Tim Eliassen - Structural Glazing Pioneer
The project introduced Eliassen to architectural considerations of exposed structure and visual transparency with a focus on tension elements and, perhaps most of all, connection details.
Under Eliassen's direction, Navtec ended up delivering what he refers to as "short pieces of yacht rigging," some 3,800 of them, for the construction of the pyramid structure. (The word "short" is a reference to the fact that the cold-headed rod rigging Navtec provided to the yachting industry was typically in lengths far longer than those required for the Louvre Pyramid.)
While not the first project to make predominant use of tensile elements, the Louvre Pyramid is a milestone SGF project important in two respects: it served to popularize the building form in the international design community and it revealed to Eliassen a compelling business opportunity. Eliassen had ended his ownership of Navtec by this time while remaining with the firm, focused on the design and engineering of the rigging systems, his true passion.
On the successful completion of the Louvre Pyramid, he promptly recommended to Navtec's management that a new division be launched to pursue opportunities in the building marketplace. Management was less than enthusiastic about the idea ("roofs leak; you get sued").
Eliassen founded TriPyramid Structures in late 1989 with Michael Mulhern, who had acted as project manager for Navtec on the Louvre Pyramid project. Their first in a long line of high-profile projects was Moshe Safdie's Montreal Museum of Art.
TriPyramid worked with Mero, then a provider of space frame structures, in developing an interesting hybrid space frame solution for a museum skylight in which many of the typical pipe elements were replaced with stainless steel tension rods and custom fittings, lightening the structure and enhancing the transparency.
Eliassen has a strong performance orientation deriving from his work with racing yachts; his success was measured not by the appearance of the work, but by the effect on performance. "It was simple with the boats," comments Eliassen; "if you get the detail right, the boat goes faster."
This performance orientation served him well in his work on buildings, producing a performance-based aesthetic that was readily embraced by the design community.
Well-designed exposed structures express a diagram of forces, providing rationality right down to the connection details, his particular passion. The component designs that characterize his work are elegant mappings of the functional requirements imposed upon the work.
TriPyramid was founded at a time when computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technology was emerging, with companies like Navtec being far ahead of typical companies in the building industry.
The ability to assemble a three-dimensional model and drawing package differentiated TriPyramid from other fabricators serving the construction industry at the time. Eliassen anticipated leveraging this capability in the marketplace as a means to supply rigging systems for buildings. But the business quickly changed.
New associations with such leading-edge glass designers as James Carpenter and Tim Macfarlane drove the business in the direction of art glass and other experimental structures, innovative explorations in steel and glass that pushed the materials and processes and increasingly involved Eliassen as a key collaborator in the design and development process.
These investigations were most often driven by pursuit of transparency and a dematerialization of structure that was greatly facilitated by Eliassen's knowledge of and experience with the workings of high-strength tensile components. The business of TriPyramid became the integration of these elements into architectural structures.
Eliassen recognizes intense collaboration as a hallmark of innovation, referencing Peter Rice as an extraordinary collaborator. The details of the cable wall on architect Rafael Viñoly's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia were developed in an intensive half-day collaborative session involving Viñoly, his facade wizard Charles Blomberg, Eliassen, and structural engineer and facade designer Tim Macfarlane.
Dozens of projects later, with many landmarks among them, Eliassen still finds his music in the details. "The irony is that the lighter and more transparent you make a structure, the more prominent the details become," he observes.
When considering pushing the boundaries, as often happens with SGF projects, there can be enormous value in having an experienced innovator on the team.
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Mic Patterson is director of strategic development for Enclos, one of the largest specialty contractors in the United States, with a focus on the design, engineering, fabrication, assembly, and erection of custom-facade systems. Patterson is part of Enclos's Advanced Technology Studio, a design think tank committed to research and development of advanced facade technology. He was a founding principal of Advanced Structures Incorporated (ASI), a design, engineering, product development, and design-build firm that pioneered structural glass facade development in the U.S. marketplace. Patterson has lectured widely and taught several courses at the university level, most recently an advanced facade course at the University of Southern California entitled "Skin and Bones."
This article is excerpted from Structural Glass Facades and Enclosures by Mic Patterson, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.