top of page
  • Kivi Sotamaa

Wireframes and Surfaces

Draft text for the Non Standard Architecture Conference at the MIT.

Organized by Mark Coulthorpe in 2004.

The Tendency Towards Synergetic Entities

The technology makes us, as those who make it before we make it (1) The technology has caused a paradigm shift in our thinking - a different way of seeing the world. To make a simple and banal example: Having seen the Earth from space a Russian cosmonaut concluded that it should rather have been called Water (2) and alas, a new world view emerges in front of our eyes. As Sanford Kwinter eloquently put it: “a type of world emerges whose material, technical, and architectural articulations-no longer simply objects, structure or buildings but indeed electro-material environments at all scales - manifest themselves in a soft, perhaps insidiously holographic, manner, a world where everything flows seamlessly together in real time. “(3)

The shift in our thinking has generated a tendency to blend the constituent components of an architectural object into synthetic and coherent whole which seeks to produce synergetic effects. Much in a same way that the simple components of nature are choreographed to perform in concert. Specific technologies - modeling technology, software used by architects - are not the prime mover towards this blending. They are simply tools which combined with a set of techniques allows for the design of continuous and smooth topological entities. A means to an end. Material technology, particularly composite material technology, in turn promises to enable the production of these new synthetic entities – for example continuous surfaces which incorporate differential structural qualities, variable transparency and acoustic performance all orchestrated to respond to specific functional of artistic requirements. As much as the technology drives us, all of these technologies are now driven by our desire put things together in a new way.

Choreographing and Synthesising

One of the main themes of my own collaborative work for last 8 years has been to research methods of creating coherent wholes as opposed to collage -entities. It is necessary to define what I mean by coherent and collage and what the nuance between synthetic and coherent is, even though many of you know this. Collage is a familiar term to all involved in contemporary architectural discourse and signifies an approach where diverse and seemingly incongruous elements are pasted together emphazising their separation and difference. Synthetic and coherent are the opposite of collage: Synthetic implies the melting together of things, fusion, amalgamation. Coherent in turn implies the sticking together of things while allowing them to retain their relative independence. A good marriage is based on coherence, not synthesis. Both coherent and synthetic organizations share the fact that that they seek to produce synergetic effects. They seek to create mutually advantageous conjunctions of distinct elements, entities whose performance is more that the sum of its parts. To retain the fine difference between the two approaches to creating synergy instead of the verb “synthesize” I have used the word “choreograph”(4) when talking about the act of bringing about coherence.

Wireframe and Surface

Usually when designing a building, an installation, interior or furniture one is dealing at least with one of the two basic elements: Linear structural elements and continuous surfaces. Think of the curtain wall of a Seagram building by Mies van der Rohe’s or Charles Eames’ Eiffel Chair. There are also examples were just one of the components is deployed – the continuous surface of Koolhaas’ unrealised Jussieu library, or the spaceframe at the perimeter of the Wexner Center for Arts by Eisenman. The focus of the paper is to explore two basic architectural components - surface and line - and the means by which they can be choreographed or synthesized to form artistically and technologically synthetic or coherent wholes.



Composite materials allow for different materials to be synthesized into one variable thickness skin. They allow the engineering of differential performance along a continuous surface. A simple study into the potential of composites was our 1995 Extraterrain furniture project together with Markus Holmsten. We vacuum formed a large 2x3 meter ABS plastic sheet and reinforced it with honeycomb laminates and high-density polyurethane. The reinforcement varied across the surface and introduced rigidity to folds with a lot of structural stress and flexibility to other for the comfort of the user. The composite material structure of the surface allowed for an inexpensive creation of a relatively complex, continuous form with varying qualities of structural performance. The same principle was utilized in a competition proposal with Johan Bettum 1997 for Football stadium in Finland. The stadium consisted of three floating topographical layers which would have party extended the surrounding topography of the park. The main construction material was deemed to be fibre-reinforced concrete which would have allowed for the creation of continuous undulating floor plates with varying thickness and structural performance.

Single surface

Both the Extraterrain furniture and Toolo Stadium aspired towards synthesizing the various components of the projects into a single surface, getting rid of columns, legs, windows, armrests. In the case of the Extraterrain the folding of the surface solved the meeting of the ground, back support, armrests, by providing geometry at the right scale at the right height. Toolo Stadium remained a competition proposal and I suspect, based on other recent example, that in reality melting everything into single surface actually is not a very viable strategy towards synthesis or coherence. Strategies that are able to deal with a greater variety of ingredients and can digest them without running the through a pasta machine or meat grinder, I think, are necessary. Strategies that are able to encompass more complexity and heterogeneity than just formal.

