A conversation with Neil Thomas of Atelier OneMeet - November 28, 2018
In a world of engineers that tell you it can’t be done, you can’t afford it, it’s not allowed, and it won’t work, there’s one shining example of the possibility of engineering in the world and that’s Neil Thomas. He didn’t into the engineering syndrome. When he hears a problem he says let’s figure it out. He recently had an epiphany, in part because he has three little kids. He had created an amazing experience for a big event and he came home and showed pictures to his kids. The kids said, “We want to see it.” And he showed them another picture, and they replied, “No, we want to see it. Not just pictures.” Neil had just returned from this amazing show and he realized his whole work was in the landfill with the rest of the hoopla. I, fortunately, met him through a mutual brilliant friend called Mark Fisher and have been infecting him with the bamboo virus and washing him in the green river ever since. I am so happy to have him in my world.
Neil Thomas is the Director of Atelier One. Over the years, Atelier One has worked with many talented architects, artists and designers, both within the UK and internationally. Completed projects include the award winning Conservatories & Super trees at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, (World Building of the year 2012 ) , the development of Federation Square in Melbourne (Australian Architects Prize 2003, Australian Engineering Excellence Award 2003), the National Stadium in Slovenia and, in the UK, the Baltic Gallery in Gateshead and three specialist buildings for the prestigious White Cube Gallery in London. They are also specialists in the field of engineering design for unique art installations, complex touring exhibitions and dramatic stages; some of their most notable projects include: Anish Kapoor’s Cloudgate in Chicago; the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Ceremonies; and Stage Sets for U2, the Rolling Stones & the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Neil regularly attends Bamboo U as a special guest. Find out when he will next be teaching here.
How did you become an engineer?
When I was younger, my father (also an engineer) ran a power station in the midlands in England. As with all power stations, it had cooling towers, but this power station was unique in having the largest dry cooling tower in Europe. The tower was huge and extracted the heat through radiators at the base. We went inside regularly with my father, but on one occasion a bird inside was spiraling around going upwards, but his wings were not moving. He was rising on the currents of the air. I knew I had seen something special and I asked myself how does that work. I knew at that point I wanted to be an engineer.
What was your first thought when you arrived in Bali and saw these bamboo creations?
I spent three days wandering around with John Hardy basically with my mouth open. Everybody does, don’t they? I don’t know anyone who has been here who doesn’t. Thomas Heatherwick, who, as we all know, is world renowned, had the same experience. A man experiencing and creating magical things, really truly magical things, still saw in this a really unbelievable achievement.
My introduction to John was through Mark Fisher, who was an architect of stages and who singlehandedly changed the way rock and roll shows are designed. He was dying and told me to come and find John. Later I also found out that he had told John the same thing. I had no reason to be in Bali except for Mark telling me to find John.
Bamboo in the eyes of an engineer
People describe bamboo as being like concrete or steel, but they haven’t quite got it right. From my recent experience of designing a whole new set for U2 from carbon fiber, I can say bamboo is like carbon fiber. If I were to design a material to build with and I closed my eyes to describe the properties I’d like it to have, what it should look like, how it’s made and what its form is, it would look like bamboo. Nature did something in making bamboo, something that we can’t achieve today in the 21st century with the technology we have. We will, but not yet.
It isn’t a single thing, it’s a series of things about the material. If you created a diagram you would show that bamboo is a tube, the wall of the tube is made up of cellular bundles, but from the inside to the outside of the wall the cells are getting denser and denser, meaning it’s getting stronger and stronger. The outside layer is a silica layer. Inside the tubes, you have these nodes with a diaphragm that crosses over. If you design a tube, it will be really strong but could buckle. Bamboo has stabilized the tube with the nodes. And then it gets even cooler. A straight tube could still buckle along its length, but the slight curvature in bamboo, we call it an anticlastic surface, means that each individual point is stabilized by the opposite curvature. It’s unbelievable.
Making engineering accessible
We published a book which is about the work we’ve done. As part of the book, we defined a series of engineering terms and explained them in common parlance. My general experience is that if I say to someone that I’m an engineer they generally glaze over and lose interest for the rest of their lives. That’s what engineering does to people. So I really wanted to develop a language to translate those ideas for people who are not technical. I think as an engineer you have to be all sorts of things. It’s fine being able to do all those technical things, but to explain them to people you have to be a mediator.
Working with John and Elora
John has an intuitive, innate understanding of the way things work. Elora has a very similar understanding; she lives and breathes bamboo. They also both live in nature, so they look around and see how things work. The fabulous thing is the way Elora talks about feeling the material and working with the material, which is so alien in the world I come from in western Europe, where architecture is viewed in a particular way. because she’s not had an architecture training, she doesn’t have those limitations. Neither does Thomas Heatherwick. They see design in a different way.
Atelier One has recently become involved with IBUKU. The previous engineer they worked with told them he really felt he had gone as far as he could with the work they were doing, so it was the perfect open door for us to walk through. We could tell them, “Ok you’ve gone this far, but you could go this far”. It’s begun the process of talking about surface as form and structure and IBUKU can begin to investigate much more complex forms. You can see them now at Bambu Indah, the grid shell structures. There’s even one where the roof is hanging from the trees.
I spent two years coming back here before I felt comfortable that we understood bamboo enough to engineer it. Because it’s nature you’re working with so there is no uniformity. Most materials I work with are isotropic. The properties are the same. But again, carbon fiber is not. It’s designed to work the way you want it work. You don’t extrude it, you build it, you make it. Because of the nonuniformity, you need to recognize that. It’s like wood, but when we work with wood we destroy it. The second you start to cut the trunk of a tree to make rectangular joists you ruin the properties of the wood because you cut through the rings. There is no building material on the planet like bamboo, it stands out by a mile for all sorts of reasons, but especially for its speed of growth and therefore sustainability.
We’ve been looking at bamboo from around the world. For a long time the search extended around the world to everyone working with bamboo to understand what can be achieved. What we do as engineers it to look at things that exist and put them together in different ways and that is what we’re beginning to do here, combining tension systems with the nature of bamboo. That hasn’t been done here before. I can see with Elora and John that they are beginning to understand these new ideas.
What do people in your field say about bamboo when you talk about it?
Five years ago, when I first started coming to Bali, people laughed when I talked to them about bamboo. Five years later, they’re not laughing anymore. The interest is growing dramatically. A client of ours, a big developer, invited us to come and look at a building they are refurbishing. They asked, “Can we do 30 stories of infill with bamboo?” In West London. But to use bamboo in a western European context, it will need to be thought about differently. We can’t use the codes that exist and apply it to bamboo. There’s no reason we can’t think of ways to work with bamboo. It takes different ways of thinking. For example, fire risk reduction. There are ways to create redundancies, so that if one group burns, the other group can’t, limiting the fire spreading. The fundamental point is, don’t change bamboo to work with the codes, change the codes to work with bamboo.
What are most excited about in your own work?
Atelier One recently won the award for innovation from the Institute of Structural Engineers for the touring screen and structure built for the Joshua Tree tour by U2.
To be almost 30 years in practice (May 2019) and to be recognized for innovation is the greatest accolade. What does the future hold? Who knows but it is very exciting.