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The deployable tectonic: mechanization and mobility in architecture


Movable elements in architecture are not new, but are gaining in popularity, as evidenced in recent works of architecture such as The Shed at Hudson Yards. This type of architecture, termed “kinetic” shifts the relationship of the public to the space they inhabit. People are no longer moving bodies through the space; the space transforms around them. Further, the design process for success in these types of projects is highly layered and complex. If structural advances drive this trend, we are at a unique juncture in the history of architecture, similar to the flying buttress or standardized fabrication wherein technology is leading architectural aesthetics. From the user’s perspective, a piece of architecture becomes active; it awakens from the static. These elements bring the architectural design to the forefront of a visitor’s attention. Often the technology of mechanized architecture can be simplified into simple diagrams. Indeed there has been in recent years a small flurry around these moves, studied in small models and diagrammatic vignettes. However, in implementation, these structures are quite sophisticated. Their engineering requires a keen understanding of how forces trace through a structure in multiple scenarios of deployment. Looking at the case study of The Shed at Hudson Yards, of which the authors have first-hand project experience, it can be seen that kinetic projects possess what is posited to be called “hyper-collaboration,” as every decision has impacts upon as well as is informed by the allied disciplines within a design and construction team. Thus, a linear model wherein an architectural solution is envisioned then subsequently handed off to be implemented dissolves, and a new, more networked approach emerges.

Introduction: On architecture, structure, and mobility

Fold, roll, slide, pivot. Kinetic architectural design shows us buildings can go beyond the static – they become mobile. These structures have components designed to move, usually serving some practical function, but also drawing attention to the novelty of their performance. These components, termed “kinetic”, are both architecture and structure. While this mechanization has a feel of high-tech, mobile architecture has existed in some form for centuries. This paper aims to explore the kinetic structures in the contemporary context – briefly overview its roots, but also its technologies and how they are currently being used to engage visitors in the space they occupy. It examines how the design process becomes increasingly more collaborative in comparison to the statically-designed counterparts of the architectural world. Engineering and technology are not merely a means to achieve the design – they are the design. Thus, a linear model wherein an architectural solution is envisioned then subsequently handed off and implemented dissolves, and a new, more networked approach emerges.

Movable components allow structures to transform, and builders throughout history utilized this benefit. For example, it is known that the Roman Coliseum utilized a fabric panel system, called a velarium, to transform the arena to a shaded space. While this can be seen as an evolution from simple clothesline, it is also a precursor to the moveable roofs seen on modern-day stadiums. Bascule bridges have been used since ancient times at the intersection of roadways and waterways. These bridges typically utilize a counter-weight to deploy the horizontal span to a vertical position, making way for river and causeway traffic (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
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Bascule bridge (image: Bridges: a double drawbridge for ships to pass through. Image: Engraving. Retrieved from

Structures thus evolved to take on the capability of adaptivity. They need not be static vessels and roadways, but rather can transform to accommodate the needs of people. This is a key point in the understanding of kinetic architecture. But is it simply a technological adaptation based on convenience and comfort? This paper posits it goes beyond that. Kinetic architecture changes our relationships with structures. It breaks down conceptions of architecture as static monuments, entities fixed as unchanging objects inserted into an urban fabric that is continually in flux. Buildings, too, experience change. It allows us to have great expectations for what a space can do and be. As this idea has evolved through history, simple machines of kinetic movement have progressed to become complex machines. They’ve incorporated different materials and new interfaces. Perhaps most significantly, they’ve benefited from the use of electrical control systems.

All these advancements have pushed our boundaries. They are engineering technologies that redefine how architecture behaves. In that sense, technology leads the design. For us to conceive the phenomenon of movable buildings, we must understand its technical capabilities. In order to advance the architecture, we design with engineering. While the diagrams of movement – roll, slide, glide, pivot, etc. – have an almost toy-like simplicity, the execution of these structures at a building scale is incredibly complex. Engineering knowledge gives way to new frontiers of architectural possibilities.

This model, of course, has precedence. Gothic builders took pushed building heights with their technological understanding of thrust and the way it maneuvered within the pointed arch. The Modern movement embraced the use of iron, then later steel, to make way for higher building and larger beam spans. Digital fabrication would be nothing without the advancement of finite element analysis.

