Published: 12 November 2019

An interview with René Motro

René Motro is Emeritus Professor at the University of Montpellier and has a long history with the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures (IASS). At the IASS 60th anniversary Symposium in Barcelona, we talked to him about the history and future of spatial structures.

Rene Motro

Why do you think the field of spatial structures is important?

The discipline is important because it opens minds. We’ve seen here in Barcelona a room where 31 projects by young people are exhibited. This is opening up the possibility of new architecture, new aesthetics and new resistance systems.

How did your personal interest in the discipline develop?

I would say my personal interest was linked with my love for geometry. That was the beginning. I went on to work at the interface between engineering and architecture, and the interface between forms and forces, between visible and invisible. Geometry is visible: you can measure it, you can see it, you can take a picture. My personal interest is to establish a link between forms and forces.

I started my research in this field when I came to the University of Surrey in 1973 and met Professor Hoshyar Nooshin and Professor Zygmunt Makowski.

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

The beginning could be the start of 20th century with Graham Bell. After that, there were some examples, mainly with reinforced concrete, after the First World War. Later, the introduction of computers offered opportunities to compute very complex situations and we began to see lots of different space structures including concrete shell structures and tension structures. Zygmunt Makowski created Heathrow Airport’s first jumbo jet maintenance hangars in the 1960s.

Nowadays spatial structure have changed in terms of the materials used and the structural principles. The fascinating thing about spatial structures is the interaction between visible geometry and the invisible force inside.

Can you tell me about the development of the IASS?

Yes, as you probably know the Association was created by Eduardo Torroja in 1959. The one very interesting characteristic of the Association is that it is not only made up of ingenious architects, but also mathematicians and artists. This interaction and synergy is very productive. The IASS is quite different from other scientific association; it’s more of a family.

Which spatial structure project most stands out for you and why?

I am always impressed by the alliance between structural performance and aesthetic. One project which interested me very much is in a town close to mine in France where there is a bullfight arena. Several years ago, they decided to cover this arena with inflatable structures. This impressed me not only because of the aesthetic structure but also because as a young boy of 12 I’d visited another arena and thought ‘how would it be possible to cover this?’ There are also some very interesting realisations in Japan and China, but I cannot name them..

You’ve worked with Professor Hoshyar Nooshin and Professor Zygmunt Makowski, two prolific names in shell and spatial structures, at the University of Surrey. Could you tell me about your experience of working with them?

Yes I worked closely with Professor Nooshin on his research on geometry, and I visited the spatial structures centre at the University. What was different about Professor Nooshin was his determination to develop so-called formulae from algebra and the digital aspect. I Iearned not just geometry but a way of working and exchanging ideas with other people: a way of questioning the world again and again to be closest to the truth he saw. Zygmunt Makowski was a Dean at the University of Surrey and he had an amazing knowledge of the history of space structures.

Could you tell me about the development of the International Journal of Space Structures?

Yes, the first editors were in fact Professors Nooshin and Makowski, and I was then editor of the Journal for some years. It was a very interesting experience because of the variety of scientific papers that came in, and the reviewers I came into contact with.

What most excites you about the future of spatial structures?

I hope that we will see more and more creative design solutions which we cannot imagine at this time. For me, this is the key point. We can develop digital tools, but tools do not design. Imagination and creative thinking are necessary.

What developments do you foresee in the field?

I think the use of materials compatible with environmental challenges will be an interesting development. The challenge will be to find a way of working and a way of building which is compatible with that so that we can have lightweight spatial structures which are sustainable. If we look at nature, the shape of flowers moving, we can imagine a building which folds and unfolds in a similar way. We have already seen this for specific disaster situations.

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

I think to inspire the next generation you first need to provide a history. Secondly, you need to encourage people to experiment at a big scale. Sometimes, if you’re behind your screen in ‘virtual’ mode, you don’t see the full picture. When you are on site it’s quite different. It’s knowing the history, experimenting with the solution, and opening the way to imagination.


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