Material Effect

Synthesis can occur also only perceptually, creating architectural entities whose effects are complex yet components simple. Three installations, two for Habitare expo in Finland 1996 & 97 and one for old Finnish National Theatre 1997 deployed surfaces made of plastic films which in collaboration with lighting produced an effect akin to the surface of water. Reflections, distortions and delicate rippling together with varying transparencies generated a sensation of liquidity and depth. These material effects diffused geometry and form and seemed to melt everything together. They turned the wall deep by diffusing its form. The 1996 Habitare design contained also of a large elongated rectangular space open on three sides. The surfaces were coated with aluminium film as result of which solid objects and people colored the space through reflections and appeared to float as if under water, in a non geometrical space of differential lighting effects. Inn all of these project form was relatively simple and elements quite hierarchically organized but the materials effect was used to diffuse them into a whole.


Temporary projects like the Habitare pavilions all needed linear structural elements, steel profiles. These elements were used to essentially create frames on which a plastic film was suspended. The relationship of the two would always remain hierarchical and they never entered a synthesis, if not perhaps on occasion through material effect. The linear structures were a “necessary evil”. The challenge of utilizing them for their full architectural potential became a preoccupation of mine for several years. I started to call them wireframe. Having a 1:1 scale steel space frame of a large scale temporary project for London’s Barbican Center sitting at our studio 1997 I realized (something that others have of course known before) that one doesn’t need a literal surface in order for the structure to render one.

Wireframe is a concept I believe to some degree original and latent in the digital design practice. It has a legacy in the art and architecture. Generally wireframe as a term refers to the mode in which the computer utilizes three-dimensional lines to render surfaces or volumes. I propose the term to be used in a different, broader sense. Wireframe as concept refers to the use of linear elements, sometimes structural, sometimes not, as a method of rendering space in the real world by implying surfaces and volumes through laminar repetition, meshing, bundling or affiliation of directionality. Included in the notion of the wireframe are also the so called skeletal structures where the linear element itself is articulated along its length and therefore often associated with an animal bone, rather than an abstract line. Wireframe is not a particularly strict concept, it is rather an operative, creative idea, the pleasure of which lies in its promisquity. Wireframe seems to linger somewhere in 2,5 dimensions. It is a kind of a three-dimensionalized drawing and bears as close a relationship to two-dimensional drawings as it does to three dimensional structures. It is an intriguing technique of making space because it does not construct physical surfaces or volumes but simply implies them through aggregation and directionality.

Examples of Wireframe can be found both in ancient and contemporary works of architecture and art. Two-dimensional examples are Vibracion Blanca -print by Jesus Rafael de Soto (1959) or carbon sketches by Giacometti (1901-1966). Three dimensional examples are installation and sculpture works such as Reticularea by Gego (Gertrud Goldsmith) 1969, Die Ex by Tobias Rehnberg 2000. Architectural examples of the Wireframe are vernacular structures such as fishing stations in Vieste Italy, the bundled bamboo buildings in the Gulf of New Guinea, the white exterior spatial grid of the Wexner Center by Peter Eisenman 1989 and the façade of the Federation Square by Lab architects (Bates, Davidson) in Australia 2002.


I have collaboratively authored two projects which both use simply linear structural elements, steel profiles of different kind, in order to make space. The Chambeworks installation 1998 in Oslo quite literally allows the visitor to walk inside a complex computer wireframe model. It utilized continuous tubes and rods of two different sections inside a gallery space. The curves were both smooth and folded, Nurbs and polygons mixed together. The wireframe structures were choreographed to bundle and whirl through space, creating an emergent sense of surfaces and volumes, flow and turbulence. These formations were generated through the simple affiliation of directionality and movement of lines through space.

The Chamberworks installation clearly belonged to the tradition or “tendency” of the “line” (ligne) proposed by Frederik Migayrou in his Non Standard Architecture Essay. However, it manifests a different, digital sensitivity and a higher level of formal complexity.


Another wireframe project was Intecities, a large temporary urban structure created to host a series of cultural events in 2000 in Helsinki. Intencities deployed round and square section steel profiles. The square profile elements were used to build an iterative series of trusses distributed rhythmically and laminarly through space. The folds and intersections of each truss were connected to the next truss by round section tubes which ran as straight lines through the structures more or less in perpendicular to the orientation of the trusses, thus tracing the line of transformation from truss to truss. The rhythm of repetitive, iterative elements and continuous laminar lines implies a flow and movement though space which continued beyond the limits of the physical structures.