We thus can look forward to an architecture that awakens beyond the static. The building has capacity to respond to the user needs, such as deploying a roof or adjusting louvers based on sun angles. This new evolution of the tectonic ideal is alluded to in Salvador Perez Arroyo’s definition of “structure” in the Metapolis Dictionary for Advanced Architectural Studies:

“… We have grown up in a world of rigid containers, with scarce movements and deflections, while the natural universe is based upon flexibility and mutations. The bird’s wings, the branches of trees, the natural elements of water and strong winds. We are surrounded by mobility and transformations. Structure and architecture will follow this reality…” [1]

Defining and categorizing kinetic architecture

Before going further, “kinetic architecture” must be defined. Like many categories within art and nature, its boundaries are fuzzy. Simply put, it is architecture that moves. However, as pointed out by Zuk and Clark and many other authors, this definition could include hinged doors and window sashes. [27] A more precise definition is offered by Asefi, in the book Retractable and Kinetic Structures: “a distinct class of structures consisting of rigid, or transformable elements, connected by moveable joints that can change their geometry reversibly and repeatedly and have the innate characteristic of controlled reconfiguration.” [2] Another useful definition is given by Fox and Kemp in Interactive Architecture: “transformable objects that dynamically occupy predefined physical space, or moving physical objects that can share a common physical space to create adaptable spatial configurations.” [13] Other terms that have been associated with this class of structures include ‘deployable’ (which could have a related meaning, discussed shortly), ‘transformable’, ‘responsive’, ‘interactive’, and ‘retractable.’

A review of the literature quickly reveals a related category – although some may argue it is simply a subset of kinetic architecture – deployable structures. These structures, often used for mobile shelter, are those that can collapse easily and then erected again with similar ease. Like the broader category, deployable structures change form and have articulating or sliding parts. Hanaor and Levy evaluates and categorizes this type of structure, basing their categorization on the mechanisms of movement such as pantographic, lattice, bars, curved surface, strut-cable, tensioned membrane. [17] While Hanaor and Levy focus on what they call “deployable structures” for temporary use, the mechanisms have applicability to permanent buildings constructed on a defined site that possess movable components, which is more the focus of this paper. Further research on deployable structures can be found by referencing Gantes [14], Pellegrino [21], Korkmaz [18], Del Grosso [8], Rivas Adrover [22], and Temmerman [25]. A succinct survey of these authors and their view of how to categorize deployable structures can be found in Fenci and Currie [10]. Fox and Kemp approach deployable structures as a subcategory of kinetic systems alongside two other subcategories: embedded systems and dynamic systems. [13]

Within the field of kinetic architecture many authors have explored the creation of categorization systems as a means to discuss and evaluate typologies of structures. To this end, authors have different thoughts on a categorization strategy. Many choose to categorize based on movement, such as morphological aspects described in “Morphological Principles of Current Kinetic Architectural Structures” by Carolina Stevenson-Rodriguez. [23] Maziar Asefi, in Retractable and Kinetic Structures creates classifications based on the mechanism of force transfer, subdividing “transformable tensile membrane structures” and “transformable bending and compression structures” into subcategories such as “tensile membranes” and “spatial frame” structures. [2] MOVE: Architecture in Motion outlines a matrix of gestures in the chapter “Typologies of Movement,” but avoids discussing in detail the technologies that allows these movement within that chapter or creating a system of classification. [24]

A review of writings and histories of kinetic architecture

Beyond the work of classification, there is a deeper notion behind kinetic architecture to explore. While categories often describe the how, exploring the why is equally intriguing. Motivations vary, from simple climate control to redefining the perception of space.

Gary Brown’s essay “Freedom on a Transience of Space” discusses the new expectations of building behavior, commenting, “We now consider architecture as extendable and changeable in time as well as space.” [6] The experience of space is redefined when the space itself can transform. Michael Schumacher’s “The Poetics of Movement in Architecture,” contemplates how bodies move through space, then discusses the phenomenon of movement itself: speed, form, mass, sound. The essay also discusses the states of movement one condition, another, and the transition in between. [24]

This state of transition has an ontological connection with the natural world, which is in a constant state of transition. As Stefan Bernard beautifully observes in “The dynamics of nature”: “Changeability is an immanent part of human existence, and of nature too: high and low tide, full and new moon; bud, blossom, fruit; mornings and evenings; day and night; the seasons of the year…” [5] A more pragmatic approach is illustrated in “Nature and Kinetic Architecture,” wherein the author evaluates existing architectural systems and their relationship to nature and propose a model for kinetic architecture using this approach. [4] The biomimetic approach is also discussed in J.F.V. Vincent’s chapters in Deployable Structures. [26]

