The Logic of the Weave

The bamboo dome “had even more useful structural properties than I had envisaged,” Ms. Martin said. “Deployability, nice structural stability and highly portable.”Credit Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times

Limits often lead to creative solutions. That’s exactly what is happening in Brazil. Alison Martin is pushing the limits of what can be built from weaving bamboo and is helping to create more natural cityscapes. She is surprising even the computer engineers with the strength and shapes of her material, all without the use of nuts and bolts. This is a new way of combining nature and architecture. Her work is also helping to solve some of the problems created by elevated highways. These highways block out the sun and create “a fracture in the urban environment”.

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

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — 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.”

In July, students from around the world attended a workshop in São Paulo to design and test structures for the proposed park on the Minhocão. Credit Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times

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.”…

…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.”

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