Inventive optimization in Wacław Zalewski’s structures

Introductory notes by David Foxe, 2006

Physical, visible form is both one of the strongest and the most deceptive aspects of Waclaw Zalewski’s incredibly varied body of work. For the past six decades of his professional practice as a civil engineer and a professor of structures, he has explored the shaping of structural form to solve specific problems of structural stability, conservation of material, and optimizing efficiency of construction processes. The work shown here gives an initial glance at some of the ways in which he has sought to optimize his solutions to structural challenges. In pursuing such optimization and finding rational ways to bring these solutions to physical form, his work exhibits highly engaging uses of pattern, proportion, and light.

In his built projects and in his writings, Zalewski demonstrates a conscious acknowledgment of visual form and its influential nature, its power to captivate by providing a readily recognizable and memorable visual effect corresponding to abstract structural principles. Yet his work goes further in offering a perspective on how creating rational structure is not primarily a task of calculation or a mere result of unchanging rules, but rather a truly creative process which champions personal invention. He has often chosen to use ordinary projects and spans that would be challenging in and of themselves, as a vehicle for exploring mathematical and structural principles; he uses each project’s particular requirements to investigate the underlying principle of optimization in shaping structures. Supermarkets can be places to experiment with funicular roof forms that eliminate the need for cable backstays, and industrial storage warehouses and factories can pioneer highly articulate and flexible prefabrication systems.

Zalewski’s early works in Poland became the foundation for his international publications and lectures from Paris to Berkeley, and for his extensive projects in Venezuela, South Korea, Spain, and elsewhere. His method of structuring, a lifelong pursuit of demonstrating structural truth, is also particularly process-oriented. He has considered in great detail the sequencing and efficiencies of building – as an act, a verb – in each of these locations worldwide. This is highlighted in this exhibit by the preponderance of construction photographs and documentation which exist for these projects.

His work is also the foundation for his inspirational teaching. In nearly four decades of teaching at MIT, Professor Zalewski’s students and collaborators have benefited from both the basic and the advanced concepts in his work. His work with MIT students in the 1980s and early 1990s with deployable structures led him to be chosen to work on the Venezuelan pavilion at the 1992 Seville International Exposition, and his collapsible truss for the pavilion hall and theatre was subsequently collapsed and taken back to South America so it could find an ongoing use and be redeployed as a new optimal solution to the problem of temporary structures.

Zalewski’s teaching and textbook collaborations with Edward Allen capture major portions of his ideas about how students should learn; he remains highly critical of both engineering and architectural education that all too often results in “passive attitudes toward research of rational forms...which constitute the essential task of studies and of construction projects.” He has witnessed how problems relating to forces and construction processes can be the “Achilles’ heel of architects” and has directed his teaching toward improving the ways in which students understand the inventive potential in shaping structures. At age 88 [Note, 2015: Now age 98!], his wit and energy continue to inspire students with the fundamentals of geometric solutions to finding form. With the wisdom of a lifetime, his energetic pencil sketches, elegant mathematical simplifications, and even demonstrations with umbrellas make for memorable teaching.

The architectural community has widened over time, and innovators who span architecture and engineering have gained increasing recognition for their structural art: Robert Maillart, Rafael Guastavino, Felix Candela, Eladio Dieste, and Santiago Calatrava are among these designers. Zalewski’s work across the globe, in its many responses to local material and site constraints, shows his personal focus on inventive forms with diverse systems. Unlike the aforementioned designers, most of whom are known for their particular formal emphasis or their lifelong investigation of particular systems (unreinforced masonry in compression, for example), Zalewski is far less easily categorized. His work can be understood on spectra rather than in pure categories, occupying one continuum spanning architecture and engineering, spanning theoretical mathematics and highly practical innovation. The buildings shown here, containing functions which range from the mundane to the celebratory, enclose spaces with structures that are truly architectural in that they show how a master’s highly inventive work can elevate constructed tectonics. Zalewski has applied his optimization skills to shape structural solutions that are both rational and inspirational. In explaining the potential uses of the structural strategy employed at the Spodek hall in Katowice, he describes this spirit of inventiveness:

“The possibility for large...forms to be handled free from [ordinary] standing columns, vertical walls, and flat roofs, combined with the simultaneous task of finding a solution for functional and constructive problems, gives an occasion for creative invention. Such inventive possibilities, with both practical architectural tectonics and the artistic thought of antiquity, become the spiritual achievement of modern architects and engineers.”

Scale Model of Spodek roof structure

Scale Model of Spodek roof structure