Stress and Balance: The Structural Forces of Design
Amid continuous industrial and economic expansion, Timișoara has become a city marked by perpetual construction. Ensuring structural stability is a delicate balance of latent construction forces between materials, engineering, and human labour—as encapsulated in the concept of ‘structural design’, described by Ioan Both. The result of a collaboration instigated through the Bright Cityscapes open call, Both’s research into ‘structural design’ was artistically interpreted by Parasite 2.0 into the sculpture ‘Composition of Stress and Balance N. 1’.
Both is a senior lecturer at the Steel Structures and Structural Mechanics Department of Politehnica University of Timișoara, where he specialises in experimental testing of metallic materials and structural elements, along with numerical simulations, using the finite element method. Based between London and Milan, Parasite 2.0 is a design and research agency founded by Stefano Colombo, Eugenio Cosentino, and Luca Marullo in 2010. It explores the status of the human habitat through a blend of architecture, design, and scenography.
In this interview Eugenio Cosentino talks about the multidisciplinary collaboration with Ioan Both that resulted in expanding a structural engineering concept into a sculpture addressing themes of optimisation, economic growth, and knowledge gaps.
One aspect of the Bright Cityscapes programme sought to pair designers with industry experts. Given your architectural background, these collaborations are probably familiar. How was it different from industry collaborations you’ve had in the past?
Eugenio Cosentino (Parasite 2.0): As architects, we are used to working with structural engineers such as Ioan, but more as consultants than collaborators: we present a concept and ask the specialist the best way to physicalise it. This case was quite different, as the process worked in reverse. The project started with his research, and then we worked to translate this into something physical. It was a real collaboration, starting from the engineering and then moving towards the design.
Could you summarise the starting point you took from Ioan Both’s research?
EC: Simply put, he tests the structural performance of potential materials for architectural projects. Initially, he showed us some videos of a stress test of a miniature steel cylinder representing the steel inside concrete beams. This machine tests the strength of the material by stretching it until it breaks, determining how strong the final material should be. Other tests are virtual, using software programs to run simulations of structural performance using different materials and parameters, in order to understand how the structure responds to the strain applied to it. We found these tests fascinating, and they formed the initial spark of the project.
In collaborations with large knowledge gaps, it seems that visual language becomes a primary means of negotiating these gaps. Was that true for this process?
EC: Engineers can understand the behaviour of a structure with numbers alone. But of course, software can produce visual representations that indicate where interventions are needed. It’s impressive how, through a very simple image, a non-expert can immediately understand how it works. When you see the results of a structural simulation, you understand perfectly that blue represents minimal stress and red represents maximal. We found the graphic visualisations of these tests both communicative and aesthetically interesting, so we used them as a visual language for the project. In the context of this collective exhibition, entailing many projects and deep themes, we wanted to provide an effective means of directly engaging with such a complex topic.
The aesthetics of simulation suggest a logic of optimisation. How do you view the theme of optimisation in your work?
EC: I think it depends on what we mean by optimisation. The structural optimisation that Ioan’s work is concerned with is not central to our practice. But I would say that integration of the simulation aesthetics in the project could be seen as a good design optimisation of a concept, insofar as it allows one to immediately understand the topic and provides an entry point for deeper engagement with the work. I would say that we are often concerned with an optimisation of this kind in our work. Another way of looking at it is in relation to the economic optimisation of the time we spend on our projects, and the financial constraints of the work. This is something we are constantly engaged with.
The idea of optimisation of the experience of the work is quite interesting. The clarity and boldness of the visual language both work to catch one’s attention. In that way, the work could be described as ‘Instagrammable’. Although this term can be pejorative, indicating that a work lacks depth, it also speaks to the broader digital infrastructures through which contemporary design projects circulate. Given that the vast majority of people who will see this work will see it on Instagram, capturing attention in these contexts is paramount. Are you conscious of these dynamics when designing your work?
EC: I think it’s a very important aspect of the work of a designer today. I also think ‘Instagrammable’ can be a positive adjective, indicating that a project can narrate itself through images. This is even more important when the project you’re presenting is not permanent. For 99% of our career, Parasite 2.0 has developed temporary projects, so pictures of a project are all that remain in the end. When developing a project, we think of both aspects: the first-person experience, and the way that experience can be framed and narrated through images. When you understand what pictures must be taken to communicate projects effectively, you also understand the most important parts of the project.
Bringing up the ‘economic optimisation’ of your work is interesting in relation to stress and balance. As a design studio of three people working in a cultural context with limited budgets, your practice is strongly shaped by limitations that often remain invisible. Is this project also an attempt to render visible these hidden structures?
EC: Absolutely. The exhibition primarily focused on Timișoara’s growth over the past decades, considering the city’s increasing demand for resources: material, economic, and labour. We went to Timișoara eight years ago for another project. In the years since, we noticed a huge and deep change in the city. This personal experience was very important for us in developing this project. Such growth requires time and labour, but tight deadlines often compress work into short periods. We wanted to explore the human aspect: the stress that the people working on the city’s growth experience. ‘Composition of Stress and Balance N. 1’ was exactly about these two different but not-so-different worlds, playing with the double meaning of the engineering terms ‘stress’ and ‘balance’ as reflected in both Ioan’s structural engineering research and the broader socioeconomic dynamics of the city.
This highlights the ways in which so much of a design project or any project is always already ‘designed’ from the start by broader structural forces that often don’t really get addressed. What else did the project reveal to you?
EC: The project revealed something to Ioan about his own work. He said: ‘I always see my work as very boring. I like it because it is something that really interests me, but I don’t find it very interesting for others.’ However, the process of translating his usually digital technical work into a physical form with his own hands was a step towards reconsidering the broader appeal of his own work. He said that he wants to present this project to his students. In the university, these concepts are studied through technical diagrams. However, they could also be realised through spaghetti and sticks, through which one can understand something more concretely than through abstract pictures on the screen.
Text by Connor Cook