The essay “Kinetic Architectural Systems Design” explores also the interaction of humans with the space they inhabit, commenting on the potentials of adaptive control by means of automation with sensors for both environmental and human-generated needs. [12] Responsive architecture, a field that calls upon the use of technology to create an architecture that reacts to the service of human needs, often utilizes movable components to achieve its goal. While the literature on this topic is quite extensive, Fox and Kemp expand on this topic and provide some insight in Interactive Architecture. [13]

As mentioned, examples from antiquity such as bascule bridges show that moveable components in architecture are not new. The current generation of kinetic architecture, however, was sparked by the incorporation of electrical control systems. This allowed a new ease of implementation to occur, making the task of moving something as large as a stadium roof as convenient as empowering a motorized gear that enacts a series of events resulting in transformation. Fox’s aforementioned essay elaborates on the progress incurred in architecture due to embedded computational systems, and also envisions the technology’s future potential.

A credit is perhaps also owed to the visionary drawings of 1960s architects such as Archigram and Cedric Price. For example, Price’s Fun Palace, which almost became a built project, envisioned an open steel grid that facilitated movable floors and rooms with open-ended programming. This and other unbuilt works prompted the architecture community to push its imagination. Some of these visions were fantasy. In contrast, the idea that a building could respond or move was not far off. According to Rodriguez in a review of kinetic architecture history, these groups and others “planted the seeds for many trends of unconventional architecture that pursued mobility and freedom of the mind and body within its architecture in so doing experimenting with kinetic, expendable, inflatable, pneumatic, transportable, adaptable and movable structures.” [23]

One of the early responders this call to reimagine structures was Zuk and Clark, in their pioneering work Kinetic Architecture. [26] The authors saw architectural form as a response to a set of varied pressures, saying “At the interface between the set of pressures – the form generators – and the new form is technology.” That is to say technology, such as the mechanical means for a building to transform in response to its conditions, is the way a building can adequately address the multitude of demands that enact upon the architectural program. In an attempt to look forward the future, Zuk calls to redefine a building’s worth not by its permanence, but by its ability to evolve as the culture (and thus the set of “pressures” enacting upon a building) evolves. For a building to avoid obsolescence, Zuk offers two options: a designer must attempt to forecast the future needs for a building, or design a building that is so unassuming that it can accommodate any functional demand, as represented in the Mies van der Rohe’s idea of “universal space.” Within the latter option, which is posited as more viable, kinetic architecture could take a prominent role. Further, design concerns shift to the adoption of the new technology into practice: “dynamic control mechanisms, power consumption, and kinematic velocities and acceleration.” The benefit of this focus on technology, Zuk perhaps surprisingly suggests, is a more personal, human-focused architecture. By this, it is meant that the architecture is more responsive and interactive with the people who use it, rather than their needs adapting to the building, the building can adapt to their needs.

One architectural typology pioneered the field of kinetic architecture more notably than others: stadiums and event venues. Beginning with the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1961 athletic venue owners began building facilities with the option to create an open-air environment in pleasant weather, and close the roof on rainy days. Shortly after this, many proposals were made, including one mentioned in Zuk and Clark’s Kinetic Architecture. This proposal includes a huge rolling roof to cover adjacent football and baseball stadiums in Kansas City: one giant roof on a long track that could serve both venues. This unrealized proposal was made in 1968. The Pittsburgh Civic Arena was demolished in 2012. The retractable roof typology was given special attention in Gantes’ Deployable Structures: Analysis and Design, which contains several case studies. [14]

As technologies evolved and attention of the design world shifted in the later part of the twentieth century to allocation of resources and energy consumption, the sustainable architecture movement began to take interest in kinetic architecture. The call was to create architecture designed not for the worst-case scenario, but to adapt and change to shifting environmental demands. As explained in Trans Structures, the intersection of thermal and structural loads converge for this design strategy. Authors point to Coop Himmelblau’s Busan Cinema, which has columns that may retract or engage based on the high winds of typhoon season, as a prime example of how kinetic elements allow buildings to be more responsive of their environmental conditions. [16] More commonly, active building skin systems as described in Kinetic Architecture: Design for Active Envelopes are employed to control the solar heat gain and passive ventilation of a façade. [11]

Very few authors have explored the way the design process adapts in the design of kinetic structures. In “Understanding Kinetic Architecture: Typology, Classification, and Design Strategy,” Naglaa Ali Megahed attempts to derive an approach for kinetic design based on past literature, including Maziar Asefi’s “Design Management Model for Transformable architecture Structures.”[3] Megahed’s paper outlines various strategies as (1) design generation (2) mechanism (3) rationalization (4) materialization and (5) management. The arrangement of these strategies implies they are carried through in a linear model, however the article goes on to state.

