Active origami structures can be applied to a variety of uses and scales.

Credit: Photo courtesy Penn State University

Active origami structures can be applied to a variety of uses and scales.

Architectural practice is obviously tuned to a particular range of scales that relates to sheltering the human body. However, the architecture of forms—or morphological constructs defined by mathematical formulas—operates at any scale. Because architects and other building construction professionals are particularly familiar with manipulating geometry, they may be able to contribute this morphological expertise to nonbuilding applications as well.

The National Science Foundation has recently recognized this potential by awarding a $2 million grant to a team of engineers at Penn State University. Led by principal investigator and mechanical engineering professor Mary Frecker, the team has proposed the study of origami structures that can relate to a variety of scales and uses. Entitled "Multi-field Responsive Origami Structures—Advancing the Emerging Frontier of Active Compliant Mechanisms," the engineers' project proposes the study of responsive geometries that actively fold or unfold as required based on contextual needs.

Using software tools that enable so-called "predictive multi-scale modeling," the researchers aim to simulate these active geometrical constructs to develop new smart materials for a variety of fields. Potential applications that professor Frecker and her team have suggested include responsive aircraft, prefabricated space structures, noninvasive surgery techniques, and adaptive robotics. As this broad range of types and scales of uses suggests, geometry offers more than simply formal knowledge—rather, the wisdom of forms can be extended widely beyond the typical domain of building.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.