The technique is similar to that of used by Marey in his photographs and certainly ows to the Peter Eisenman's iterative techniques of form generation. The project quite nicely seems to fit into the “tendency” group entitled Sequence as proposed by Migayrou.

In both Intencities and Chamberworks each component is different, but the homogeneous nature of the basic element - the line - the monochromatic treatment of all elements – white - and the implied movement – the ambient flow in the case of Chamberworks and drum n’ bass rhythm in the case of Intencities - all operate to create a whole which is coherent, even synthetic.


Landscraper Bridge design for the city of Dusseldorf in 2001 took the lessons learned from the smaller scale projects and proposed a wireframe bridge. We mixed three different kinds of structural principles in order to arrive at a differential structure, which has a great deal of redundancy. The muscle like striated strands of the different structures become the means of creating the architectural space of the bridge and at the same time the redundancy which results from the unusual combination of structural systems created a very strong and resilient design, a synergetic design were the different elements successfully perform together as both structure and architecture.

Surface + wireframe

Since most architectural project necessitate actual physical enclosure and single surface has proven to be a very reductive approach, the problem of synthesizing the skin and structure into a whole, it is something to be dealt with. It is often the case that it is in the micro-section of the skin that most of the constituent elements are located: Structure, glazing, technical infrastructure and apertures. The tendency is more than evident in recent architecture: rem Koolhaas’ Seattle library and CTV both deploy basket fishnet stocking like wireframe grids that wrap around the entire building creating superior structure and interesting architecture. Ocean North’s WTC proposal was among these projects proposing a kind of a 21st century Centre Pompidou, where the structure and circulation is located at the perimeter of the building and used to weave a basket like fabric that not only in structurally resilient but artistically speaking a fantastic skin with elaborate patterns. Here the wireframe becomes so dense that it reads as surface.

A sculpture entitled Surfscape from 1997 attempted to choreograph a steel mesh surface, which could be seen as a fine wireframe, and a steel rod structure, so that the two would enter constantly changing alignments and form an entity while remaining independent. The Surfscape was a continuous metal lath folded to form a loop. It had three different surface qualities created by applying spray paint. Silver, grey and black. The boundaries of the surface areas run freely along the surface following a straight folding line just as the the actual edge of the surface mesh. The linear “structural” elements are thin metal rod which are attached to the surface but travel run on it it incongruent to the patterns of the surfaces or it folds. The entire piece is made from a flat sheet with steel rod welded to it, but by choreographing the elements incongruently along the same surface there are no hierarchical relationships that become reified and therefore the effect becomes synthetic. Any moment on the surface contains a different configuration of the constitutive elements. Complexity through choreography. The effect of synthesis is created by the multiplicity of relationships the constitutient elements enter and is further magnified by the material effects of transparency and Moiré patterns when the surface is folded over several times to form a continuous loop. A folded version of Moebius strip.

Surfscape, and artwork that would nicely fit into the tradition of Ribbons

Spanish Dancer, a pavilion for the 21st century Museum of Contemporary Art, is a one of my most recent projects and explorations into choreographies of surface and wireframe. It deploys a Chamberwork installation-like structure made of aluminum tubes and pleated deep red polycarbonate fabric. The surfaces are at times completely independent of the wireframe, at times supported by it and at times support the wireframe. Structurally and artistically they form a whole. They fly through the space and wrapping over and under one another, like two dancers who are separate, yet inseparable in their dance.

In last years graduate studio at KSA, Ohio State University, we built a model for a cultural center in which we attempted to synthesize three essentially very different architectural elements in to: a wireframe structure, continuous graphically treated translucent surfaces and swarms of black repetitive objects. The hypothesis was that the drawing like quality of the wireframe performs in synthesis with the painterly surfaces because they belong to different ontologies, wireframe to drawing and surface to painting yet they share the same subject, the building. In order to synthesize the swarms of black disks the materials effect of the surfaces was manipulated so that it would to blend the hard edge objects into the whole, the same way an x-Ray image would make a screw on a persons hip look like it is a part of it.

Mathematical forms

Parametric Design processes

The parametric approach can be applied both in the physical modeling as in Spanish Dancer or when Ron Arad developed Bookworm by bouncing around continuous sheets of stainless steel from a roll or when parameters are fed into a computer in order to take into account limitations by site, program, materials, cost. Parametric design allows for positive freedom. An interplay with a resistant force out of which innovation and form emerges.