“it is important to highlight that the relationship between materials, structural components, and mechanical connections is not merely fundamental. An alteration in any of them, if it takes place without updating the others, generates malfunctions of hardware and failure of the kinetic system. In this context, designers responsible for these systems should have an open dialogue with other professional (e.g. engineers, manufacturers, and constructors) in order to identify the best solution and specifications for each kinetic system. To achieve optimal results, architects should work in teams in close collaboration with specialists from different fields. Each such group of specialists plays a vital role during each phase of the design strategies framework.” [20]

The enumerated “strategies” may better be presented as “considerations,” altering the approach from a linear set of actions to a networked exchange of ideas, information, and parameters with certain principles in mind. However, the point remains that will be further demonstrated in the case study in this paper: the success of kinetic architecture depends heavily on the dialogue of allied professionals and their ability to adapt and change nimbly to the evolving aspects, both technical and functional, of the building design and its components.

Mechanisms of movement

A collaboration of several disciplines is needed to make kinetic structures a reality. The disciplines of architecture, mechanical engineering, structural engineering, and electrical engineering combine to merge their expertise into a single piece of architectural expression. From a structural perspective, forces must be tracked and the load path examined in all positions of deployment. Fatigue and load reversal issues must also be considered. In addition, the impact of deflections should be considered, as the track and the mobile component should always be in contact. Mechanical engineers address mechanisms of movement, as well as their maintenance after installation. Often there may be a gap in expectations between the mechanical model and reality. As design is not always a linear process, mechanical engineers must have a good understanding of the weight demands of the structure, and adapt if these change during the design process. In addition, design must allow for construction tolerances. Since almost all modern deployable architecture is powered by electricity, electrical engineers must solve how to supply adequate power to the system. It is the task of architects to bring these varied technical challenges into an integrated user experience and combine the effort into a single aesthetic product.

As outlined in MOVE: Architecture in Motion simple machines such as rope and rod, rope and pully, lever, and inclined plane can be combined to make compound machines, utilizing two or more of these simple machines. [24] One such example is gears, which are commonly combined with a power source in their final implementation in kinetic architecture. Movement is conventionally done by a combination of an AC electric motor and a gear reducer. Gear reducers may be a gear reducer set or a planetary gear reducer. The motor supplies power while the gear reducer converts high speed/low torque to low speed/high torque. A single gear reducer may be used, or several in series in order to move structure along a track or bearing.

Gears may be used to translate rotational motion into linear motion. For example, a rack and pinion system utilizes a rotating gear (the pinion) to move along a track (the rack). These interlocking mechanisms give the designer the choice to configure their placement so that less energy is needed to propel the structure.

Another strategy for movement is the use of hydraulics. In a hydraulic cylinder, fluid pushes a piston for deployment and retracting. In many cases the hydraulic actuator is double acting, meaning it has fluid on both sides so that when one side fills with fluid, pressure is applied and the other side must be evacuated of fluid.

The design of kinetic structures requires an understanding of the mechanized systems that allow buildings to move. These elements in combination should perform four essential tasks: (1) support (2) movement (3) stopping (4) holding. Stopping can be done by brakes, regenerative drives, and friction. Holding can be done by brakes as well; pins or clamps can also be employed. The first two tasks, support and movement, require a more in-depth exploration.

Support is often done by a wheel/rail system, or bearing. This may come in many forms. For instance, the roof of Miller Park in Milwaukee (now renamed American Family Field) utilizes a central pivot bearing for each of five pie-shaped triangular panels (Fig. 2). The pivot, located behind home plate, supports one point of the triangle, while the panels are driven at the opposite end by their movement mechanisms (motorized bogies on support wheels) along a curved track. While this building is a landmark in kinetic design and a popular feature of the Milwaukee baseball venue, it was not without issues. Here we see an example of the engineering model departing from reality. One issue pertains to the weight of the roof. During the design process, the mechanical engineers designed the pivot bearings for a specified weight. However, as the design evolved the structural weight of the roof increased, and the bearing design was not updated. This was the primary factor that contributed to the pivot bearings deteriorating more quickly than anticipated, resulting in a costly repair project and subsequent lawsuit just two years after it opened.

