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Mixed Innovation

Blending engineering and architecture through an art installation and an AIA research grant.

By Ben Schulman

Can the success of a piece of architecture be gauged by the number of car accidents it may cause? When the work is a sculptural expression of how new building materials can interact to compose a more sustainable and responsive skin—as was the case in the thermobimetals-centric “Bloom” installation from Doris Sung, AIA—the answer might be yes.

“Bloom” was the built manifestation of Sung’s inquiry into how newly developed smart materials can be utilized as self-shading and self-ventilating building components to create a whole. Sung, the founder of Los Angeles–based DO|SU Studio Architecture, completed the fabrication and installation of the hyperbolic paraboloid structure in 2011—in collaboration with design consultant Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, AIA, and structural engineer Matthew Melnyk—in the outdoor gallery space of Materials & Applications (M&A), a nonprofit dedicated to building a public culture of experimental architecture in Los Angeles.

The work was instigated by research presented in Sung’s “Smart Sun-Shading: A Demonstration of Smart Thermobimetals as a Building Skin,” the 2010 recipient of an AIA Upjohn Research Initiative grant. The grant provides material support up to $30,000 for projects that “enhance the value of design and professional practice knowledge.”

Understanding thermobimetals is to understand responsive movement. Two alloys of metal are laminated together and then react to temperature changes in a delicate dance of different rates of expansion. Fluctuations in temperature act as the catalyst to morph the form of the material and inform the design of the larger project. An objective of Sung’s Upjohn research was to demonstrate the responsive nature of bimetals as they “curl when heated and return to their original shape when cooled.”

“When I was searching for new materials to work with,” Sung says, “I asked the question, ‘Why can’t materials and architecture respond to changes in the environment?’ ” The “Bloom” project made that thought tangible. “There were so many different alloys of metal to choose from,” she says. “I worked with a manufacturer to find metals that would react in the range of 80 to 100 degrees [F]” to complement the outdoor installation in Los Angeles’ temperate climate.

Sung approached M&A with the proposal to build “Bloom.” “It was the perfect fit,” Sung says, referencing not only the overlapping beliefs between the organization and her intentions but also that M&A’s outdoor gallery space provided the perfect testing ground to gauge the performance of thermobimetals in action.

The process of building “Bloom” inverted the typical fabrication process, as the structure was built in nine layers from the top down, with a monocoque structural system integrated into the lightweight surface panel to provide added strength. The exhibit was displayed in the M&A courtyard from November 2011 through March 2013.

The “Smart Sun-Shading” report was Sung’s first Upjohn-recognized and -supported project. In 2015, she was awarded an additional Upjohn grant for her “Auto-Shading Windows: Smart Thermobimetal Solar Blinds,” a research project exploring the application of composite alloys that, when fused, expand at different rates in self-shading curtainwall systems that require no electrical energy and no computer controls. They respond smartly to the movement of the sun and will reduce energy usage during hot summer months. Sung is vocal about the role that the AIA Upjohn grant had on her individual research and eventual capacity to move beyond the theoretical. “The Upjohn funding had incredible impact on my research in both financial support and validation to secure other funding,” she says.

Sung believes the Upjohn can potentially be used to break down silos between the worlds of art and technology, revealing to engineers how architects can design with material solutions. “There are not many funders pushing innovation in architectural research,” she says. “The Upjohn is one of the only ones blending architecture, science, and art together.”

Thinking back on “Bloom,” Sung recalls how the project provoked a variety of responses. Within architectural circles, the exhibit served as an illustration of “programming materials,” she says. “We can ‘program’ certain types of behavior into individual pieces by the specific geometry we cut. And, by use of complex computation, we can make the aggregation of those pieces perform in complex ways, similar to biological movements.”

The large, unusually shaped structure also proved a draw for those simply passing by. On the day of the opening, rubbernecking drivers caused several car accidents. “Clearly, that was not the intention,” Sung says. “The hope was to impact the way people think about architecture.” And indeed she has.

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT in August 2017.

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