Wednesday, October 10, 2012

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It started as a mess of paper towels pinned around a foam core frame and plopped onto the table in Kevin Erickson’s office. Erickson, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, used scissors to cut a couple of holes in the towels and decided he liked this organic, gourd-shaped assemblage. With time and “development” – a word Erickson uses frequently – that paper towel model grew into a construction that claimed first prize in an international design competition in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Titled “ROPE Pavilion,” Erickson’s structure won the Warming Huts 2012 International Design Competition, as well as the Next Landmark Award, sponsored by Floornature Architecture Portal.

The Warming Huts competition, now in its fourth year, solicits designs for small shelters to be used along the 10-kilometer Assiniboine River Trail in Manitoba, known as the world’s longest naturally frozen skating trail. The designers of the three winning proposals are asked to build their designs on-site, next to a hut designed and built by a well-known architect.

“We were right next to Frank (Gehry)’s,” Erickson said. “That alone, for us, made it special.”

Gehry is the Pritzker Prize-winning architect famous for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

As established by contest criteria, Erickson’s award-winning structure is smaller than 100 square feet and portable enough to be stored during the summer months. He used birch plywood to form curved ribs and a floor for the hut, and about 6,000 linear feet of unmanila rope (a synthetic material resistant to excessive moisture), wound around the ribs, to form walls. There’s an opening at the bottom, to let people in, and one at the top, canted to catch the sun. The rope blocks the wind, but admits dappled light, and lets anyone inside peep out. Between the paper-towel rough draft and the final version, Erickson made 25 different prototypes – most before sketching any design on paper.

“I start with three dimensions first,” he said. “Once we know how to build it, we can figure out how to draw it. I do everything completely backwards.”

Erickson detailed his development of ROPE Pavilion in a 19-page article for the summer issue of Process, the journal of the American Institute of Architects. In August, he presented a lecture, drawings and photos of the project at the Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. (Watch a video of an interview with Erickson at the Biennale).

He previously designed a somewhat similar structure for a competition in New York City, celebrating the Jewish festival Sukkot. But Erickson said the design didn’t work well.

“Thank goodness we didn’t win, because it would’ve been impossible to build,” he said.

The warming hut, though, struck a chord with Erickson, who spent his childhood playing ice hockey on a frozen river.

“I grew up on the U.S.-Canadian border,” he said, “so for me, it was great to do this competition. I think that’s part of the reason we executed it so well: The context wasn’t so foreign to me.”

Access to the fabrication facilities at the U. of I. played a key role in ROPE Pavilion. For example, wrapping rope around the pavilion’s irregular, curvaceous ribs meant developing a system of holes and notches, equally distributed throughout the frame.

“We changed this detail over and over,” he said, “so we wrote a digital script that allowed us to change the location of the holes.”

As chair of the U. of I.’s Advanced Fabrication Lab, Erickson could easily tweak the mathematical formulas for the ribs’ design, and the school’s CNC (computer numerically controlled) router would cut according to his calculations.

Last January, with a team of current and former students, he built the hut in the School of Architecture’s Annex, then disassembled it and loaded it into a rental truck. While Erickson stayed on campus to teach class, two graduate students drove the hut to Winnipeg. A day later, he flew north to join them in constructing it.

“They said it was going to be 40 below zero,” he recalled, “and I said Fahrenheit or Celsius? They said at 40 below, it doesn’t matter.”

He has other projects now in development – a system of floating cloud-like construction scaffolding to protect sidewalks that was one of three finalists in a New York City competition; an “invisible” office tower that was one of seven finalists in a Tokyo competition; and an accessory from the ROPE Pavilion – a stool made of rope, that’s now under consideration in a Singapore furniture competition.

“Design has to be really simple, but it needs to be bold,” Erickson said. “In particular, for me, it has to be forward-thinking. It has to move something to the next level.”