# Twisted Architecture

September 11, 2009 — Christopher Carlson, Senior User Interface Developer, User Interfaces

I didn’t set out to tie knots in Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower or wrinkle his Gherkin, but I got carried away. It’s one of the occupational hazards of working with *Mathematica*.

It started with an innocent experiment in lofting, a technique also known as “skinning” that originated in boat-building. I wanted to explore some three-dimensional forms, and a basic lofting function seemed like a quick ticket to results. I dashed off the function `Loft`, which takes a stack of three-dimensional contours and covers it with a skin of polygons.

`Loft` uses *Mathematica*‘s `GraphicsComplex` primitive to factor out the geometries of the polygons from their topologies. The contour point coordinates are collected in the first argument. The second argument is a list of `Polygons` whose coordinate values are replaced by integer indices into the coordinate list. My `Loft` function was straightforward to write, but required a little fancy footwork with indexing to get the polygons wired onto the points in the right way.

I tried out `Loft` by embedding it in a `Manipulate`, and was happily on my way discovering some interesting new forms. You can download the Demonstration to try it out yourself.

Even this trivial parameterization of a scaled and twisted half-sphere yields an amazing variety of forms, each of which suggests interesting avenues to explore.

The last of those forms brought to mind Norman Foster’s Swiss Re building in London, nicknamed by the locals “the Gherkin.”

I wondered how convincingly I could model the Gherkin in *Mathematica*. It was immediately obvious that my simple `Loft` function was not up to the task of replicating the white diagrid framing structure employed in the Gherkin, so I set out first to generalize `Loft`. One thing lead to another, and soon I had the much larger but much more flexible function `Build`, with which I could explore not only Foster’s Gherkin but a large number of other architectural forms based on the simple idea of hanging panes, panels, mullions, and framing members on grids of points.

My `Build` function works like `Loft`, but gives me much more flexibility in specifying elements like tubes and polygons and how they are repeated on the contour grid. Like `Loft`, `Build`‘s first argument is a set of contours. The second argument is a `Graphics3D`-style primitive list whose primitives contain an extra argument that specifies how they should be repeated on the contour grid.

If you imagine the contours numbered from bottom to top and the points in the contours numbered from left to right, {point, contour} indices correspond to coordinates in an integer coordinate system. The primitive

`Polygon`[{{0,0},{1,2},{1,0}}] appears on a contour grid like this.

A primitive that has no extra repetition argument is automatically repeated to tile the grid. Explicit control over the tiling is had by specifying a pair of tiling translations, as in Polygon[{{0,0},{1,2},{1,0}},{{2,0},{1,1}}]. That polygon tiles the grid like this:

In linear primitives like `Line` and `Tube`, the repetition argument specifies the frequency with which the primitive is repeated horizontally, or for horizontal primitives, vertically. By combining repetitions of polygons, tubes, and lines, `Build` gives me great flexibility in describing assemblages of panes and structural members. Here’s an abstract structure I generated to exercise all of `Build`‘s primitives.

With `Build` in hand, my next task was to determine the shape of the Gherkin’s profile and build a corresponding contour grid. Always on the lookout for easy results, I experimented first with skinny ellipsoids, and discovered that the top of the Gherkin is too pointed for an ellipsoid to model. No other simple mathematical candidate shape occurred to me, so I resorted to freeform design using splines.

I recalled this Potter’s Wheel Demonstration written by my colleague Yu-Sung Chang for modeling freeform solids of revolution. It was just what I needed.

With a reference photo of the Gherkin in a separate notebook, I dragged the control points of the spline profile until I had an acceptable approximation of the Gherkin’s shape.

When I was satisfied with the result, I used the `Manipulate`‘s “Paste Snapshot” button to get the source code for the figure. From the source code, I cut the spline control-point coordinates and pasted them into a `BSplineFunction` that defines the profile.

The final step was to slice the profile curve into equally spaced horizontal sections. *Mathematica*‘s versatile meshing functions do the trick.

I extracted the mesh point coordinates from the plot output, appended the profile’s boundary points, and sorted in the *y* coordinate to obtain a list of points from which I could construct the Gherkin’s contour grid.

The contours themselves correspond to a solid of revolution, with the contour radii given by the *x* coordinates of the profile points, the elevations by the *y* coordinates, and the number of points around a contour by twice the number of glass panes around the Gherkin.

