Published: 27 November 2019

An interview with Olivier Baverel

At the 2019 International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures (IASS) Symposium in Barcelona, Olivier Baverel, a Professor at the Ecole des Ponts ParisTech and at the School of Architecture and co-editor of the International Journal of Space Structures, shared his thoughts on the factors that will shape spatial structures in the future.

Olivier Baverel

What do you define as a spatial structure?

I would define space structures as a structure that behaves in a three dimensional way and is expected to be efficient in both its mechanical behaviour and its need of materials to be built.

How did your personal interest in spatial structures develop?

My personal interest started when I was a kid. I’ve always been extremely interested in geometry and also structural mechanics. Space structure is a sort of union between geometry, structure and mechanics, and also technology – three areas that are very interesting to me – so it was natural for me to go into this field.

Could you give a brief overview of the history of spatial structures, as you see it?

Spatial structures have evolved over a long period of time. They arose from the improvement in knowledge of geometry, mechanics and technology. Mastering of these disciplines led people to develop lighter structures with a longer span since the 19th century.

How would you describe the role of digital development in the progression of spatial structures?

From my viewpoint as a researcher, the development of spatial structures comes directly from the development of the tools available. Up until 20 years ago these tools were not affordable or didn’t exist, and the capacity to generate complex geometry and to perform structural analysis was really difficult.

Among other pioneers, Professor Hoshyar Nooshin, who did advanced work back in 1984, is certainly the father of this field. Few enthusiastic people followed him, and this question of management of complex geometry was only adopted by a large community in around 2005. It is now one of the main topics of research on spatial structures. Professor Nooshin is definitely a pioneer in this field. 

Could you tell us a little about your involvement with the International Journal of Space Structures?

I’ve been co-editor of the International Journal of Space Structures since 2013 and it has been extremely interesting to see many different papers from many different people. We’re now planning to increase the number of papers we publish and also increase the number of special issues.

What most excites you about the future of spatial structures?

I think what is exciting about the future of spatial structures is the way these structures will contribute to a sustainable society. You know our industry is creating a large part of the world’s waste, and it’s consuming a lot of energy and depleting our material resources. As designers of spatial structures we have to act and find sustainable solutions – of course for climate change but also for the depletion of materials and other parts of the lifecycle analysis. We can only solve this huge challenge, and meet our goals, by finding new methods and tools to master this complexity.

What emerging technologies or trends do you think will be most applied to the production and design of spatial structures in the future?

I think that the first thing we need to do is really understand what we mean by lifecycle analysis and to understand how deeply we need to re-think our field and the act of building. We need to go one step deeper and realise that what we are doing is quite harmful to the environment. So I think the most important part is education. The evolution of the technology such as 3D printing or robotic construction will make a drastic change in the way we design space structures but I think that overall we need to develop design tools and methods to help designers to reach their goals.

So looking forward to the next IASS Symposium, which takes place at the University of Surrey in August 2020, what do you think will be the hot topics?

Obviously a hot topic will be sustainability. It’s not simply using words like ‘we want to be green’. Everybody wants to be green. Now, we have to think as researchers and practitioners how we can really do sustainability, and it’s not simple.

The motto of the IASS 2020 symposium is ‘inspiring the next generation’. How do you think those in the field of spatial structures can best achieve this?

To inspire the next generation I think we have three levers. The first is a question of geometry: we have to master geometry to provide solutions that are buildable without having to do tedious post-rationalisation. The second lever is the question of materials, including new materials and printed materials that have to be used in a sustainable manner. And the third one is of course numerical tools and robotics to actually produce sustainable structures. Within this last lever, there’s certainly a lot of work to be done with artificial intelligence (AI), and all of those things which will enable us to automate the assembly of complex structures using robots in the future.

Could you expand on how AI might be used in the context of spatial structures?

What’s fascinating about AI is that it isn’t actually that difficult to program – we recently had a PhD student who programmed a robot to automatically pick up some stones and build a wall using three simple cameras and a picture recognition algorithm associated to a trained neural network. It worked: the robot can pick up bricks disposed randomly on a table.

I think that within the next decade certainly, we’ll be able to use AI to assemble complex components with high accuracy, with very little labour.

However in our complex world, before using all the advanced techniques, we also need ask ourselves whether it is worth building, so this development should be associated with social sciences. Otherwise you may have a fantastic tool but you can create a lot of waste. In other words, science without consciousness is just a waste of time or as Rabelais (1494-1553) said, ‘Science without conscience is only ruin of the soul’.

A notable quality of spatial structures is the unity between complex engineering structures or shapes, and art. How do you think spatial structures will continue to be influenced by artistic and architectural trends in the future?

I have to say that my interest in space structures is also because of beauty. Each time I see a beautiful space structure, I understand why I do this job and I think that contributing to something beautiful for our society is also part of an engineer’s job. Art has been part of any human group or society for thousands of years and it is what makes humans human.


Read more about the Annual Symposium of the IASS 2020 and the 7th International Conference on Spatial Structures, being hosted at Surrey from 24 to 28 August 2020.

Find out about the exciting Design Competition which has been launched by Surrey’s Spatial Structures Research Centre to co-incide with the conference.

Discover our courses in civil and environmental engineering.

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