In Brazil, Mending an Urban Fabric with Geometry and Bamboo

With designer and artist Alison Grace Martin, architects and engineers are embracing “the logic of the weave.”

The New York Times, July 29, 2019
Gabriela Portilho

SÃO PAULO — On a Tuesday afternoon in early July, Alison Grace Martin, the British artist and weaver, joined a steady stream of Paulistanos along the elevated freeway that curves through downtown São Paulo. The two-mile “Minhocão” (named after a mythic “gigantic earthworm”) was closed to cars that day. The only traffic was on foot and bikes, skateboards and scooters. Picnickers lounged on the median sipping wine. Children ran after soccer balls. A retriever chased a coconut; a pit bull peed on a pile of bamboo.

The bamboo — freshly cut and split into strips about 20 feet long — had arrived with Ms. Martin and engineer James Solly, who were leading an urban design workshop, “High Line Paulista,” inspired loosely by Manhattan’s elevated greenway. Their students for the week had carried the strips, which would be put to use in an experimental dome construction, like a barn-raising, but with bamboo.

Plans have long been in the works to turn the Minhocão into a park. Since its opening in 1971, the freeway has been the subject of controversy: a concrete scar that bifurcated neighborhoods, smothering residents with noise and pollution.

“It ripped apart the urban fabric,” said Franklin Lee, from São Paulo, and director of the workshop with his partner Anne Save de Beaurecueil. (The workshop is part of the Architectural Association international visiting school program.) In January, after years of discourse and debate, the mayor, Bruno Covas, announced that the freeway would eventually be deactivated, finally making way for “Parque Minhocão.”

The goal of the workshop was to envisage structures — woven from bamboo, a sustainable and local resource — to provide shade for the park, or structures that would filter sunlight through roadway apertures and onto the dark streetscape below. Ms. Martin typically weaves small-scale paper objects — a torus, a basket, a bikini — or medium-size bamboo structures, like a tunneling garden trellis built with bamboo from her backyard. Lately, her work is attracting the attention of architects and engineers, and she has begun to pursue various collaborations.

“She’s miles ahead, exploring shapes we’ve never thought were possible,” said Pedro Reis, who runs the Flexible Structures Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne; Ms. Martin had visited his lab two weeks earlier. “We’re heading toward her with more mathematical and scientific methods.”

Mr. Solly, Ms. Martin’s partner for the workshop, is a director at Format Engineers in Bath, England. The firm is perhaps best known for its work with Arthur Mamou-Mani, the French architect, and his design for the 2018 Burning Man temple, “Galaxia,” built with triangular timber trusses fixed with metal brackets.

What Mr. Solly and Ms. Martin both appreciate about woven structures is that there are no nuts and bolts, and few fixings. For the most part, woven bamboo holds itself in place through the friction of the over-under-over-under intersections. And it’s a “form-finding” process. As Ms. Martin explained to her students, “It’s about letting the bamboo do what it wants to.”

Mr. Solly said he admired Ms. Martin’s craft-based perspective and logic-based shape creation. “What’s fun about Alison’s work is how beautiful it is, and it just comes from her head,” he said. “I could spend ages trying to work out on a computer what she does quickly in a tactile fashion.”

The two first met in person last fall at a conference on Advances in Architectural Geometry, and with the São Paulo workshop they found an opportunity to collaborate. As an engineer, Mr. Solly envisioned translating Ms. Martin’s impressive vocabulary of shapes onto bigger structures. “Let’s scale it up,” he said.

‘The logic of the weave’

Ms. Martin studied graphic design in the 1970s in London at what is now Central Saint Martins, and began weaving a decade later, when life took a detour. In 1985, her husband, Mauro Cuomo, an Italian computer scientist, left his job at Apple, and they moved back to Italy, eventually settling in the remote Tuscan hill-town of Fivizzano.

“That’s where one thing led to another,” Ms. Martin said. She focused on her family of five, and her “one-woman mission impossible” to make them self-sufficient on their small holding. The property had come cheap, thanks to a large stand of invasive bamboo.

“We had to chop the bamboo down every year to stop it from getting into the olives and vines and other things I was trying to grow,” she said. Eventually, she realized that the best way to deal with bamboo was to treat it as a resource, an opportunity.

She made practical garden structures, to support climbing plants — peas and borlotti beans, cucumbers, pumpkins and melons. She built chicken coops, raised beds, covers for hay and wood piles as well as shade structures. But she became frustrated with the bamboo construction techniques she found online.

It became clear that the weaving could be doing more of the work — “if I pushed it a bit,” she said. She made models with strips of paper, grew curious about the difference between biaxial and triaxial weaves (with two or three straight strips) and studied how non-Euclidean geometry could be applied to weaving.

For instance, a basket maker might start with a woven tessellation of hexagons. Swapping out one hexagon for a polygon with fewer sides — a pentagon, say — introduces a singularity and generates positive curvature, like the outer curve of a doughnut. Swapping in a polygon with more sides, such as an octagon, generates negative curvature, like a doughnut’s interior. The trick is intuiting, based on the desired structure, where in the weave to place this singularity, and what type of singularity it should be.

