Published: 03 November 2016

Art and Engineering

Structural Awards

Michael Orr has been a Chartered Member of the Institution since 2013 and a practising structural engineer for 8 years. Here he discusses his work on the Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion 2015 - an amorphous, double-skinned, polygonal structure consisting of panels of translucent, multi-coloured fabric. The Pavilion has been shortlisted in The Structural Awards 2016 “Small Projects” category.

My inspiration for becoming a structural engineer came from my love of sports. I would play anything involving balls, rackets or bats and would watch any sport I could on the TV. It was from this that I developed a love of sports stadiums and would spend hours building stands for my Subbuteo football set out of Lego. As I went through school I excelled in STEM subjects and so it seemed a natural fit to study engineering at university. 

Since leaving university I have actively sought employment in practices which do sports work, which led me to accept a job in AECOM’s sports team in 2014. From there I’ve been fortunate to work on the Al Wakrah Stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the Curragh Racecourse grandstand and some other stadium concepts.

I am most proud of my work on the 2015 Serpentine Pavilion. The whole project was a challenge from start to finish from all perspectives; working to such a tight timescale with overseas architects (selgascano), designing the fabric and dealing with the complex geometry were all new experiences for me. 

What really gave me satisfaction was being part of a team working towards a common goal in a collaborative environment, all in the knowledge that the delivery deadline was totally immovable.
Effective communication was absolutely crucial: we worked with the architect and wider design team via face-to-face meetings, teleconferences, phone calls and emails -with information being exchanged in a variety of forms, ranging from full parametric “Rhino” models to simple hand sketches. Design details would often be discussed between the architect, engineer and contractor, agreed and drawn up over the course of a meeting rather than strung out over many weeks, as it would have been until relatively recently.

Modern technology was also really important in realising our vision for the Pavilion, allowing for quicker and more effective information sharing through 3D parametric models or virtual/augmented reality and shared information sources, saving time on needless duplication. 

Technology also allowed us to make the transition between reinforced single foil ETFE (a durable, highly transparent and very lightweight material) to unreinforced single foil ETFE, by combining the results from computer analysis with the behaviour of physical mock-ups and testing. Modern methods of cutting and forming materials enabled much greater control of quality, allowing tighter tolerances to be achieved, meaning that there was a greater synergy between analysis models and real life.

All these advances in technology meant that digital prototypes for the Pavilion could be quickly deconstructed, rebuilt and tested in a matter of minutes, which made the tight construction deadline realistic and achievable.

For a structure like the Pavilion, with pre-tensioned fabric, the structural performance inherently informed its shape and behaviour, so structural engineering was key to the creative design process.
At the same time the Pavilion project is a perfect crossover between art, architecture and engineering. I think it is crucial that engineers have an understanding of art and architecture to supplement their engineering skills, so that they can make informed engineering decisions which complement the creative design process and the architectural vision. 


I regret not taking Art at GCSE or A-Level, as I feel the skills would have helped me communicate more effectively with other disciplines. Perhaps it is something that should be looked at, at a degree level - with more engineering courses running additional art and architecture courses.

The Pavilion opened to the public on the 25 June 2015, and my overwhelming feelings were relief and tiredness, but overall satisfaction that what we had built really delivered the architect’s vision. 

We were especially satisfied by the number of children who were attracted to the interwoven corridors of colour and light, which is surely the point of such a summer time folly - creating a space to inspire future generations into art, architecture and engineering.

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