Fig. 2
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Miller Park utilizes roof panels that rotate about a central bearing; image: "Miller Park" by raymondclarkeimages via Flickr Creative Commons

Another example of bearings is Safeco Field in Seattle, which utilizes wheel bearings along a linear track (Fig. 3). Like Miller Park, issues arose due to real-world conditions not accounted for in the engineering model. The rolling roof for this stadium consists of panels on bogies, supported by a track. The panels translate linearly along the two parallel tracks. However, it was found that based on the erection of the panels, their natural skew was different from the design skew. Also, the rails were installed outside of tolerance, making them not parallel between the runways on each side of the ballpark. This caused lateral stresses on the wheel bearings within the bogies, causing pitting and damage, ultimately prompting a replacement of many bearings. Detailing of the bogies contributed to fatigue issues that arose in many of the wheel axles. The bogie wheels and axles underwent repair.

Fig. 3
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SafeCo Field track system; image: Ken Lund via Flickr Creative Commons

As previously mentioned, the deflection of the bearing surface or track is an important factor to consider. Tracks, which are usually supported along beams, deflect parabolically under loading. However, a series of wheels connected to a mobile structure may be relatively stiff compared to its beam-supported track. Thus, the mobile structure may not always flex with the deflected beam shape, causing uneven wheel load distribution. Engineers may account by this by incorporating the adequate flexibility in the structure being supported, or providing increase stiffness in the track to mitigate deflection.

As can be seen by the brief aforementioned examples, the use of new technology comes with challenges. At many times engineers are operating outside conventional knowledge, and may find themselves in unchartered territory. The lessons learned are both specific and broad: on a specific scale engineers acquire knowledge on topics such as fatigue and tolerances, but the larger lesson is that cutting-edge technology should be monitored to ensure performance and maintenance standards are met.

The building as the condensation of physical and conceptual forces

In recent years the philosopher Bruno Latour in collaboration with Albena Yaneva posited a challenge to architectural theory in his essay “Give Me a Gun and I will Make All buildings Move: An ANT’s View of Architecture.” Latour in this case was not talking about literal building movement. The challenge was to rethink pieces of architecture as in tidily-defined objects described in three-dimensional space. Rather, architecture a multitude of dimensions and is rarely able to possess a static definition. The images of complete buildings drawings we use to design are specific perspectives at specific points in time, but are simply not adequate to explain a building in its entirety. Latour states:

“We should finally be able to picture a building as a navigation through a controversial datascape: as an animated series of projects, successful and failing, as a changing and criss-crossing trajectory of unstable definitions and expertise, of recalcitrant materials and building technologies, of flip-flopping users’ concerns and communities’ appraisals. That is, we should finally be able to picture a building as a moving modulator regulating different intensities of engagement, redirecting user’s attention, mixing and putting people together, concentrating flows of actors and distributing them so as to compose a productive force in time-space.” [19]

This movement by Latour is an attempt to approach all buildings subject to architectural criticism, he is not referring to kinetic architecture in any way. However, the anticipation of these flows and forces is similar to the short body of theory asserted by Zuk and Clark in Kinetic Architecture. In their view, envisioning the building as adaptable and transformable attempts to anticipate this multi-faceted nature of architectural design as a response to ever-changing context.

As soon to be illustrated in the case study, architect Elizabeth Diller is exceedingly conscious of this idea. Regarding the design of The Shed she says: “The objective was to make a truly flexible building… It had to avoid obsolescence and be responsive to programmatic unpredictability. Its intelligence was in the premise of architecture as infrastructure…” [7] Diller is acknowledging the multi-facetedness of architecture and thinking beyond architecture as a singular product but rather an ever-evolving venue of experiences.

The issue of converging flows is both addressed and expounded by the incorporation of kinetic elements within architecture. On the one hand, it dissolves the idea of the building as an objective entity, turning it into something that adapts and transforms in response to its users. On the other hand, it increases the complexity of design, necessitating technological input from a multitude of experts and engineers. The kinetic projects are thus a sort of hyper-collaboration, wherein the design process includes a non-linear exchange of information, with the generators and recipients of this information refining and evolving their designs.

