Prominent engineer gives talk on flux architecture

The USC School of Architecture hosted a Nabih Youssef Lecture on Structural Design Innovation at the FAIA Conference Center in Harris Hall on Wednesday evening.

Mutsuro Sasaki, a professor at Hosei University in Tokyo, gave the lecture, which focused on his breakthrough in structural optimizations and flux architecture.

Nabih Youssef, a renowned structural engineer specializing in earthquake engineering, is a lifetime member of the USC Architectural Guild. The Nabih Youssef Lecture series, which is funded by Youssef’s endowment, provides support for a lecture to be given by a distinguished structural engineer. 

Chikara Inamura, a research assistant at Mediated Matter Group, translated Sasaki’s lecture for the audience, which started off with a description of flux structures. These structures, Sasaki said, are freeform, complex, irregular, dynamic and organic.

“This new structure type has become an international trend in contemporary architecture scenes,” Sasaki said.

Sasaki also said that flux structures are changing the way architects and structural engineers collaborate in the professional and educational fields.

“Historically, structural design classes were based on the humanistic knowledge of the engineers,” Sasaki said. “The more you build, the more you understand what works and what doesn’t.”

Sasaki’s repeated his design philosophy throughout the course of his lecture. He stressed freedom and the aesthetic necessary in flux structures. There are three important entities in the creation of a flux building according to Sasaki: structure, construction and architecture.

“These three entities form a loop and together find a balance and derive my design process,” Sasaki said. “As a structural engineer, structure is an essential design.”

Sasaki then went on to explain the fundamentals of formal freedom, which requires an architect to look at both the quality (form) of a structure and the quantity (scale). The form decreases as scale increases and vice versa. Sasaki’s first piece of advice to the architecture students in the room was to try to understand form and scale.

For the next section of the lecture, Sasaki compared framed and spatial structures throughout history, including the Sydney Opera House, the Parthenon, the Bacardi Bottling Plant and the Teshima Art Museum, which he worked on.

Sasaki also described his own successful career in architecture. He joined Nagoya University in 1964, which coincided with the Tokyo Olympics. Around 10 years after he graduated, Sasaki created his own firm, Sasaki Structural Consultants. He started his next firm, SAPS/Sasaki and Partners, in 2002.

Sasaki’s turning point came in 1995, 15 years after he started his first architecture firm, when he received a sketch that he thought was a joke. That project defined his continuing mantra of the organic relationship between structure and architecture.

What started as a sketch culminated in the Sendai Mediatheque, a cultural media center which employed six steel-ribbed slabs supported by 13 earthquake-resistant, latticed steel pipes, while at the same time retaining a natural feel.

“The sketch called for a return to nature and its organic structure. It also suggests and inseparable relationship between architecture and structure,” Sasaki said. “This philosophy is very much in line with the theme of flux structure, starting the beginning of a new chapter in my career as an engineer.”

The second part of Sasaki’s lecture focused on the structural optimization of free-curved RC shells. Swiss structural engineer Heinz Isler was the pioneer of free-curved concrete shells throughout the ’60s and was an inspiration for Sasaki’s own research in the optimization of these thin, concrete shells.

Sasaki created five of these free-curved structures in his own career, his most notable being the Teshima Art Museum. He explained during his lecture how he significantly optimized these concrete shells for structural integrity in the case of an earthquake through computational morphogenesis.

“The result doesn’t seem to show much change. However, optimization can significantly improve the structure’s performance by using the stresses and displacements in an earthquake,” Sasaki said.

Graduate architecture student Peng Ie thought that Sasaki was able to give a general understanding behind his method without going into complex details.

“I’m glad he didn’t talk about too [many] technical things,” Ie said. “As an architecture student, we don’t know too much about engineering, and he shared his big idea, and that was really cool.”

Sasaki closed with the important things that he learned throughout his own life that he hoped could help the younger generation he was speaking to. Now at 70 years old, he is retiring from teaching as a professor at Hosei University.

“For me, the ideas and inspirations all come by accident,” Sasaki said. “The important thing is how you take each accident and translate it into your own creativity.”