Poetic Structure: The Art of Engineering

An exhibition shines the spotlight on creative collaboration.

“Poetic Structure: Art + Engineering + Architecture” is on view at the MAK Center in West Hollywood through September 2nd, 2018. Video © Invisible Cities Studio. All photos © Fotoworks | Benny Chan unless otherwise noted.
Inside the Schindler House, an expansive range of materials is on view.

Breaking boundaries

Artists, engineers, and architects alike share a practice defined by inquiry, experimentation, and ingenuity. SOM has collaborated with visual artists for decades. Merging structural engineering expertise with artistic and architectural visions, these collaborations have led to the creation of works of art that challenge convention. From the Picasso sculpture at the Daley Center in Chicago, to Jaume Plensa’s “World Voices” installation at the Burj Khalifa, “Poetic Structure” gives a glimpse of the collaborative, creative process behind works of public art.

“The edges between what’s art and what’s engineering are very hard to define.”

“It takes a lot of engineering effort to make something appear effortless, seamless,” says SOM associate director Alessandro Beghini. “The artist has a vision, but also engineers have principles, and visions, and inspirations. It’s really about something that is more powerful than just the artistic vision; there’s also a structural story behind it.”

A mockup of one of the sculptural shapes in artist Janet Echelman’s “Dream Catcher” on display. SOM structural engineers collaborated with Echelman on the final sculpture (see below) as well on this part of the exhibition.
Janet Echelman’s “Dream Catcher” is suspended above the public plaza at The Jeremy Hotel in West Hollywood.

Scaling up

How do scale and form determine the built environment, and how does perspective impact the way humans experience scale? Through models, sketches, and a custom-made, suspended pavilion, “Poetic Structure” invites visitors to explore these questions.

“Poetic Structure” includes a series of structural models at 1:500 scale. Exterior walls are absent on each model to reveal the structural skeleton, showing how the buildings seamlessly integrate structure and architecture.
SOM’s structural team in Chicago built the hanging pavilion, while architects and engineers in our San Francisco office built the deck below it.
Visitors can interact with the pavilion to experience its dynamic structure.

Balancing act

Engineers must assess and balance many different variables, sometimes at odds with each other.​ For instance, the goals of efficiency (to minimize material usage, energy expenditure, and carbon emissions) and economy (to minimize cost and time) are not always aligned. The most materially efficient form may not be the most economical if it becomes too expensive to build.

Since 2013, SOM engineers and architects have tested the potential of mass timber structural systems for high-rise buildings. Image © SOM

An ongoing story

“Poetic Structure: Art + Engineering + Architecture” is the latest iteration of an exhibition first shown in 2016. At each venue, the show takes on a unique identity, tailored to the hosting venue and city.

At the Long Beach Civic Center Main Library, glue-laminated timber girders with plywood decking comprise the superstructure floor system, reducing the overall weight of the structure. Image © SOM | Nephew
SOM invented the Pin-Fuse Joint® to help buildings ride out earthquakes; it is one of several designs for seismic protection shown in the exhibition. Images © SOM
Video © Invisible Cities Studio



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