Case study: the shed at hudson yards

The case study that follows utilizes kinetic technology as a means of engaging visitors with the space. The spatial experience afforded by the mobile components expands the expectation for the buildings. The Shed at Hudson Yards, completed in 2019, is the vision of Zuk realized, in that the architecture adapts to the user, providing a flexible space that looks toward the future. The site is situated as an anchor on New York’s Highline, and serves as a major public plaza and tourist attraction that can transform and become linked and woven to the city fabric. The Shed is programmed to serve as a hub for art and culture in New York City. It is located in the large Hudson Yards development alongside a multitude of new multi-use high-rises and adjacent to the High Line and Penn Station. The architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS + R), proposed creating a space that would serve as a venue for art and culture for several years into the future. It has no permanent exhibits. Instead, it has constantly rotating temporary exhibits of different media. The design program therefore necessitated a flexible space. It called for a venue that could transform depending on exhibit. The resulting building design went a step beyond this idea. The building itself not only transforms, but it transforms the plaza space beside it. This is achieved by a large translucent “shed” that is nested around a fixed (immobile) building, but can be launched to cover the adjacent plaza area. This public space can serve as the venue for concerts or performance art. The deployable shed brings the architecture into the art experience, making it a part of the exhibit. A transformative enclosure, The Shed is a 130’ cube weighing 8 million pounds, and have six total touch-down points along the two rails (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
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The Shed at Hudson Yards; image: Iwan Baan, courtesy The Shed/Diller Scofidio + Renfro, reprinted with permission

Architect Elizabeth Diller cites Cedric Price’s Fun Palace as an inspiration for the design, which envisions different configurations of space by means of the mobile shed and operable walls that play with boundaries of inside and out. [7] To create a venue for an ever-changing art world, DS + R, like Price, sought to reduce the building down to a flexible, open-ended space, providing “space, real estate, thermal comfort, strong bones, and electric power.” [9] The guiding principles include (1) multidisciplinary (Diller is actually talking about the nature of the art within The Shed, not the building design process, although as will be seen the building design includes many disciplines) (2) transformable (3) scalable (4) unbranded (5) financially self-sustainable. To realize these goals, Diller Scofidio + Renfro had to extend their reach and rely on experts. For instance, they employed a financial planning firm to assist in their project proposal in order to meet the fifth goal of the project being financially self-sustainable.

Technical kinetic concepts

Projects such as The Shed demonstrate a concept that can be referred to as ‘hyper-collaboration.’ The performative nature of the design brings that to the forefront, and it this collaboration carries the concept to fruition. Figure 5 shows the various parties involved with the design and seeks to illustrate their overlap. This can be seen in contrast to a more traditional, linear workflow, as illustrated in Fig. 6. It can be seen that an immense amount of coordination goes into the design of this project, and no single drawing or image can capture this adequately. While the technological diagram had its genesis in the very well-known and understood mechanisms of gantry cranes, an additional layer of complexity is added when the object that is being moved is a building, complete with systems such as heating and cooling, lighting, plumbing and fire suppression, much unlike traditional gantry cranes (Fig. 7). In addition to the technical demands of building systems, parties on the client and end-user side have their own expectations and demands that give input during the design phase. In the case of The Shed, a new artistic director, Alex Poots was hired midway through the design process. Poots’ vision for the deployed shed space included additional capabilities for performance and rigging, which transformed the design goals for the entire team, adding structural weight demands.

Fig. 5
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A network of dialogue and response is the model for kinetic project collaboration. Diagram by Liam Vennerholm in collaboration with author

Fig. 6
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Diagram of a typical project workflow, taking on a more linear model than the networked approach illustrated for kinetic architecture design. While networks of exchange exist, they are far less prevalent and impactful to the design. Diagram by author

Fig. 7
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The Shed defies a single definition by merging several building types into one structure, addressing a multitude of user needs. Diagram by author

The kinetic concepts that make The Shed possible are a set of bogies on a rack and pinion system, which engineers have nicknamed a “sled drive.” A closer look at the evolving design of the bogies themselves illustrate one aspect where technical input from multiple parties shaped the final design. This type of collaborative design happened several times, with several components on The Shed; the examples that follow serve as a glimpse into the intense back-and-forth that the design team went through throughout the design of the project. The structural engineer of record, Thornton Tomasetti (TT), utilized their kinetic design group in collaboration with Hardesty and Hanover (HH). In addition, a rigorous interview process was conducted to select a contractor for the manufacturing of the bogies during the design phase so that the manufacturing team also had input as the design evolved. Cimolai Technologies SPA was chosen for this role.

