It moves! It transforms?! The Sphere is only one of many bizarrely transforming toys that New York-based Chuck Hoberman has developed in more than fifteen years. But he is also deeply into changing the shapes of responsive architecture. On the way to his current exhibit at the Kitakyushu Innovation Gallery, the inventor made a quick stop in Tokyo for an impressive presentation at, you guessed it, Pecha Kucha. PingMag wanted to know all about transformable architecture!
Written by Verena
To tickle your mind as you watch: “Switch Pitch” from 2004. © Hoberman Designs, Inc.
You are kind of an architectural inventor – do you come from an engineering background or are you an architect?
My original background is in fine arts and sculpture, my first university degree. At that time I was building kinetic sculptures. And as some of these designs didn’t work as well as I would have liked, that gave me the motivation to study engineering – so my second degree is in mechanical engineering. In addition, I have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
So, when did you start with the toys, like the famous Sphere or the more recent Switch Pitch?
I founded my company in 1990, originally operating out of my home. At that point, most of the commissions came from science museums to build public art there, so I was building these big spheres for them. But as science museums have a lot of visiting kids, they would look at my spheres opening up and the kids would scream and shout get very excited. So, my wife Caroline said “Maybe we should put this in a box and sell it as a toy.” And we started a company…
Through the 90s this toy became hugely popular and we developed a whole line of transformable toys all based on my inventions. In 2000 we entered the Japanese market in quite a big way. Then in 2004, I decided I had so many responsibilities for the sales, the manufacturing and the marketing – and no time for innovating. So I licensed the toys and now we have Hoberman Designs for the toys and Hoberman Associates for architecture and general product development.
And what are your architectural transformations built for?
Since 1990, my company has built a lot of projects in the realm of public art or even commercial attractions – it is a kind of architecture, like what we did for the Expo 2000 or the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, which was really a theatrical program.
The ‘Iris Dome’ as retractable roof that opens and closes like the iris of an eye, Expo 2000 – a symbolic piece, a representation of the Frauenkirche Cathedral in Dresden, which was destroyed during World War II. Click to watch the video.
But regarding, for example, your tent shelters or the folding chair and table, you expanded the transformations with a practical environmental approach…
Only in the last four or five years it has really come into focus what the benefit, or the purpose, should be – adaptable sustainable technology: We have developed a whole series of systems for responsive shading and responsive ventilation as new methods for building facades and surfaces. It is inspired because there is an actual need for that now…
You mean changing weather conditions due to global warning? Interesting…
Hydraulics of the Winter Olympics installation.
Over the last year and a half, we have initiated the second part of our practise which is to collaborate with major architectural firms around the world to use our transformable technology as practical elements in buildings: Ways to make facades, roofs and spaces open, or open air respectively, and close…
I guess you are not allowed to show much of that, as it is being developed right now… So back to the Olympics, please: This beautifully transforming stage curtain! Is the dome structure mechanically driven?
The structures for the Olympics are motorised. In the case of the Expo 2000, it is driven by hydraulics with cylinders. But for both the force is provided by a computer-controlled motor, that is programmed to operate according to different conditions.
Magical opening toy: the “Brain Twist” from 2003. © Hoberman Designs, Inc.
In terms of realisation: Where and how to start with the transformations?
My specialty is in mechanism design which deals with materials and mechanics and also has an extensive mathematical basis as well, and that very much informs my approach. First comes the action, the movement, and how to adapt that fundamental action to a particular shape, form, or material.
In terms of means: You told me earlier that you started in 1985 with designing through programming, because the software tools were not available yet. Do you still use your customised programs?
Apart from our own custom software, we use open source development platforms and work with the Generative Components environment. Meaning, we are part of SmartGeometry: This is a contemporary movement that is quite important for architectural design to advance parametric design, which in a way is designing by algorithms.
Sounds very rational. However, your website states that you design objects that transform like natural organisms… Like what?
There is an aspect of our design practise which you can call biomimicry: It is part of the general strategy to use nature as an example to design, particularly with its performance and action. We imitate the way organisms grow or change shape or adapt themselves to different conditions. However, the transformable systems that we develop are technology and mathematically based. Basically they are a practical means to build structures or develop products that can change size and shape in order to have some structural benefit, a reason.
By the way, your work instantly reminded me also of Theo Jansen’s walking creatures that seem to be organisms of their own…
Yes. In fact, there are several of his videos at the same exhibit at the Kitakyushu Innovation Gallery. Regarding the artistic and design side, there is a close relationship between both our works. In the point of function it is quite a different approach, because my primary goal is to adapt these design ideas for functional practical approaches. Though I do continue to make artworks. What interests me is the integration into larger programs and systems whether they are architectural or for a commercial purpose.
Despite the mathematical basis, your transformations seem to trigger people in an emotional way, especially when they see the toys…
That’s right. The Sphere is so popular not just for one particular society or culture. Unfortunately, many of our toys are copied. Meaning, you can go to a small market town in China or anywhere else and see a copy. Sometimes it is our authentic product, sometimes it is not – but it goes into these extremely different cultures. If you go back to your previous question about nature, I think there is a psychological association of transformation and life. I guess that everybody picks up that emotional connection: When you see this special behaviour, you feel it in your body. Maybe a physiological connection because you get a sensation, a physical sensation and a mental and perceptual sensation…
That is why everybody can relate to it, making it so universal.
Some of these phenomena exist in many levels, it is like with the Theo Jansen works and you react in the same way. However, the emphasis that I’m working on right now is that it is more that you have the perception through the emotional connection, then take it to the next level where it begins to offer practical benefits – where you begin to believe transformation is something useful in solving real problems…
“Isis Dome” 3D: In its extended state, it forms a lamella dome whose members display a pattern of interlocking spirals.
Another dome example: No matter what shape, its perimeter stays fixed.
Very true. I also would like to know: Despite your work being based on math, your approach is still a playful one, as you said. So, invention comes of play?
I don’t want to overemphasise this, but in the broad sense: yes. I think creativity and play are very closely related. You have to have a freedom of mind…
… which might be not easy if you have a deadline…
With play you don’t have the constraints. But to create something in the way that most professional people work, you play within the constraints, so the deadline is a constraint. Also, physics and material reality are constraints…
Chuck Hoberman, inventing engineer and open source software friendly architect
Generated from two spiral profiles, similar to the DNA double helix structure: “Expanding Helicoid”, permanent installation at the Inventors Hall of Fame, Akron, Ohio.
That is the exciting thing – to find new ways to play within certain constraints then?
It is exciting to work within constraints, but it is also exciting to collaborate with a team. I work now with eight: Some architects, some engineers, some designers – a mixture.
Lastly, do you like to play with your own toys?
No, not really. But all of what I do is playing, all the creativity is fundamentally play. So I basically play all the time…
Thank you, Chuck Hoberman for your awesome toy inventions! Also, we are quite eager to see your adaptable sustainable technology being realised architecturally within the next year or two!