valued by design professionals, teachers and students as it follows the first edition in its format, contents and clarity. The book’s many excellent illustrations and photographs are especially welcome to this reviewer and insures the book’s popularity with architects. The first chapter introduces the reader to the fundamentals of fabric forms and provides some insight into the author’s design philosophies. The next chapter discusses domes as the dominant forms in antiquity. Berger appreciates talented designers and builders throughout history, as evident in the way he describes the Pantheon, the yurt as a universal dwelling, the Hagia Sophia, the Duomo and Mimar Sinan’s incredible works. He progresses through thin shells admiring the works of Felix Candela and Heinz Isler, ending the chapter with the revolutionary U.S. Pavilion for the 1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan, designed by his then business partner David Geiger. Berger’s dwelling upon domes throughout history becomes obvious because the Pavilion is actually an air-supported, almost flat dome using a cable-restrained membrane made of PVC/polyester.

Chapter Three takes us from the tipis of native Americans and the ubiquitous “black tents” found in most deserts of the world to cable bridges and cable-net buildings. Professor Berger again expresses great admiration for the designers of these works by Eero Saarinen, Lev Zetlin, Matthew Nowicki, Frei Otto and Berger’s contemporary, Jörg Schlaich. Except for the ridiculous sketch of a camel at the chapter’s opening and the omission of the pioneering contributions of Robert LeRicolais, I found this chapter most enlightening.

Berger’s talents as a teacher come through when he explains the theory behind tensile structures in a straightforward and simple manner. For a subject that many find complex and perplexing, Berger deftly removes much of the mystery. In Chapter Five he shows his extensive knowledge of the subject by providing a thorough run-through of the weaves, fabrics, and coatings used in modern tensile structures.

My favorite chapter in the book, Chapter Six, starts with a very thorough treatment of a spider at work, metaphorically tied nicely into a description of Berger’s first fabric structures, the Great Adventure tents for a theme park of the same name in New Jersey. (Here, I feel that he missed an opportunity to mention architect John Shaver’s pioneering three-masted design for the LaVerne College Student Activities Center in California. It was constructed about the same time and was the first permanent roof made of Teflon-coated fiberglass.) The rest of the chapter is a series of case studies of the master’s most significant buildings. Berger truly is at his best describing his own work. Among others, he includes Canada Place in Vancouver, the gigantic Haj Terminal (the largest building in the world), and Riyadh Stadium, (the largest sports arena in the world) both in Saudi Arabia. Along the way, he diligently gives credit to other members of the design-build team. He also, unlike many writers, includes some connection details.

He includes many smaller designs in the chapter, most quite successful, but he is not afraid to describe his frustration about the lack of acceptance of his fabric “shell” structure composed of four A-frames and four “vaults” of fabric. He had hoped these simple modules would serve, among other ways, as emergency housing in disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. In his own words, “Clearly, this structure did not register as architecture, nor as something useful, exciting or beautiful.” However, I was so impressed with the design, that in 1992, I had my architecture students build a rather large one on the campus of Florida A&M University.

Horst includes my favorite of his structures, the roof of the outdoor pavilion at the San Diego Convention Center. This is a triumph for the flying mast, first used by Frei Otto in the Munich Olympics cable-net stadium. When reading this section, don’t overlook the clever yet simple way he achieves the cantilevers at the two ends of the structure.

He concludes the case studies with his latest masterpiece, the Denver Airport. If you haven’t been there, the building is worth the trip. I cannot say that about any other airport. The main hall is a huge clear space, 70m by 1000m, covered by a ridge-and- valley roof first used by Berger in the much smaller Independence Mall Pavilion at the Philadelphia Bicentennial in 1976.

Professor Berger closes the book with a chapter describing a formfinding computer program that he has developed that is much more user-friendly than others. (More information can be found on his website, Throughout the book, however, he praises the making of physical models of stretch fabric as necessary to the design process. As a teacher he believes strongly in hand-eye-brain coordination.

Nevertheless, the book suffers from imprecise editing in places, occasionally being marred by annoying mispellings and typos. My only real disappointment is that the book lacks the numerous color photographs present in the first edition. On the other hand, that is probably what makes this edition so reasonably priced.

Professor Berger is a very talented designer of fabric structures, arguably the best in the world. At times he seems to be what many talented structural engineers are, ie, a frustrated architect. He is a good writer and an outstanding teacher.

R.E. Shaeffer, PE, is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture.

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