Synthesis Design + Architecture Pure Tension Pavilion
Fabric Images/ Volvo Car Italia Display pavilion

To showcase its high-tech V60 automobile, Volvo Car Italia wanted a exhibition pavilion that was iconic, portable, easy to assemble, and suggestive of the vehicle's three modes of propulsion: diesel, electric, and hybrid. Synthesis Design + Architecture (SDA), in Los Angeles, won the international design competition by tacking on two requirements of its own: The pavilion had to charge the car’s battery and fit inside the back of the V60 for storage. In short, it would become a practical, essential accessory that embodies the car’s sustainability message.

Synthesis Design + Architecture Pure Tension Pavilion
Synthesis Design + Architecture Form-finding exercises

Inspired by the lightweight, tensile membrane roofs of Frei Otto, SDA founder and principal Alvin Huang, AIA, and his team explored potential configurations for the pavilion using Grasshopper plug-in Kangaroo to simulate how materials would respond to forces, as well as through physical models built with wire and nylon stocking. The team added visual interest to a conventional tent-form with the pavilion’s three apices, a nod to the V60’s three modes of operating. To add stability and lift to ensure clearance for bystanders, the team introduced two catenoid tunnels in the membrane.

Synthesis Design + Architecture Pure Tension Pavilion
Synthesis Design + Architecture The geometry of the tensioned membrane was driven by the direction of the seams.

The design was only the first step. After the Pure Tension pavilion won the competition in June 2013, SDA had four months to turn the concept into reality. The studio originally envisioned a fabric membrane with a free-form geometry that was supported by carbon-fiber rods. But that would be too costly.

So SDA collaborated with structural engineers at the Los Angeles office of BuroHappold Engineering and fabricators at Elgin, Ill.–based Fabric Images to develop a frame of 24 pre-bent 3-inch-diameter aluminum pipes that slip-fit together and through neoprene sleeves in the pavilion membranes much like tent poles. The team also simplified the frame’s geometry into five arcs that create what Huang says is a hybrid between a hyperbolic paraboloid and a minimal surface.

Synthesis Design + Architecture Pure Tension Pavilion
Synthesis Design + Architecture Stress diagrams

Next came enabling the pavilion to harvest solar power. The firm wanted to determine which thin photovoltaic–panel layout would capture the most solar energy. Since the structure would eventually be used in different locations and orientations, the team had to settle on one location on which to base their heat map. They picked Rome since the pavilion would debut in Italy. Future commercial versions could use a generic layout of panels optimized for the pavilion’s shape.

The team painstakingly hand-stitched the two curvilinear fabric membranes from a series of flat pieces, and then stitched the 252 flexible solar panels to the mesh, tucking the wires into fabric channels. “It was a highly digital design process with a highly manual assembly process,” Huang says.

Synthesis Design + Architecture Pure Tension Pavilion
Synthesis Design + Architecture The digitally conceived form was realized by hand-sewing the fabric pieces.

The prototype fits into two 65-inch-by-15-inch-square cases and can be assembled and dismantled by two people in less than an hour. After piecing the frame together, the users would zip the neoprene sleeves around it, and then zip together two vinyl-encapsulated, polyester-mesh membranes to create the final structure. The aluminum frame pushes outward while the tensioned skin pulls inward, holding the pavilion’s form in equilibrium.

Synthesis Design + Architecture Pure Tension Pavilion
Synthesis Design + Architecture Pavilion assembly instructions
Synthesis Design and Architecture Pure Tension Pavilion
Synthesis Design + Architecture The 252 photovoltaic panels can generate 450 watts in optimal sun conditions--enough to charge a car battery in 12 hours.

Though juror Steven Rainville was initially lukewarm to the project’s marketing focus, he respected its multifunctionality. Overall, the design and fabrication process captivated the jury. “The pavilion has a magical lightness,” juror Marc Fornes said. He also appreciated that SDA is already refining the pavilion's design, in collaboration with Volvo’s technical team in China, to produce a limited commercial edition that is smaller, easier to assemble, and more efficient in charging the car. Though the current prototype can charge a fully depleted car battery in about 12 hours, Huang acknowledges it is not “the most efficient solar device.”

Synthesis Design + Architecture Pure Tension Pavilion
Fabric Images / Volvo Car Italia Installation
Watch this episode of our visit to Synthesis Design + Architecture.

See all the 2015 R+D Award winners here.

Project Credits
Project: Pure Tension Pavilion, Italy
Client: Volvo Car Italia
Design Firm: Synthesis Design + Architecture, Los Angeles—Alvin Huang, AIA (principal); Filipa Valente, Chia-ching Yang, Behnaz Farahi, Yueming Zhou
Structural Engineer: BuroHappold Engineering
Electrical Engineer: Ascent Solar