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Tristram Carfrae: a retrospective

Watercube Beijing

20 April 2011 – Tristram Carfrae, leader global building design for the international engineering and design company, Arup, recently returned to London after 20 years in Australia.

He leaves behind an impressive body of work both in this country and elsewhere, much of it representing breakthroughs in technology and design and always with a firm eye on sustainability.

In Carfrae’s view the definition of a “good” building is one that “consumes less materials, energy, time and money while at the same time providing greater amenity and being beautiful.”

Among his best known work has been the design of The Water Cube – Beijing’s National Aquatics Centre for the 2008 Olympics, the Helix Bridge, Singapore, the AAMI Stadium in Melbourne, 1 Shelley Street in Sydney and Kurilpa Bridge in Brisbane. His collaborations include with many of the world’s leading architects, including Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Philip Cox.

Following are highlights from an official biography of his key work

The Water Cube
Carfrae’s most notable achievement was his work on the Beijing National Aquatic Centre, designed for the Olympic Games in 2008. Carfrae led the Arup team responsible for the engineering of this innovative project, affectionately known as the Water Cube. The Centre was one of the most dramatic and exciting venues to feature sporting events for the 2008 Olympics. It houses five pools, including one with a wave machine and rides that are six times the size of an Olympic pool. Carfrae’s design for the structure of the Centre is based on the most effective sub-division of three-dimensional space – the fundamental arrangement of organic cells and the natural formation of soap bubbles.

The Swimming Centre uses solar energy to heat the pools and the interior area, and all backwash water is designed to be filtered and returned to the swimming pools. In 2009 the project was awarded the the Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert award for innovation in engineering.

Bayfront Bridges, Marina Bay, Singapore

Bayfront Bridges at Marina Bay, Singapore.
Following the design of the Water Cube, Carfrae began working on a number of other projects. He led a multidisciplinary Arup team to victory in an international design competition for the Bayfront Bridges at Marina Bay, Singapore. Arup was engaged to provide structural, marine and civil engineering, along with MEP and specialist lighting services.

The new pedestrian bridge represents an entirely new direction in structural design – their walkways are encircled by opposing double helix structures that refer to the famous geometrical arrangement of the stuff of life itself – DNA. The helical formation appears, like a spring, to be incapable of carrying substantial load. But a clever arrangement of delicate interconnections causes the two springs to act together as a tubular truss. The bridge is lit with a series of regimes that were generated from Crick & Watson’s observations of DNA.

The glass rooftop conservatory of Cairns Casino with Michael Dysart. Despite enormous potential wind loads in this cyclone region, the structure is visually delicate. The 40 metres  x 40 metres dome comprises four barrel vaults leaning together in the corners. The vaults are stabilised by stainless steel rods and flying struts – what the Japanese call “beam and string technique”. The bespoke glazing system was entirely designed by Arup and comprises triangular glass panes, all identical, pre glazed to a surrounding “picture frame”. The frames are simply hung from nodes on the structure such that the “picture frame” sections meet back to back to form the weather seal and mullion structure.

The Garvan Medical Research Laboratories
The Garvan Medical Research Laboratories next to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney was completed with Ken Woolley. A key structural feature is the helical stair, which travels seven storeys without visible means of support like a giant spring.

Star City casino. Carfrae designed the special glass structures comprising the lyric theatre drum, the cone skylight, the main entry wall, and the wave awnings. The drum and cone were the most interesting: stainless steel trapezoidal mullions were glued to stainless castings which could be slotted together on site like a Victorian cast iron bed frame.

This very delicate compression structure was directly glazed and stabilised by a diagonal tensioned cable net internally. Small rods, forming small pyramids, connected these two systems. The rods had simple hemispherical forged ends and were hooked into the “telephone” castings, which were bolted back to the mullion nodes. Despite the ever-changing geometry of a conical form, the entire structure was made from one mullion section, a set of cables, a set of rods and only four different castings.

The Aquatic Centre and Stadium for the Asian Games in Bangkok. The stadium features a continuous bowl made entirely of pre-cast concrete with an elegant roof on each side forming a pair of eyelids. The curved roof beams act as arches, thrusting into their supporting rod stays. The suspension structure wraps over vertical masts and horizontal outriggers to reattach to the seating bowl – thus using the weight of the bowl to hold up the roof. The roof is kept down against wind uplift by an unobtrusive pre-cast concrete gutter.