Initially engineers at TT and HH advocated for 36″ diameter bogies, which is the largest manufactured size of train wheel. However, due to the weight of The Shed, that would necessitate several axles at each touch down location. Due to the performative conceptual motivations behind The Shed, DS + R pushed for one axle per touch-down point with a larger diameter wheel. Since the larger diameter wheel allowed a larger bearing area and thus a lower stress, this was within the realm of possibility, however there were issues within the manufacturing process that prevented a wheel of such size to undergo the typical heat treatment for rail use. Further analysis from TT and HH determined that The Shed wheels could undergo a less rigorous heat treatment and still perform to a 100-year service life, which was deemed an acceptable solution. The wheels see far less frequency of movement in comparison to train wheels, and thus do not require the same treatment (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8
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The Shed bogie, image: Iwan Baan, courtesy The Shed/Diller Scofidio + Renfro, reprinted with permission

The team thus proceeded with a 6-foot diameter wheel, with six touch-down points to the rail. As design progressed and The Shed acquired Alex Poots as artistic director, the engineers started to become concerned regarding the weight on the eastern-most pair of axles. Firstly, the shape of the shed was such that its center of mass put more weight on these axles. In addition, Poots’ vision for a performative venue within the deployed shed necessitated a higher loading to be considered so that art and other media such as stage sets could be hung from the roof structure. HH and TT urged that this easternmost pair of bogies become double-axled. This solution is the final configuration of The Shed wheels, yielding eight total bogies with six touch-down points (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9
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The Shed bogies. Double axles can be seen on the easternmost touchdown points on each side, while the remaining four touchdown points have a single axle. image: Iwan Baan, courtesy The Shed/Diller Scofidio + Renfro, reprinted with permission

The addition of Cimolai Technologies SPA to the design team had impact on the architectural design and kinetic system. Cimolai, an Italian steel fabricator with experience in both heavy industrial steel application and bespoke sections, sought the contract along with three other highly capable companies. Once selected, the design team held collaboration meetings monthly to work out issues and challenges that the evolving design presented. These meetings were over the course of seven to ten days and included travel between New York and Italy so that the teams could work through issues in person. This relationship is in contrast to a less successful model of the past, wherein mechanical engineers are given a load and a travel distance and perform to specifications. The Shed model was much more interactive. The final design of the roller bearing was a result of Cimolai’s research and analysis regarding the hardness and ductility considerations in combination with the large size.

The opportunity for the fabricator to lend suggestions and expertise was an intentional move on the part o the design team. The pool of bidders for the job was small, as such expertise is a very niche skill set. Once the selection was narrowed to three firms, the firms were given a small stipend to fabricate one of the complicated shed nodes as part of their interview. This was not just a test in aesthetic execution, although that was part of the criteria. During the process of this initial fabrication, firms had the opportunity to explore what worked about the design and what should be altered, in addition to what they intended to propose to change. It opened up a dialogue on the tectonics and kinetics, prior to the contract even being awarded. Once bids were submitted, the applicants understood the challenges ahead, and were proceeding on a much more informed basis. TT and HH retained responsibility for the engineering throughout the life of the contract, but the final design was not committed without input from the fabricator. This “design assist” contract structure is a primary reason for The Shed’s success (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10
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Steel fabrication of the shed structure laid out and partially assembled in Cimolai's yard. image: Iwan Baan, courtesy The Shed/Diller Scofidio + Renfro, reprinted with permission

Another design consideration regarding the bogies concerned fire suppression. Afterall, they are monumental pieces of exposed steel that are the primary means of gravity support for the entire shed space. The International Building Code, the building code adopted by New York City, allows calculative fire modeling and analysis to be performed as an alternative to providing a dedicated fire suppression system for the bogies. Since this building configuration was without precedent, its fire protection scenario had trouble conforming to code-prescribed fire protection. Eventually, the Department of Buildings in New York reviewed the commissioned fire study and agreed that due to the mass of the bogies, imminent failure due to fire was not a concern. To further alleviate concerns, the chassis of the wheel bearing contains a “foot” or lug on the bottom that would be able to land on the plaza in the event of wheel failure. This lug hovers above the ground surface so that the shed touchdown has a redundant means of support and would only move slightly.

The mechanism for movement is electric motors that propel the shed structure linearly. This interface of the kinetic element and static element was the territory of much collaboration: structural force transfer, power systems, and the rack and pinion mechanism. The rack and pinion system on the roof was selected over a rope and pulley system for three reasons: the control of the more rigid rack and pinion system as opposed to the pulley system, which raised concern regarding slack in the roof, the available space for the system on the roof, given the mechanism for shed movement had to share the roof space with the Building Maintenance Unit (BMU) system for window washing, and the capability of the rack and pinion system to interlock with the fixed building in order to borrow lateral stiffness. The decision-making process to arrive at these reasons required input from multiple disciplines, further demonstrating the hyper-collaboration that took place.

