eisler on grasshopper


My colleague, Rob Whitehead, has been in and out of the grad studio all semester, brimming with even more enthusiasm than usual.  Two grad students have been doing an independent study project with him that marries digital methods with Heinz Eisler’s intuitive form finding with fabric and shells.

The results, as you can see there, are pretty spectacular.  One of Eisler’s methods was to basically take Gaudi’s trick (or, OK, Hooke’s) of hanging a tensile element like a chain, tracing its shape, and then inverting it and constructing it out of a compressive material.  This gives you a pure compression structure, and it’s as simple a form-finding exercise as it gets.

Eisler, of course, used fabric and concrete instead of chains and stone.  His shell structures were complicated to build, though, since they still required complex formwork to achieve the geometrically complicated curves that created such pure structure.


Which is where the digital stuff comes in.  What these guys managed was a form-finding exercise that was then translated into a CNC-cutting exercise that produced several dozen of these light polycarbonate panels, complete with foldable ribs that, when attached to one another, created structural ribs.  At just under 200 pounds, the resulting structure now occupies–temporarily–our building’s back yard, and its snuffleupagus-like massing and intuitively strong shape has drawn all sorts of approving stares.


Polycarbonate was, of course, something that Eisler didn’t have for most of his career, but it’s the digital process that is most interesting here.  For a while now, there’s been a tendency to see the new tools as a way to make any form the architect wants.  But there’s a growing body of research like this, that looks at making efficient structural or acoustic forms.  Both the shape-finding and the digital fabrication are important advances that let us figure out the lightest possible shape for a given loading configuration, and then let us build it fairly easily.  This went up over a weekend, and while Bart and Nate are pretty skillful folks, there’s nothing to say this couldn’t have been built by far less competent builders.

Rob points out that this is the first large-scale iteration of several.  They want to refine the process a bit to take care of more effective load paths at the base (if you squint, you can see that there are a couple of props down by the paws).  And the detailing could stand some refinement–the zip ties are charming in a sort of first-try sort of way, but down the road this wants to be a bit slicker, no?

Eisler, famously, had exactly one computer in his office.  It was used, exclusively, by the office secretary for word processing….

5 thoughts on “eisler on grasshopper

  1. Thanks for the succinct and complimentary write up, Tom. Some other stats about it: $400, 2 days of fabrication and erection work can turn 10 cu. ft. of raw material into 465 cu. ft. of beautiful shelter.


  2. Tom & Rob,

    Wondering if you all have played around with RhinoVault from the Block Research Group at the ETH… Very cool Rhino Plugin that is relatively intuitive and allows you to “negotiate” between sketched forms and stable forms refined by the plugin. You can, with more advanced versions, combine vaults. Check out the thin tile vaults that they made using forms refined in the software. My students built a vault with it, in the Fall using custom “coffee table bricks” that they manufactured and then disassembled to give away around school.


    • Good to hear from you, Chris, and honored by your presence! That sounds like a good tool/toy…will check it out and pass along to Rob. Hope all’s well down south…


  3. Please let me know if you’re looking for a article author for your blog. You have some really great posts and I think I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love to write some articles for your blog in exchange
    for a link back to mine. Please send me an email if interested.



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