It's geometry but not as we know it

November 13, 1998

John Kelleher explores a new architecture that borrows from the wilder shores of science

Science continually offers reminders of just how strange a universe we inhabit. Our certainties about the fabric of reality have been disrupted in recent years by scientific theories and discoveries - ranging from Gaia theory, the idea that the earth is a self-regulating organism, to the insights of quantum physics and chaos theory.

Now the new science has inspired a new architecture. And its boldest example may soon be built in the heart of London.

"The Spiral", a controversial Pounds 75 million extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum, is to be considered next week by local planners. The brainchild of the Polish-born architect and academic Daniel Libeskind and the engineer Cecil Balmond, a senior partner in the firm Ove Arup and visiting lecturer in architecture at Yale, it will be like no other building ever constructed in the capital.

What they have devised together is radical in appearance - a complex, almost crystalline edifice that rises in a series of inclined planes to form a self-supporting spiral. The walls overlap and interlock in a way that allows the building to stand free without any additional core or brace, covered in ivory-coloured ceramic tiling.

Devised by Balmond, the fractal design of the tiles draws inspiration from the discovery by the Oxford mathematician Sir Roger Penrose of geometric tiling patterns that can cover infinite areas without repetition.

Balmond says the idea was for a "spiral of history". The one major theme was "how to find new geometries within the parameters of existing materials." He explains: "Classical spiral forms revolve around fixed centring: both logarithmic and Archimedian spirals turn in ever-widening orbits fixed by a continuous unwrapping of space. There are no discontinuities, no jerks and no jumps. But the spiral of history is different - it is chaotic - its centre moves, the orbits jump. The resulting trace is one of interlock and overlap.

"A radius that moves around a circle, stopping in certain instants, will give an irregular polygon trace if the points at which it stops are connected to each other sequentially. If this radius should increase or decrease during rotation, the notion of a spiral is introduced. If the centre begins to shift as well during the revolutions, then the trace is of a new kind of spiral - a chaotic spiral."

Libeskind, who holds professorships in architecture at University of California, Los Angeles and Karlusche in Germany, comes trailing clouds of academic qualifications, a heavy background in theory and a small but already provocative portfolio of completed projects. Now in his fifties and based in Berlin, it is only this year that Libeskind has seen his first two major buildings completed. One was the award-winning Jewish Museum of Berlin, voted "personality" of the year by a German newspaper. The other is a building in Osnabruck to house the work of the artist Felix Nussbaum.

But it is the "The Spiral" that has everyone in a spin and that will be London's first example of what the architectural historian and post modernist guru Charles Jencks has christened "cosmogenic architecture" - architecture which seeks to express the creative spirit of nature and the universe.

Jencks defines the cosmogenic view as: "The idea that the universe is a single, unfolding, self-organising event, something more like an animal than a machine, something radically interconnected and creative, an entity that jumps suddenly to higher levels of organisation and delights us as it does."

Metaphors abound in architecture - from the great cathedrals to the symbolic representation of open government expressed in Sir Norman Foster's nearly completed makeover of the Reichstag in Berlin.The cosmogenic impulse represents a collusion between scientist James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and the new physics. The result is an architecture more in tune with the natural order as some scientists now perceive it.

Few cosmogenic buildings have yet been built. Zaha Hadid's design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House was scuppered by unimaginative planners. But Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has transformed the city's fortunes. "The Spiral" may not rival that achievement, but it will place an equally radical building in the heart of London. It will add 11 levels to the V&A - four of contemporary gallery space, a "learning laboratory" where creative work will take place, auditoriums and a top-level cafe with views across London.

If it receives planning permission, it should be finished by 2004. Libeskind says the contractual requirement is for a building that will last 150 years. But how long would he like it to last? "As an architect? Well, forever."

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