I did a quick test `Build` to see if my contour points seemed correct. Indeed, they did.

As a final step, I refined the contour points at the top to add the dome-like cap at the top of the Gherkin.

I won’t deny that from there it required a surprising amount of detailed work using `Build` to make a finished model. The Gherkin’s body, its cap, the topmost dome, the rings, and the boundaries of and transitions between the separate parts all required individual attention. To select material properties and lighting, I set up `Manipulate` rigs and exercised the sliders until I found the right values. Here is the result.

Once I had the completed model, I could begin to explore. One of the unique strengths of *Mathematica* is the ability to post-process structures using replacement rules. The output of the Gherkin model contains the colors I used for the dark and light panes of the body. By replacing those colors with new ones, I created this color variation inspired by the Union Jack.

Post-processing via replacement rules can operate on the geometry of an object as well as its appearance attributes. Because all of the coordinate data of my model resides in the first argument of `GraphicsComplex`, coordinate transformations are particularly easy. And since all of the graphics primitives are all wired to the same coordinates, the primitives automatically move in concert and remain connected when the coordinates are transformed.

Using that technique, I wrote this `Manipulate` to explore variations in the radial geometry of the Gherkin.

Now I could find the answers to some pressing questions. What if the Gherkin were two-sided rather than round? Three-sided? Four-sided?

What if the Gherkin’s dark ventilation shafts were recessed into the building? What if the recesses ran counter to the direction of the shafts? What if London were shaken by a really violent earthquake?

You can cover territory quickly with *Mathematica*‘s `Manipulate`. Surreality is a mere slider’s length away from reality. My explorations ended somewhere around this Dali-esque vision of the Gherkin tangoing with itself.

Energized by my results with the Gherkin, I turned my attention to another of Foster’s buildings that employs diagrid framing, the Hearst Tower in New York.

Compared to the Gherkin, modeling the Hearst Tower was a piece of cake. The only part that required much thought was generating the floor polygons, which undulate back and forth between two shapes. The rest was straightforward use of the `Build` function. Here is my model of the main tower structure, rendered with *Mathematica*‘s default lighting.

The tower structure is generated by repeatedly translating polygons. On a whim, I substituted rotations for translations, and after adding a few floors, generated this bent tower that wraps around on itself to form a torus.

On the theory that one good turn deserves another, I took a couple of seconds to add a second rotation about an axis perpendicular to the first and created this Möbius building. I love the beautiful rhythm set up by the interaction of the diagrid frame with the curved and winding Möbius surfaces.

On Earth, the Möbius building would be a difficult sell. But I imagine it floating in space, housing a gallery of the finest in cosmic art—a sort of orbital Guggenheim with a twist. Don your Velcro slippers and padded headgear a la *2001: A Space Odyssey* and pay attention to artwork on the wall to your right. Once around the gallery, you’ll be hanging from the ceiling looking at the opposite wall, which of course is the same wall, the only wall in the gallery. Enjoy the backdrop of the Milky Way, and perhaps the Earth floating in the distance.

You can explore the universe of architectural possibilities with me at this year’s ACADIA conference on October 21 in Chicago, where I’ll be giving a one-day workshop on how to use *Mathematica* for parametric, algorithmic, and generative architectural design. Join me and your colleagues for a day of hands-on form exploration by registering for the conference.

## 47 Comments

Impressive mathematica skills! Congratulations, amazing work!

Really, really enjoyed reading this!

Very nice. I’d like to try the Build function myself, for personal and non-commercial use only.

Great Space! I wish I could command math like that! I’m inspired and impressed!

Author’s post is always beautiful and creative.

We love to read.

Really amazing. I especially like the Möbius gallery concept.

It would be really cool if instead of the “normal” starry background you had a sweet Hubble shot of some nebula that would transparently show through pieces of the building/spacecraft.

Good ideas and pretty results!

