The Urban Nebula installation for the 2007 London Design Festival explored the potential application of pre-cast concrete for the creation of organic, repetitive forms. While the fluidity of the piece resonated with the structure of a nebulous cloud, there was a clear contradiction in the choice of concrete as a material – it was a 30-tonne mass of 150 polished black blocks, bolted together to form a perforated 11-metre- long wall.
In its transformation from architectural intervention into furniture, the design reflected on the relationship between material system, utility and sculptural form. The areas of darkness and light visible in a nebula were articulated as the hexagonal and triangular voids between the blocks; it combined the rough, improvisational nature of a dry stone wall with the smooth polished surface of pebbles in a riverbed.
To achieve this effect, the project harnessed the power of digital design tools: the design of a single, standard element with a range of end conditions was mapped using 3D imaging software to give the impression that each piece was organic, as if sculpted by hand. By combining traditional pre-cast techniques with contemporary CNC machine moulding, the system was able to generate a series of standardised components with unique variations. The individual elements were then made using standard steel moulds, into which computer-cut polystyrene end pieces were inserted, together with stainless steel anchors for fixing. To explore the plastic qualities of concrete, the studio worked with Aggregate
Industries – the collaboration resulted in the intense colour and exceptionally high dimensional tolerance and surface finish across the individual elements of the work.
One of the most exciting aspects of the work was its significance for the evolution of the Zaha Hadid studio. The explorations and research undertaken for Urban Nebula had wider implications for the way in which the studio approached concrete: the project presented new ways of manipulating the material to create a seamless expression of fluidity and to bring a poetic dimension to the city.