The Shadow Pavilion is both a structure and a space made entirely of holes. The surface of the pavilion, which is installed at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens at the University of Michigan, is made of 100-plus, laser-cut cones that vary in size. Beyond testing the limits of sheet aluminum, the cones funnel light, moisture, and sound to the interior space.

Yet the outcome seems almost beside the point: It was the process that most intrigued the jury. The design team, led by Karl Daubmann, a principal of PLY Architecture in Ann Arbor, Mich., and an associate professor at the University of Michigan, conducted an exhaustive study of geometric patterns and presented them compellingly in what juror Cristobal Correa called “a tight little book.” In addition to admiring the project’s formal investigations, the jury lauded the submission for embracing materials testing.

Drawing analogies from botany—specifically, the study of phyllotaxis, the arrangement of leaves—the underlying research set out to give material and process the upper hand, letting form emerge as the secondary result of experimentation. The team decided to work with aluminum because its low cost allowed for repeated study of different shapes and sizes. An abundance of local shops equipped with cutting technologies also aided that choice.

Early studies of circles and cones progressed quickly to complex three-dimensional plots. Shadow studies examined the effects of changes in the cone angle, depth, and arrangement. Additional exercises involved Rhino-scripting the cones onto a predetermined surface to analyze strength-giving connection points. To minimize waste, the team looked at which cone shapes (flat vs. steep) made the most efficient use of the material.

Initially, the jury regarded the project as mere sculpture—form, but no function. “But I like that it’s additive,” juror Frank Barkow said. “And the cone has a certain multitasking quality where it conditions the light. At the same time, it doesn’t require an extraneous structural system to hold it up.”