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  • Dynamic tensile fabric feature
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  • Large scale tensile fabric Art Project
  • Illuminating tensile fabric feature

Its not every day that we get asked to make a tensile structure which will breathe in and out, gently pulsing with light and soothe and relax passers-by but that was the ambitious brief from artist Hannah Gourlay for the 2011 Big 4 installation.

The subject of a regular design competition, the Big 4 is a steel structure forming the Channel Four logo and situated outside the TV giants headquarters on Horseferry Road, London. Previously covered with photographic images, newspaper printing plates and umbrellas, this years artist Hannah had a different approach:

The Big 4 [is designed to] blend in with the glass and steel surroundings of the striking Channel 4 building and then it gently transmogrifies into playful balloon shapes, which reveal its fabric qualities. Working with Channel 4, FreeState, Atelier One and Architen and seeing the idea develop from my small, rubber-covered model, which I got my housemate to breathe in and out of, was so exciting! The process of having to comprehend the considerable technical and logistical challenges involved in making a 50ft structure breathe has been invaluable.

From our point of view this project was a real challenge. Unlike traditional tensile fabric structures the Big 4 fabric needed to be strong, flexible, expandable, translucent, air/water tight and aesthetically pleasing, a lot to ask of any tensile fabric!

Through extensive research and development, we found that most stretchy fabrics were either not air tight or are not particularly strong. Those which generally have more flexibility in one direction than the other, or dont recover to their original shape once stressed. Architen Landrell tested various fabrics from around the world and designed for a variety of applications, and even had one custom made to try and meet all the necessary criteria before finding a ready-made fabric that did the job.

Originally intended for hospital mattresses, Architen Landrell opted to use a polyurethane coated Nylon which stretches in both directions, lets light through and quickly recovers back to its original size.

In using a fabric in such an unusual way, obstacles were encountered in the manufacturing process. With commonly used architectural fabrics, seams would be formed with high frequency welding machines, however, this method proved insufficient for this material as the adherence was too low. As a result, each seam on the structure had been double stitched and welded twice in order to give the seams sufficient strength to take the loads.

However, the fabric proved to be not the only challenge for our design team; the steel trussing and its connection to the fabric had also required careful consideration. The different size of truss, combined with the irregular shape of the steel members meant that the connection details were not uniform, and that the truss has had to be built up to create surfaces onto which connections could be made.

Modern pattering techniques greatly helped us to design and manufacture the fabric envelope for the complex shapes formed by the steelwork. However, precise knowledge of the angles and positions and a bit of lateral thinking was required during the installation period as adjustments had to be made on site. As a result, a highly experienced and well briefed site team was sent to the site to ensure a successful installation.

To achieve the breathing effect of the structure, nine fans were installed out of sight inside the clad truss. As each truss is a different size, some required far more air to allow them to breathe in fully. As a result, the fans were programmed to a central control system which ensures that all the fans work simultaneously but at different speeds controlled by pressure monitors. This allows each section to inflate and deflate as required to ensure that all compartments breathe in and out evenly. The lights also work in sync with the fans, glowing brighter when the structure breathes in and dimming when it breathes out.

Located in the centre of a residential area, noise issues were also a real concern; not just during installation but for the full life span of the Big 4. The sound of air rushing into the structure from the nine fans was highlighted and steps were taken to minimise the noise by using oversized fans with bigger air inlet holes and using them at a lower speed. This reduced the sound of the motor and the sound of the air moving around the system.

Finally finished and a complete success, the Big 4 structure is really a labour of love for all involved. Project Manager Josie Britton comments this project was an unknown at the start and its really been down to the unrivalled knowledge and skills of everyone involved in this project to make this work. From the initial design and engineering to the final installation on site, nothing could have been predicted! Its been a thrilling project to work on and were intensely proud of our involvement in such a ground-breaking structure!

Photos courtesy of Dave King

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