Royal Agricultural Showgrounds, Sydney

Royal Agricultural Showground Exhibition Halls/Olympic Sports Halls; The Sydney Olympic Tennis Centre; and the Dunc Gray Velodrome. The RAS Halls were to be used as Olympic indoor facilities for handball, badminton, rhythmic gymnastics and the like. They are also the main exhibition halls for the Royal Easter Show and act as an exhibition-and-function centre for the rest of the year.

Architect, Ken Woolley proposed a scheme of three rectangular halls, 66m x 72m, joined to a dome, 97m in diameter and 45m high.  Carfrae suggested that the lattice shellroofs could be made just as economically in timber as in steel. This was appropriate for both the Green games and the Agricultural Society. Each piece of glue laminated, plantation pine timber was terminated in a simple galvanised steel shoe. The shoe allowed the whole roof to be erected by steel fixers, used to this type and scale of construction, permitting the project to be built within the 21 months allowed before the Royal Easter Show of 1998. The “dome”, as it is known, is the largest timber structure in the southern hemisphere and remains the centrepiece of the RAS.

The Olympic Tennis Centre arose from collaboration with the architect, Lawrence Nield. The 24 facets of the centre court form a hybrid steel and concrete conical shell using the seating plats, steel raking beams and a steel tension ring. The advantages of this form of construction include the simplicity and economy of the steelwork and the elegance of the bowl form, apparently unsupported on its outer edge.

The shear component of the shell action is provided by the pre-cast seating plats, which are stitched together by in-situ concrete plugs to form shear diaphragms in every other bay. The direct component of the shell action is provided by the steel beams. held up at their outside edge by a hoop tension member. Because the seating bowl is circular and a tennis court is relatively small, the architect realised that masts near the back of the bowl would have very little impact on the lateral sightlines.  Meanwhile, the engineers saw that a tension ring above the roof, at the top of the masts, would be considerably more efficient than a ring at the top of the seating bowl. This collaboration resulted in the only Olympic facility to win NSW premier architectural award.

The Dunc Gray Velodrome
This is another lattice shell roof, this time a toroidal form spanning 110m by 130m. The diagonal tubular members carry all the thrust into the tubular ring beam, describing an ellipse at eaves level. The deeper box arches, apparently spanning across the roof, only stabilise this system against buckling. However their purpose was also to aid construction: with the ring beam temporarily propped, the arches could span from side to side until the shell was complete. Half arches were fabricated on either side of the building and lifted in by mobile crane, connected at each end and mid span then left to support themselves and the rest of the roof. After the last arch was erected, the ring beam was de-propped and the shell action took over. The use of a toroidal geometry allowed each arch and every connection to be identical.

The Singapore Expo.
This complex has 100,000 square metres of internal exhibition space in ten halls each 100m x 100m without columns (only six of these were built in the first phase). The development also includes a convention hall, various large meeting rooms, shops, restaurants and car parking.

The roof structure comprised more conventional bowstring trusses, but expanded into a diagonal cross section, out of the truss plane, to reduce the span of the secondary steel and introduce some form into the space below. Between each truss is a raised roof section allowing natural light and ventilation to reduce energy consumption between exhibitions. The residential building has an eastern façade made entirely from glass louvres supported by glass mullions and operated by a finely crafted stainless steel mechanism. The result is an ever-changing sculpture, constantly adapting to the prevailing environmental conditions.

Between the two buildings is a very fine glass canopy. It was found, during wind tunnel testing, that the down draft from the main tower would deter sitting in the piazza so a canopy became a late addition to the project.  Carfrae designed a “spider’s web” with minimal structure to support the canopy. He devised a scheme based on a doubly curved cable net above a floating plane of glass. The geometry of the net on plan was carefully calculated to allow the connections to penetrate the facades of the supporting buildings at right angles to give minimal impact. The glass surface itself is subtly twisted to give a positive fall away from all edges and towards the single down pipe at the rear of the canopy.

The cable net had been conceived as just that – a net of cables clamped together at their intersections; however the winning tenderer wished to use rods. Each intersection has a different geometry.  Carfrae devised a configuration consisting of nested spherical surfaces. From the central sphere hangs the glass connecting rod. The ends of the rods in the net have nuts with spherical surfaces inside and out. The nuts are captured within a cast cage with a spherical internal surface. This single arrangement catered for all the different conditions of the net.

Aurora Place

Aurora Place
In 1997, Lend Lease decided to employ Renzo Piano to design a new prestigious office and residential development, Aurora Place on Macquarie Street in Sydney. Carfrae was to provide the engineering for the building envelope and help translate European expectations into an Australian context. The façade was developed by Arup to accommodate the twisted surface with little cost penalty. The office building features naturally ventilated winter gardens at each end, in the protected areas between the projecting extensions of the main facades. The residential building has an eastern façade made entirely from glass louvres supported by glass mullions and operated by a finely crafted stainless steel mechanism. The result is an ever-changing sculpture, constantly adapting to the prevailing environmental conditions.

