Convincing teenagers to do their math because it’s beautiful is like telling them to eat their spinach. Perhaps they might be swayed by visiting the newly refurbished mathematics gallery, the Winton, in London’s Science Museum. Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) transformed what had been a pass-through gallery into a destination space by building on the beauty of math. The architects suspended a rare wooden 1929 biplane in the middle of the lofty room, and enveloped it in the billowing curves of a tensile structure, with fabric tensed across a pretzel of looping steel. The airplane and the continuously curved envelope are the centerpiece of the newly re-installed gallery, which opened in December. The installation dramatically terminates a sequence of galleries, much as the Victory of Samothrace consummates a grand staircase at the Louvre. Other displays radiate out symmetrically to the perimeters of the large gallery, like ripples generated by a stone tossed into a pond.
Many intellectual vectors have pointed to the advent and development of swooping topological designs in the ZHA oeuvre during the last 15 years, and the storm of curves surrounding the biplane represents the most recent and complex iteration of a language made practicable by the computer. Suspicions that the architects have imposed formal preoccupations on an unsuspecting, architecturally innocent client more interested in pure math immediately dissolve when a video screen below the plane explains that the baroque cloud around the object visualizes airflow patterns described by equations scrolling across the screen.
In effect, visitors occupy the frozen image of a moment in an air tunnel, the curves evolving, revolving, and compounding continuously into more curves and counter-curves, like a Mobius strip squared. The equations and the airflow patterns on screen have an elegance of their own, reified above by a billowing “cloud” engineered and built with a comparable mathematical elegance. The aerial turbulence is not visual fiction or an architectural metaphor but a simulation of the real thing: what we don’t see out the window when we’re jetting 35,000 feet in the air.
The premise of the whole gallery, including some 80 exhibits, is to show the real-life consequences of abstract math, but the airflow installation, which is permanent, goes beyond representation to turn the mathematics of space and turbulence into a physically immersive experience. We see the air rolling in curves, and if we plant ourselves below and within the air patterns, we occupy the turbulence itself, drawn up into its vortices and projected into the voids beyond. We’re in a compounded tornado of motion that elicits a physical response akin to hiking at the edge of a precipitous drop, though here we feel we’re falling up rather than down. The experience recalls baroque buildings and frescoes, and the power of real architecture and painted illusion to incite the eye and provoke the body into physical reaction.
The architects strategized the whole room from the placement of the Handley Page “Gugnunc,” a biplane originally designed in a competition to promote safe air travel (it hasn’t been seen in public since it went into storage in 1939, when World War II broke out). The plane and the air patterns center the space and radiate geometries that organize the other exhibits into a field rippling in airflow patterns to the edges of the orthogonal room. The architects represent the air patterns that would have flowed around the biplane by bringing the sense of motion into the layout of displays and into the lighting patterns of a ceiling sculpted into topological relief: we’re in a gallery-wide wind tunnel, an environment predicated on airflow math.
There has always been a lot of foot traffic through the math gallery, which happens to be located in a pass-through structure connecting larger museum structures. But the curators wanted to increase the time visitors actually spent within the gallery. “We decided to do a pause point,” says Bidisha Sinha, the lead architect who worked with Patrik Schumacher and Zaha Hadid, who did not live to see the completion of the project. “The principle of minimal surfaces was used to develop and rationalize the geometry of the Pod structures,” says Sinha. “It is essentially the ability of a surface to minimize its surface area based on certain constraints.” Strangely, the space on the floor immediately beneath and around the plane, though an evocation of turbulence, is quiet, the calm within the surrounding storm.
Architecturally, the design reifies metaphors that have surrounded Hadid’s work from the early 1980s, when she first generated designs from conceptual explosions. From the beginning of her career, her work has dealt with force fields in which fragments adapt to each other in interactive relationships: a fragment moving in one direction affects the movement of another, all shifting in an environment viscous with forces. The notion of architectural force fields gave rise to her study of field conditions, implicating a litany of motion issues, including turbulence, vectors, eddies, streams, fluidity.
In the Math gallery, the installation is no longer a metaphor, abstraction, or evocation, but a representation of the phenomenon. The subtext is the algorithmic intelligence of the computers that enable the architects to conceive, draw, and build the complex curves of the airflow equations. The project benefited from the research done within ZHA by the Computation and Design research group (CoDe), a computational research atelier within the office headed by Shajay Bhooshan that studies, among other topics, parametric issues in architecture. In an essay on the gallery, Bhooshan writes about a “bespoke algorithm” helping to lay out the design, and previous research undertaken by Frei Otto in minimal surfaces such as soap-films stretched between wire boundaries.
At the press opening, curators expressed their pleasure that an exhibition bypassed on the way to somewhere else now encourages more visitors to linger. What had looked nerdy now looks cool.
Nevertheless, architecturally, the idea could have been pushed even farther. Had the architects edged the design into disequilibrium by, say, tilting the airplane or banking its wings to create airflow, the display could have been dynamized. Asymmetry would have thrown an exciting imbalance into the space, concussing the room with air patterns rippling in unexpected ways.
Even the Victory of Samothrace, who heads into the wind, is positioned asymmetrically, charging the whole regal staircase at the Louvre with a sense of energy. Hadid’s work has always been about energy, and this is certainly the case in the math gallery. Nevertheless, it might have been even more charged, and made the connection to Hadid’s founding principles that much stronger.