Harvard Graduate School of Design
Cases in Contemporary Construction
Critic: Mark Mulligan
Year: 2016-2017

Design Team:Mark Mulligan (Associate Professor in Practice at GSD), Jun Sato (Associate Professor at Tokyo University), Ignacio Cardona (Teaching Fellow, GSD)Paul Mok, Carly Gertler, Chao Gu, Cari Alcombright, Scott Smith, LeeAnn Suen, Yousef Hussein, Danielle Kasner, Gary Lin, Meric Ozgen, Anne Schneider, Valeria Fantozzi, Irene Preciado, James Zhang

In Collaboration with Tokyo University and Autodesk's BUILD Space.

All images © the Harvard Graduate School of Design
Komorebi Pavilion

The Komorebi Pavilion represents a collaborative project between the GSD, Tokyo University, and Autodesk’s BUILD Space in South Boston. The project emerged from a two-day workshop in which structural engineer Jun Sato (Tokyo University) challenged students to design a fully transparent structure using advanced computational analysis to guide form-making. The chosen material is PETG, a non-toxic, pliable plastic whose various structural properties were imported to HOGAN software to predict behavior and deflection. Students were challenged to imagine non-traditional forms and irregular patterning that could produce shimmering, dappled light (“komorebi” in Japanese) within the pavilion.

Over ten days at Autodesk’s BUILD Space in South Boston, a team of eight GSD students fabricated and assembled nearly 800 identical “snowflake” shaped PETG modules (3/32″ thick) that could be slotted, notched, and interlocked together directly in multiple ways, allowing construction to proceed without the use of metal clips or other conventional fittings. Varying densities and curvatures of overlapping PETG modules produce an astonishing set of spatial effects. The Komorebi Pavilion was on display at BUILD Space from January - February 2017 and at Harvard University’s Gund Hall through May and June of 2017.  For more on the pavilion and the process of design, see the Harvard Graduate School of Design's website.

The 1950’s film Rashomon directed by Akira Kurosawa with cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, employs a visual technique of shooting directly into the sun and through layers of foliage, creating“komorebi” or effect of dappled and shimmering sunlight.  The film’s cinematic techniques served as inspiration for the final light qualities of the pavilion. 

After eight weeks of development and computational analysis, the pavilion design was finalized and preparations began for fabricating and assembling it at BUILD Space in South Boston. Over J-Term, students worked together with Autodesk’s experts to hone the fabrication process, refine the shaping of PETG modules, and test structural assumptions. Two researchers from Tokyo University, Ying Xu and Iris Zhang, were on hand to advise during the final days of construction.

The build process began with the use of a water jet cutter to to create over 800 identical PETG modules.  The modules were then heat formed around CNC-routed positive molds in a 216-degree glass kiln to add structural rigidity. Once cooled, the modules were laid over the original molds to ensure that each piece assumed the same curved form.

Module iterations testing the end and notch connections for variability and strength as well as “fringe” leftovers adding to the “komorebi” effect.

The final module form consisted of a triangular module with two variations of “legs” that could be notched, tabed, overlapped in a variety of ways to create connections of varying strength and span.   Two connection types are shown below.

As this process ran for each of the over 800 individual modules, the physical build began by the laying of the baseplate which ensured a structural base for the pavilion without connecting directly to the ground. Individual units were then linked via t-connections to the baseplate to form a continuous tension ring that wraps the entire structure.

An undulating inside layer of connected modules supports a smooth and continuous outside layer when the structural integrity of the outside layer is unable to resist its own weight. The overall intention is to create structural stability for the pavilion without the use of anything but the module and the material integrity of the PETG. Though the interlocking of inner and outer layers, a space frame is created which allows structural integrity without the need for a different type of unit.

The linking of the modules to one another happens in multiple ways, though "long" and "short" arm weaving as well as notching. The modules underwent numerous iterations to optimize each connection point and type (weaving, notching, etc.) while flat and after assuming their heat formed structure.

Below, the 3D model (using Rhino 3D, Hogan, and Grasshopper) for the structural approximation of the modules in their overall form.

The pavilion as built at Autodesk’s Build Space in South Boston.

The pavilion as built in Gund Hall at Harvard University. 

© Carly Gertler 2017