PURE Tension by SDA | Synthesis Design + Architecture / Interview with Alvin Huang

Pure Tension Pavilion at Urban Stories Event, Milan, Italy Credits: Mosca Partners / Synthesis Design + Architecture

Projects like PURE Tension by SDA | Synthesis Design + Architecture makes us wonder if we are crossing conception’s borders of our present design regarding our daily objects.

The car industry is facing a huge challenge, shifting from petrol based engines to other systems based on renewable energies. This is a slow process, for sure slower than many people would wish, but undoubtedly electric cars will become a reality in the coming future as the main human transport system.

There are many challenges here, including the energy storage or the power supply. PURE Tension draws an original scenario where each car can supply its own electricity needs thanks to a portable pavilion that can be easily packaged into the car’s trunk.

The surprising element of this project is the capacity by all parties involved (including Volvo, BuroHappold Engineering & Fabric Images), leaded by SDA | Synthesis Design + Architecture, to take a science-fiction concept and to build it for real. This pavilion is totally functional, tested together with the Volvo car model V60 in a tour through Italy that started in September 2013.

Shaped as an organic mesh surrounding the car, the pavilion combines polyester that acts as a skin for the lightweight aluminum structure. The result is an experimental structure designed to be portable and efficient at the same time.

The solar PV component (in addition to all cabling and electronics enclosed to this system) is distributed across the organic surface. To avoid mismatches of energy due to changes of the degree of exposure, the system uses a smart controller (MPPT), which disables the solar panels that are not collecting the minimum energy necessary, and keeping only the solar panels that are running at an optimal performance.

SDA | Synthesis Design + Architecture demonstrates with PURE Tension that interdisciplinary projects do not understand about established design conventions, and everything is possible with the appropriate team behind. Alvin Huang, the leader of this project, provided us with some key elements to consider when developing a project like this.

Pure Tension Pavilion at Volvo headquarters, Bologna, Italy Credits: Jason Gillette (Fabric Images) / Synthesis Design + Architecture

Ignacio Zamora (IZ)

I am trying to categorize this project and I cannot find the right word. As per your website it is defined as an “experimental structure”. How do you deal with the boundaries between architecture, engineering, product design or public art? What is your vision for the future?

Alvin Huang (AH)

As an office, we are very much inspired by a great quote from seminal British architect Cedric Price, who stated “Technology is the answer, but what is the question?” I don’t think there is a category for this project, but rather a series of questions it asks. We see it as an architectural version of a concept car – a vision for the future that challenges existing modes of thinking. Some of the questions we asked ourselves or think that this project asks include:

  • Can architecture be an accessory rather than a destination?

  • If form follows function, is function more than utility?

  • Can material intuition be developed through simulation?

  • Can form be informed by performance?

  • Can three-dimensional surface be tailored like a suit?

  • Can digital fabrication merge with hand craft?

Fabric Images / Credits: Synthesis Design + Architecture


When you face such a multidisciplinary project like “PURE Tension”… How do you approach it in terms of skills needed and the difficulties to coordinate them?


We see design as a collaborative discipline. There really is no such thing as sole authorship in design, and that is the way we approach things. We see ourselves as the moderators of an extended design dialogue that includes ourselves, our clients, our collaborators, and our fabricators. As designers we are asking questions which we sometimes need specialists to help us answer (or help us ask better questions). We seek out collaborators who are specialists that can assist us in developing particular inquiries.

Details of PV panels embedded in pavilion mesh skin Credits: LDB advertising Volvo Italy / Synthesis Design + Architecture


Regarding the solar component of the work, and the challenge to arrive to a balance between the design and the efficiency… Did the final result meet your expectations? How was your experience working with thin film and its adaptation to the curved skin of the pavilion?


The first prototype of the pavilion could charge a fully depleted V60 in roughly 12 hours. Obviously, 12 hours is a long time to charge and unless you are in Scandinavia in the summer you aren’t going to get 12 hours of sunlight. With that said, when we first proposed the project we weren’t even sure we could get it to work at all – so the fact that it could charge the car at all was a win. For the next version of the prototype we are trying to decrease that time, but that is more of an electrical engineering issue than it is an architectural design issue. Additionally, with the time restrictions required to complete the prototype we weren’t able to integrate the wiring into the seams and had to use standard off the shelf 15cm x 15cm PV panels. Our fabricators, Fabric Images, have since developed a process for producing custom PV panel shapes along with the integration of the wiring of the panels into the seams of the fabric (using the seams as conduits). We are also working on getting the deployment time (currently about 45 minutes w/ 3 people) down to a more reasonable amount of time.

Pure Tension Pavilion at Urban Stories Event, Milan, Italy Credits: Mosca Partners / Synthesis Design + Architecture


What is the potential of this concept to be applied to future projects? Do you think we are close to commercial applications like “PURE Tension” or are we still talking about early prototype stages?


I think there is great potential for the concept to be applied – however as stated before I definitely think of this more as a concept car which proposes a vision – rather than a proposal for a commercial ready product. It is more about challenging the status quo and provoking a set of questions. We are currently working on a second version for limited commercial availability.

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Alvin Huang, AIA is the Founder and Design Principal of Synthesis Design + Architecture and an Assistant Professor at the USC School of Architecture. He is an award-winning architect, designer, and educator specializing in the integrated application of material performance, emergent design technologies and digital fabrication in contemporary architectural practice. His work spans all scales ranging from hi-rise towers and mixed-use developments to temporary pavilions and bespoke furnishings.

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See Also:

http://synthesis-dna.com/projects/pure-tension-volvo-v60-pavilion Article at Dezeen Article at Inhabitat Article at DesignBoom Video interview Alvin Huang (Milan 2013) (Italian-English)

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