Ms. Martin searched the internet for images of hexagonal mesh structures resembling the objects she was creating. There she encountered Alan Mackay, a crystallographer who predicted the existence of quasicrystals, and Eiji Osawa, a chemist who predicted the structure of the buckminsterfullerene, a soccer-ball-shaped molecule made of 60 carbon atoms. These scientists made use of the same geometric rules, and often gave a nod to patterns they had observed in the weave of traditional bamboo vases and baskets.

“That was a revelation,” Ms. Martin said during her lecture. “I felt like I had something really nice in my hands.”

In 2011, she met Kenneth Snelson, a sculptor, at a seminar in Rome. His motto — “weaving, mother of tensegrity” — made an impression, as did Anni Albers, a weaver, and Ruth Asawa, a sculptor who once said: “Sculpture is like farming. If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.”

“That’s the way I see things,” said Ms. Martin. “I’m not dedicated all day every day to my oeuvre. A little bit every day adds up to something.”

In 2015, she won first prize at the Future Vision contest organized by the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures. Her entry, a 13-foot-wide hyperbolic Lycra-patchwork mobile, won out over 27 competing entries from M.I.T., Cambridge University, and the engineering office ARUP, among others.

More recently, she began collaborating with Phil Ayres, an architect with the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. “The key insight that I got from Alison is how you control double curvature in the weave system,” he said.

Last year they published a paper, “Beyond the Basket Case,” investigating how to translate traditional weaving knowledge into computational design tools. Now they are exploring how to make the rules of weaving attainable at an architectural scale (possibly using robotics).

“There is a lot to learn from her in terms of the logic of the weave,” he said.

‘The free and sensual curve’

The plan for that Tuesday on the Minhocão was to build a dome from 30 strips of bamboo, harvested the weekend before from the hillside garden of James Elkis, a pioneer of the medium, who lives southwest of São Paulo. (Ms. Martin had seen his bamboo constructions online about 15 years ago, and when Mr. Elkis mentioned that he now makes bicycle frames from bamboo, Ms. Martin began twisting a strip into a wheel.)

The group — 27 aspiring young architects and urban and landscape designers from around the world — had done a practice run with their tutors on the weekend, with limited success. Their dome, woven upright, was skewed and pointy at the top, rather than round.

A crucial part of the workshop curriculum was “digital parameterization” — simulating structures on the computer and tweaking design parameters from one iteration to the next. For example, a key software tool, K2Engineering, designed by Cecilie Brandt-Olsen, predicts a material’s internal “bending stress” based on the applied force.

Mr. Solly, having crunched the bamboo’s numbers and consulted the paper model, proposed a solution for the skewing: the dome could instead be woven flat on the ground and then “popped up.”

Ms. Martin thought that bending the strips all at once might cause breakage. But they were keen to get a proof of concept, one way or another. Mr. Solly said, “We’ll carry a pile of bamboo up there and see if we get arrested!”

Setting out from the workshop’s base at Escola Da Cidade, a private college for architecture and urbanism, the bamboo caravan wound its way toward the freeway, occasionally breaking into song — “Believe,” by Cher, and “Evidências,” by the Brazilian duo Chitãozinho & Xororó. The group walked up an exit ramp, found a favorable site and began marking the dome’s 50-foot circumference in chalk on the roadway.

Visible on the skyline was Oscar Niemeyer’s sinuous residential high rise, the Edificio Copan. “It’s not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard, inflexible,” Niemeyer once said. “What attracts me is the free and sensual curve — the curve that I find in the mountains of my country.”

Once all the strips were woven on the roadway — combining weaving principles with a fivefold symmetry pattern typical of Islamic geometry — the students moved swiftly, lifting the spray of bamboo and bending down the verticals. The dome popped into shape nicely, as Mr. Solly had predicted. “James deserves all the credit,” said Ms. Martin. Still, she told the students, “the computer is not your only tool. There’s a lot of information in the paper model.”

The enterprise drew a crowd, although the police, cruising by on motorbikes, hardly took notice. Felipe Rodrigues, an architect and a member of the Parque Minhocão Association, who was walking a full lap of the freeway while listening to NPR, stopped by to discuss the complexity of the space. “It’s alchemy,” he said: precious public space, in a city where shopping malls are known as the “Paulista beach.”

“The park already exists,” he said. “It’s already here. The park is the people who use it. I don’t see it anymore as an elevated highway. This is a platform for activities on which anything can happen.”

For the remainder of the week, the students assembled in design teams and envisaged their own structures for the park. One team went for a decorative, 50-foot Möbius loop. Another produced a rolling swoosh that became an irresistible tunnel for skateboarders when installed on the Minhocão during the workshop’s final day.

“It was wild fun,” said Camila Calegari Marques, an architect and a Martin groupie of sorts, having participated in a 2017 workshop in Barcelona that involved weaving with wooden strips.

And the dome, it turned out, not only assembled well but also disassembled and reassembled efficiently — it went up again during the finale. Ms. Martin said, “We had even more useful structural properties than I had envisaged: deployability, nice structural stability and highly portable.”

At one point, the group stood back from their dome, admired it and then looked to Mr. Lee: Where to next?

“Na curva!” he said: At the curve. They hoisted the dome overhead — with Mr. Lee’s 6-year-old daughter underneath, seated on Mr. Solly’s shoulders — and, singing again, walked it down the Minhocão to the desired bend in the road.