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The Cloud: Part architectural shelter, part public art

Exteriors | July 1, 2011 | By:

This temporary installation was a design-build exercise for architecture students.

When University of Minnesota architecture professor Benjamin Ibarra-Sevilla determined that the concepts of “structure, geometry and handcraft” would frame a temporary project, what did he and graduate students Kirk Mazzeo and Josh Grenier build? A structure as unbricklike as a cloud? Exactly. In vivid chartreuse and suspended in an open rectangular cage, “The Cloud” hovered, danced and shape-shifted with the wind just, well, like a cloud. That clouds are ephemeral and this was constructed from ½-in. PVC pipe, ripstop fabric, twine and fishing line didn’t diminish its cloudness a bit.

Part architectural shelter, part public art, “The Cloud” was conceived as a design-build project. Its home was in Silverwood Park in St. Anthony Village, Minn., just northeast of Minneapolis, through the summer of 2010.

“Visitors were curious,” recalls Ibarra-Sevilla. “Small kids loved it. They called it ‘the worm.’” “The Cloud” also generated animated discussions among park visitors—those who considered it dynamic, fun and intriguing, and those who found it an intrusion upon the natural park landscape.

The project consisted of an open, rectangular armature that measured 3m by 13.7m by 3.7m and could be entered from either end. Its manually fabricated columns and trusses were constructed from cut and flattened PVC pipe, later wound with twine. Twine was strung between the columns and trusses giving the project a veiled, more organic and integrated presence in its natural state. “The Cloud” proper, cut from multiple shapes of ripstop fabric and assembled by Harris Warehouse, was suspended from the trusses by varying lengths of fishing line that gave it its undulating peaks and valleys, inspiring the “worm” description. Recalling René Magritte’s surrealist painting “The Listening Room,” in which a huge green apple fills a small room with a window, the project’s rectangular chamber had a “window” on one side that gave visitors an unobstructed view of the woods nearby.

Ibarra-Sevilla, whose practice includes designing pure geometric forms and vaulting systems, determined the project could be a teachable moment for his students. According to the professor (who is a native of Mexico City), they needed to understand the implications of taking a computer-generated form and actualizing it in real life. He also wanted the students to learn the importance of labor and detailing: they cut and flattened the PVC pipe, built the structure by hand using only simple tools, wound the twine and suspended the cloud. Easier said than done.

“The two problems to be solved were this,” says Ibarra-Sevilla. “How does one create a double curvature form—one that curves in both directions—out of a flat piece of fabric? And how is a physically sound structure created from very light materials durable enough to withstand Minnesota’s late summer storms?” According to Ibarra-Sevilla, the fabric’s cut parabolas and circumferences created a complex geometry that generated the ultimate shape of the fabric canopy, one that needed to be buoyant in the wind. “It was always moving,” adds Ibarra-Sevilla.

Although the project’s shelf life was short, Ibarra-Sevilla calls it a success. Although labor intensive, the students accomplished a complex task. It also had aesthetic legs. When the structure was crowned by a double rainbow one late summer evening, it seemed to reinforce the visual and psychological power of the incongruous, a concept Magritte—and Ibarra-Sevilla, Mazzeo and Grenier—understand implicitly.

Contributing editor Mason Riddle writes regularly for Fabric Architecture about art and design.

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