A metal ring woven with mesh, like a giant embroidery hoop, suspends from the ceiling. Suddenly, the netting moves and breaks the plane of the ring in opposing directions, creating three convex or concave funnels. Within seconds, the infundibuliform (meaning funnel- or cone-like) shapes shift again, collapsing into themselves, transitioning from mountain peaks to vortices and back again.

This exploration of kinetic architecture is the culmination of years of research and development in digital modeling, fabrication, and robotics by Kathy Velikov, AIA, and Geoffrey Thün, directors of Ann Arbor, Mich.–based RVTR, in collaboration with fellow University of Michigan faculty member Wes McGee, a principal and co-founder of Boston-based Matter Design. Computational design tools have made kinetic architecture increasingly attainable in theory, but translating digital simulations into physical objects has remained a stumbling point. Using Rhino, Grasshopper, and Kangaroo, the team created a design program that simulates what shapes and movements are possible given the constraints of physics and space, and tested applied forces on an extruded-elastomeric mesh. “It allows designers a one-to-one and immediate way to visualize something that’s very complex,” Velikov says.

Data gathered by the simulations guided the unique geometry of a mesh pattern that would enable the form to lie flat, stretch up, or distend down. Using a custom-built extruder, the team 3D printed flat panels of the tensile net surface with the thermoplastic elastomer. The physical net mimics the behavior simulated in the digital model spot-on.

Kinetic forms can be used to tune rooms acoustically or to alter the geometry of an enclosure for different lighting conditions. The team’s digital modeling and physical fabrication process is an “ingenious new technique,” juror Elizabeth Whittaker, AIA, says. “The formal possibilities seem endless.”


See all the 2016 R+D Award winners here.

Design Firms: Matter Design, Boston · RVTR, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Toronto · University of Michigan
Primary Investigators: Wes McGee, Geoffrey Thün, Kathy Velikov
Design Research Associate: Daniel Tish
Fabrication Assistants: Asa Peller, Dustin Brugman, Andrew Kremers, Andrew Wald, Iram Moreno Pinon
Wireless Sensing Adviser: Jerome Lynch
Technical Partners: Buckeye Polymers; Industrial Fabricating Systems; Beckhoff
Funding: Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning: 2016 Research Through Making Program; University of Michigan Office of Research: Small Projects Grant
Photography: Peter Smith