Between the two buildings is a very fine glass canopy. It was found, during wind tunnel testing, that the down draft from the main tower would make the Piazza a rather uncomfortable place to sit, so a canopy became a late addition to the project. Carfrae Piano to design a “spider’s web” with minimal structure to support the canopy. He devised a scheme based on a doubly curved cable net above a floating plane of glass. The geometry of the net on plan was carefully calculated to allow the connections to penetrate the facades of the supporting buildings at right angles to give minimal impact.

The glass surface itself is subtly twisted to give a positive fall away from all edges and towards the single down pipe at the rear of the canopy. The cable net had been conceived as just that – a net of cables clamped together at their intersections; however the winning tenderer wished to use rods. Each intersection has a different geometry, so much thought was given to a suitable node design until Carfrae devised a configuration consisting of nested spherical surfaces. From the central sphere, hangs the glass connecting rod. The ends of the rods in the net have nuts with spherical surfaces inside and out. The nuts are captured within a cast cage with a spherical internal surface. This single arrangement catered for all the different conditions of the net.

The ensuing sculpture shows very close collaboration between architect, structural engineer and lighting designer. The glass discs form an essential part of the delicate structure; they are the light fitting at night and form the architecture during the day. The beacon was selected by the Independent newspaper as the best artwork in London since the Skyline in 1953.

Kurilpa bridge, Brisbane

Working with architect Philip Cox,  Carfrae, turned the Rectangular Pitch Stadium at Olympic Park in Melbourne, a new venue for soccer and rugby football, into a new structural form using curved cantilevered shells to form interdependent ‘‘bioframes’’. The bioframes will support cladding appropriate to their individual location, permitting the roof to act as an organism providing the pitch, players and spectators with their optimum environment.

Kurilpa Bridge, Brisbane
Brisbane’s $63.3 million Kurilpa Bridge, a pedestrian and bicycle bridge linking the city centre and South Brisbane. Sculptural in appearance, with a network of steel masts seemingly held in suspension by a delicate cross stitching of high wire tensioned cables, the bridge links the south bank of the river and its law courts precinct in the CBD.
The Singapore Sports Hub is a cluster development of world class sports facilities next to the city. The 35-hectare development is located next to the city and is easily accessible to the rest of Singapore.

Tristram Carfrae

Biographical notes

Carfrae told The Fifth Estate that he first came to Sydney in 1985 and was fortunate to become the engineer for the grandstands and roof of the Sydney Football Stadium with Philip Cox for Lend Lease.

“This was the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Philip,” he says. “I then returned to London but married an Australian so we returned when we had children in 1990. (It seems that I make a habit of arriving in downturns).

“I was based in Sydney ever since except for a two year stint back in London helping lead our architectural practice, Arup Associates 10 years ago.”

Among the highlights of his 20 years in Australia, he says, were the Sydney Control Tower; Exhibition/Convention Centres at Brisbane, Singapore, Homebush and Perth; Olympic Tennis and Velodrome in Sydney and Water Cube in Beijing; Stadia in Auckland, Bangkok, Qatar, Melbourne (2), Singapore and Adelaide (both current); Aurora Place, 1 Shelley St; 111 Eagle Street; Chifley Square and Barangaroo; plus Brickpit, Helix and Kurilpa footbridges.

Carfrae’s career started with Ove Arup & Partners in London, after graduating from Cambridge University in 1981. He joined the newly formed lightweight structures group, which worked on the design of fabric and cable structures – “those requiring non-linear analysis,” he says, and helped develop Fablon, a “non-linear analysis program based on the theory of dynamic relaxation and capable of handling every kind of non-linear geometric and material behaviour including discontinuous behaviour such as snap through buckling.”

Among his many accolades Carfrae was in 2001 named Australian professional engineer of the year and was recognised in 2004, 2005 and 2006 as one of Australia’s top 100 most influential engineers by Engineers Australia.
In 2006 The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce awarded him the title of royal designer for industry in recognition of his achievements in engineering design and he was also awarded the Milne medal by the British Group of the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering.

In 2008 he received the Hero of Innovation Award from the Warren Centre.  And in 2010 he was awarded the MacRobert Award, the highest engineering recognition available for a project, and was also named as one of 20 “Heroes of the Green Age” in a publication printed for the Copenhagen 15 Summit.

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