Incidentally, premium customers should also receive an additional USB device and the function Create3Dmodel[x] which would create a colorful plastic model of a 3D object. ;-)

A bigger version of this gadget could be used instead of construction workers, too. :-)

Very artistic/mathematistic!

pretty amazing, and a great walk from simple drawing towards recreating the gherkin — you’ve rediscovered parametric architecture! =)

don’t be too doubtful about the selling points of the mobius building though. BIG architects recently sold kazakhstan a similarly formed library:

http://www.inhabitat.com/2009/08/27/big-unveil-massive-mobius-strip-library-for-kazakhstan/

s

I’ve run across a couple of Möbius proposals, including the Kazakhstan library, since I wrote this post. But they’re all slaves to gravity, hiding horizontal floors inside Möbius shells. You can’t walk on the ceiling of any one of them!

Fantastic! It seems to me like formulating … sentences ?

wonderful work. I experiment with similar forms with another parametric design program. I only wish I understood computer language and the math associated with it to manipulate it as you do. Have you used Rhino’s Grasshopper at all? Grasshopper allows you to graphically construct definitions with any mastery of mathematics (thank goodness). It also has full script / algorithm capabilities as well as plug ins for quick and simple fabrication. The rendering quality here is also impressive. Great work!

How did you the lighting and polished look for the final graphics?

Chris very impressive!

Enjoy very much reading what you wrote!

Fosters, I understand, use GenerativeComponents from Bentley that is really quite sweet.

I could almost hear Strauss as you described the möbius building…

Awesome ART Chris…!! :)

Really, really an inspired piece of work…that can go a long long way in inspiring people like me (or otherwise too!) who’re already inspired by what Mathematica can do…!

Keep up the great work..! :)

Cheers..!

–raghu

Hi,

I was wondering if I can use some of the images in this post for a lecture (which has nothing to day with math)

Hi there. love your work.

I am a uni student at bournemouth uni.

I am doing a arch assignment on the gherkin and was wondering if you could help me with it. Give me some tips etc.

Very impressive, how did you manage to get the lighting and polished look for the final graphics. Would be great if we can use these images for teaching.

Very creative and inspiting.

Hi Chris,

very nice work, congratulations!

I am also working in the field between math and architecture. You migth be interested:

http://eat-a-bug.blogspot.com/2009/06/formula-tower.html

very interesting, that London building is weird!

amazing mathematical skills..and nice article as well..

how about these towers in the picture http://archibuild.org/eco-architecture/building-the-future/

I am so very happy at reading the above post. Do write more entries in the future. I shall be anticipating articles like this with keen interest. Israel Kerce

i just wanted to say : WOW

You’ve just became my role model. By the way, These are great examples of how mathematics are beautiful.

This building so shiny!! I want to lick it!

really impressive indeed. whenever somebody is asking what mathematica is capable of i show him this. :)

Very skillfully done and a delight to read. We want more!

The beauty of math.

Wow, I love the Möbius-ring-concept

Taking this thought further, it’s probably the most fascinating “shape” to build, presumed gravity is not a problem anymore. Imagine raceways shaped as a Möbius-ring, just as one possibility to create things which have never been there before

The Russian Kremlin onion domes came way before…

Spiral staircases were something every circular tower maker

had to have.

This work is first class and awesome.

I had been doing some twisted Menger cubes

about this time.

Lately I have used some start functions

of mine to make twisted gears.

Gear making using this sort of math is a practical

application of this technology.

Roger Bagula

if they would have actually told me about ways like this to apply math skills, I would have paid attention in high school ;)

Very cool….

I do not live in London or the UK, but see this gherkin building and am facinated by its beauty. Who works or lives in it? When was it built.

Thank you for your perseverence

Marilyn S.

Waww… Amazing skills !!! mathematics have never been my preferable subject, but after seeing this, I believe that its the first important science…

تصماميم هندسية رائعة شكرا لكم

amazing!.. such a genius.

всё гениальное – просто!

Wooow !!! … Impressive !!

Hi, Im trying to do this exercise but I dont know how to make the output shows :S

This is my first time using Mathematica.

Does anyone knows where I can get instructions for beginners ?

http://reference.wolfram.com/mathematica/guide/Mathematica.html

My, o’h my… beautiful work and ever so inspiring. Really enjoyed the 3d tour through Sistine Chapel.

Thank you so much for sharing your passion, I believe you are brilliant!

~*LOVE ALWAYS*~

Imelda

Great, Can Mathematica draw D-Forms?

This is way cool! As an engineering student, I’d love to be able to do that!

Just wonderful !

This post is great and the results of your code are stunning! Thanks for sharing this wonder! : )