When discussing designs, their constituent elements and qualities, it is also important to discuss design process. How to do it. There is one approach in beyond other when one attemtping to choreograph coherence into a project. It is what sometimes is referred to as parametric design. It is an issue that has become increasingly interesting to me after my brief encounter with Mark Burry in Mexico at Nexus conference this summer. It is a mistake to limit the notion to digital design only, parametric design simply means that there is a set of formative forces and rules that give shape. In this sense for example, the glacier ripping across my native landscape in Finland was a parametric designer. At large scale it created directional patterns of lakes and island and on smaller scale a continuously undulation topography and on a very small scale it would rotate individual stones on the bedrock and slowly they would deform the bedrock, creating deep nests in which they still rest. The example illustrates how a single formative power articulates a landscape on several scales and manages to create a sense of coherence and continuity across these scales.

In most projects discussed so far, such a parametric process was set up, more or less consciously. In 2003 with the Formations installation at Fondazione Trussardi in Milan I took the example of the glacier molding landscape seriously and used the computer to simulate a formative process across scales. In the installation we distributed clouds of square elements from ceiling to floor in a directional patter (islands), then deformed the surfaces of the elements creating continuous topographies across them (landscape), and finally the surfaces received a series of small mysterious objects which nested in shallow, deformations or dents of the surface (deformations of the bedrock by stone). The result was a project that managed to incorporate highly articulate small objects and large rectangular panels into a coherent whole. Significantly this was the first project in my portfolio that was able to introduce Cartesian geometry into the equation.

The Spanish Dancer is also parametric in its design. The curves of the tubes and the warping of the fabric are created by the natural material resistance. It is for example crucial that the surfaces are pleated in order to great the Miyakeish geometries. The construction team was simply given templates of surfaces, lengths of tubes and point in space where the surfaces and tubes meet each other and and gallery walls. No elaborate drawings.

The most radically non digital and parametric project I have been involved in was my collaboration with Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto on the Frozen –ice building: Frozen was a 4 meter high and wide ice cylinder that contained a naturally evolved space that people could enter. The process of making the piece was was like cooking it in a frozen oven.

First make a mould and just add water. Cook for two weeks and then open the mould, break the skin and let the water inside break free, pour out, and the ice cylinder gives birth to an incredible dream-like space.

The evolved space inside the ice cylinder was amorphous in its form and contained a multitude of effects on its skin created by the ice and the freezing process - varying translucencies and qualities of the ice, on the inside there were laminar patterns of horizontal ledges and on the outside traces of the folded fabric which was used to seal the mould. From the outside the piece appeared simple, solid and monolithic, almost brutal, an abstract expressionist sculpture. On the inside it revealed its fragility and complexity, a surreal painterly space, a sublime space, whose effects are too complex to decipher, like being inside a cloud. Frozen was an example par excellence of creating a complex coherent entity with relative simplicity of means.


What are the means by which a synthesis can be achieved between line and surface. Structurally they have to perform in concert, but more challengingly perceptually they can become synthetic through material effect that subsumes the two blurs their boundaries (Jyvaskyla Skin and OSU student project), they can morph together if the linear elements such as edge of surfaces are formally and rhythmically similar to the linear elements and the two keep weaving together. In other work directionality of form in a powerful way of creating coherent wholes. This is a technique particularly evident is Zaha Hadid’s work were disparate geometric entities form continuous whole through their affiliation of formal directionality. (Surfscape) Or they can utilize the fact that they are ontologically different in nature like drawing and painting but share the same subject.

As Greg Lynn kindly it in his recent Constellations in Praxis Article “the gauntlet thrown by the topological modeling software is an integration of structure, decoration, and aperture into single surface. The extreme architectural fringle of this challenge is moving towards woven braided networks that become dense to form smooth continuous surfaces”.

1 Sanford Kwinter, Soft Systems, Culture Lab 1, Princeton Architectural Press, 1995

A twist based on the aphorism by Jeffery Kipnis “We are always of the city before we are in the city. The city makes us as those who make it, before we make it.” Jeffrey Kipnis

Due to the research in synthesizing disparate elements in a whole in contemporary work, the notion skin and micro-section have both become popular as terms which refer to the thickness of the surface which incorporates various elements. It is this thickness that has been the subject of much my research but more specifically all experiments

closeness, tightness, &c. adj.; coherence, The quality of condition of sticking together.

union, unification, synthesis, incorporation, amalgamation, embodiment, coalescence, crasis[obs3], fusion, blending, absorption. Wordsmyth web dictionary and thesaurus

(To choreograph generally means to plan a complex sequence of events in great detail, in my case these “events” are material.)

synergy - a mutually advantageous conjunction of distinct elements


bottom of page