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The Butterfly has shed its Skin

SEFAR Architecture EXTERIOR – The Butterfly has shed its Skin

By: Nic Goldsmith FAIA LEED AP

The word ‘pavilion’ comes originally from the French word ‘papillion,’ which translates to ‘butterfly’. Butterflies alight softly on the ground and remain as dynamic objects with seeming little anchor to the earth. In the built environment, pavilions refer to free standing structures whose architecture makes it an object of pleasure. We see pavilions used for music, festivals, exhibits and performances. They are generally playful by nature and can be temporary or permanent.

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Mies va der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion / BMW’s Gina concept car

In the car industry, automotive concept cars are used by car designers as a way of pushing experimental technologies into mass production. New ideas are explored; new materials are developed and exposed to the public to see their reactions. In a sense, it works as a polling strategy to gauge interest and excite the public.

In architecture, the pavilion serves a similar role as the concept car by serving as a model platform for exploration, new ideas and new structural technologies. An example of this was the influence of Ernst Haeckel, a naturalist of the 1880s whose fabulous drawings of radiola could be seen in Rene Binet’s entrance pavilion to the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. In turn, this pavilion was instrumental in the development of the French Art Nouveau movement at the turn of the last century.

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Haeckel / Rene Binet’s Pavilion Paris 1900 / Frei Otto’s German Pavilion 1967

With the introduction of membrane structures by Frei Otto in the 1960s, pavilions again played


an important role, developing an acceptance in the larger public consciousness. Pavilions such as Otto’s West German Pavilion at the Montreal World’s Fair of 1967 presented to the public an accomplished new building technology. It was open in some areas, enclosed in others, seemingly touching down like a butterfly….it was a new way to enclose space; building sections were upended as roof and wall became one multilayered surface.

At FTL Design Engineering Studio, we have been designing pavilions for over 35 years.


I have even been called a “pavilionologist” at times when someone is trying to figure out what we do. From a traveling music pavilion for the Metropolitan Opera that folded out of 7 semi-trailer trucks to permanent music pavilions such as the one in Sun Valley Idaho, we have used the pavilion to push new technologies…the first photovoltaic tensile structure for the Smithsonian,


the first cable net and wood roof in North America, the first rental tent that used tensile structure technology, the first integrated glass curtain wall system with fabric shading for the Phoenix Library and the deployable airlock for NASA.

Recently, I have seen a growing acceptance of lightweight membranes as building skins, which portends enormous possibilities in the growth of new materials. I suspect that what we are presently seeing is a shift from the pavilion to the lightweight building skin, from stand alone objects of pleasure to integrated enclosures. With so many new materials available today, from woven glass fabrics with PTFE coatings to silicone glass fabrics to expanded woven PTFE fabrics to ETFE foil skins, we are now able to utilize a formidable toolbox of different textiles for different applications. We can shade buildings, but allow for visual transparencies; we can use lightweight insulating materials with nanogel technology; we can create meshes and solid membranes, which reflect the climates from tropical warm to arid hot to northern cool climates.

A recent project that we completed in Singapore for Louis Vuitton serves as an interesting transition between pavilion and skin. The project was conceived by Louis Vuitton as an island crystal pavilion in Marina Bay. Moshe Safdie Architects’ designed the 25,000 sq ft glass pavilion for the developer. Louis Vuitton retained the services Peter Marino Architect to design the interiors, but soon into the design process it was discovered that a clear glass structure on the equator required significant shading to manage the light levels and protect the luxury goods from harmful UV radiation. FTL was hired to develop the design of the shading system. First, we considered an overcladding approach, but due to political constraints, we started to look at a series of lightweight floating ribbons that mirrored the angular forms of the glass pavilion. We used SEFAR Architecture’s PTFE fabric based on color balance, transparency and durability for the ceiling fabric and a silicone glass fabric on the wall panels for greater transparency.

We then developed a new tensioning system that sits proudly on the aluminum framing to enhance the floating appearance of the material. The mounting system allowed for modular panel types, which could still retain even tolerances throughout by permitting movement in all axes. We worked with the fabricator and installer Eventscape through prototype stage and installation. The ceiling panels used a heavier material which was hinged with cables to allow controlled access during maintenance of the glass above.

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Louis Vuitton Island Maison, Singapore

The final result of the project is a demonstration – and apt metaphor – of the butterfly shedding its skin and the transition of the membrane industry today.