Force and Counterforce

A designer and a sculptor deploy an arsenal of digital and industrial tools to produce ContraFuerte.

By Margaret Shakespeare

The sculptor Miguel Horn assembles the first half of ContraFuerte in his West Philadelphia studio. Image courtesy Miguel Horn.

The Philadelphia sculptor Miguel Horn’s latest work may not look particularly technological, but it is the product of a sophisticated design and fabrication process that many landscape architects may recognize. ContraFuerte is a new permanent outdoor installation set to be unveiled this fall. “It’s a monument to collective action,” Horn says.

The installation contains a strong element of discovery. Located in an alley in Center City, directly across 12th Street from Reading Terminal Market, the sculpture depicts two sets of male and female figures, entwined and buttressed against a small bridge as if, with superhuman force, they are keeping the bridge suspended above the roadway. To execute and install the work—which weighs 11,000 pounds and comprises more than 5,000 intricately connected aluminum pieces—Horn turned to the capabilities of design software and invited his longtime friend Chris Landau, Affiliate ASLA, a design technologist with a newly established eponymous firm, to collaborate.

Landau spent 11 years at OLIN, working with landscape architects on some of that firm’s most high-profile projects, including Dilworth Park. He’s fluent in the kinds of visualization and digital tools that have become ubiquitous in design offices, including Rhino and Grasshopper. That fluency, along with his experience fabricating landscape models, transferred directly to realizing ContraFuerte.

An early digital rendering of the installation gives a sense of scale and the surrounding environment. Image courtesy Miguel Horn.

The sculpture began nearly five years ago. Horn used LiDAR scans to capture the bridge—an insignificant concrete ramp into a parking garage—and the surrounding buildings. Then he made a clay-and-foam 1:3 scale model of the entire piece. He then scanned that model, with its life-size figures, again using LiDAR. To clean up the scan (for instance, correcting a finger placed in a wall to on the wall), he and Landau learned ZBrush, a digital sculpting software tool that yields depth information and other details. But the scale of the project required a still higher level of precision.

Nearly all of Horn’s work is figurative. He has developed a signature slice-and-assemble style he describes as a “topographical construction method, layering sheet materials to build three-dimensional form.” For the first time, however, he needed to construct a piece digitally. “And I needed tools [to assure] no gaps in the surface,” he says. “Every layer had to be processed in relation to the layer above and the layer below, down to an eighth-inch overlap—for hundreds of layers.”

An overhead, in-studio view of the assembly process, showing the two halves in different stages of completion. Image courtesy Miguel Horn.

“Grasshopper was used to automate every layer,” Landau says. “Topographical construction is how I have been making my work for years. We had at least a dozen [custom scripted] tools within Grasshopper to get the cleanest output possible.” Landau used a baking process, animated within Grasshopper, and wrote code more than once. “Technology processed the geometry,” he says. It also added necessary hardware—bolts, notches, dovetails, and three-way slotting—within the sculpture that ties the layers together and secures the sculpture to the bridge and walls. Not only did the software illuminate the exact interface of the sculpture and its urban environment, Landau created an algorithm for efficiently placing thousands of shapes on hundreds of four-foot by 10-foot aluminum sheets—like arranging pattern pieces on fabric to minimize remnants—to be cut by water jet. Then, in Horn’s studio, the eight powerful figures were brought to life using a 3-D model Landau had created in a piece-by-piece assembly process.

The expansion of computer-based industrial processes has been two-edged—expediting mass production but at the same time diminishing the need for artisanal skills to design and execute buildings and other projects for public spaces. Sculpture and architecture diverged, Horn says. “Artists like Chris and [me] are working to facilitate the integration of technology into the arts to empower other artists to reclaim their place in the sphere of designing our built environment.”

Leave a Reply