The placement of the electric motors was a design challenge, as the designers wanted the movement mechanisms to a visible part of the building, but didn’t want these particular components accessible to the public due to safety and vandalism concerns. Early on, the engineers at Thornton Tomasetti and Hardesty and Hanover advocated for the mechanism for movement, the motors, be inaccessible to the public by placing them on top of the fixed building. This placement has created the kinetic motion of The Shed to be described as analogous to as shopping cart: a series of wheels in contact with the ground, driven by a power source at the top. The effect of this induces load on the fixed portion of the building. Load is not only transferred by the movement of the shed, but since the shed itself does not have its own lateral system, wind load on the shed is transferred to the fixed building via connections on the roof. This was a design consideration for the two “home” positions of The Shed: fully retracted and fully deployed (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11
figure 11

Section diagram showing the interface of kinetic elements and supportive static elements for The Shed. The sled drive on the roof transferred structural forces from the mobile to the static building. In addition, building systems such as heating, cooling and plumbing interfaced in this zone. The bogie track was another zone of interface. The coordination here spanned two building projects: the shed construction above and the platform above the network of trains terminating at Penn Station. Diagram by author

The track itself was another design challenge. Prior to the flurry of construction in recent years, the Hudson Yards site went undeveloped despite its prime location in Manhattan due to the dense network of train tracks leading into the nearby Penn Station. The feat of engineering that allowed this site to be developed was a project itself, aptly nicknamed “the platform.” The platform strategically found locations for columns and foundations in between the network of tracks, and built up a surface of beams and transfer girders that allowed the site to be developed. The track for The Shed sits on this platform. Ideally such a track would be built on grade, to mitigate concerns of deflection for the continuous bearing surface. Since that was not an option for this site, the track consisted of continuous heavy 14″, 500 lb/ft steel wide flange members that run directly below the lines of bogies. The ETFE skin of The Shed was the only viable option for the envelope, as glass would have been too heavy, and would have overloaded the foundations, which were already installed at the time of The Shed’s proposal.

Flexibility of the covered plaza space was of utmost priority in the design. Mechanical engineers have ensured the space can be heated in the winter via radiant heat in the plaza slab, and cooled in the summer via low-level ducts. Blackout shades can also be implemented so that light levels can be carefully controlled. The Shed also has a set of “guillotine doors” so that the space can be enclosed but opened up to the public. The goal is to give a blank, versatile canvas to accommodate a variety of art and media. “What art will look like in the future is an open question,” says architect Elizabeth Diller. [15] This suggests a similar stance to future architecture as called for in Zuk and Clark’s Kinetic Architecture to combat building obsolescence by creating open-ended spaces wherein the architecture does not direct the function within.

The Shed opened in 2019. Although the diagram for its movement is quite simple, it can be seen that a multitude of engineering and design decisions were made in consideration of the loads and their path through the structure as well as how the building responds architecturally to its needs. The collaboration efforts discussed in the preceding paragraphs relate primarily to the bogies, which is a major component of the kinetic features. However, in the view of the entire project, they are a small part. The interactive nature of design that has been demonstrated can be extrapolated to apply to other aspects of the project, including the guillotine doors that help enclose the deployed shed, the fixed building and its column-free gallery spaces, and many other challenging features. This is a project that kinetic structures enthusiasts will be watching closely in the upcoming year to see how this building ‘performs’ to the public’s expectations (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12
figure 12

The fixed building and deployed shed; image: Timothy Schenck courtesy The Shed/Diller Scofidio + Renfro, reprinted with permission


Architecturally, the technical capabilities of kinetic structures allow buildings to respond to users in new and exciting ways. These movable gestures are an evolution of their historic counterparts. While the toolkit of mechanisms presented in this paper are not new, creative and collaborative teams are using these tools to create buildings that actively engage visitors in the building technology. The resulting architecture creates flexible, responsive spaces.

Perhaps the hidden force behind the increase in kinetic structures is the process by which buildings are designed. Architectural design is increasingly less of a linear process – if it ever was. The design team is more of a network of professionals with a wide array of skills – architectural, technical, graphic, digital. An integrated design process allows these specialists to maximize the possibilities of architecture, technology, and experience. Brainstorming sessions, ease of digital models, and individual creativity allow a multitude of ideas to be explored in a relatively quick time frame.


Statements and Declarations: No funding was received to assist with the preparation of this manuscript. Christina McCoy is a former employee of Thornton Tomasetti, the engineering firm of record for the case study discussed. Tom Duffy is a current employee and shareholder of Thornton Tomasetti.


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McCoy, C., Duffy, T.A. The deployable tectonic: mechanization and mobility in architecture. Archit. Struct. Constr. (2022).

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  • Kinetic
  • Tectonics
  • Movable architecture
  • Mechanization
  • Engineering