Email Kenneth Snelson
What is tensegrity?
the word, has become so confused through multiple uses that it calls
any definition into question. This is the reason I've long advocated
"Floating compression" -- though by now it's clear I've lost
that battle. Buckminster Fuller coined the word tensegrity from tension
and integrity five years after I first demonstrated to him the principle
I had discovered. Creating this strange name was his strategy for appropriating
the idea as his own. By now tensegrity is a buzzword that seems to apply
to all kinds of structures that use tension members, familiar things
that aren't enhanced by calling them by a novel word. Spider webs, bicycle
wheels, kites and physical exercise regimens, do not require a new word
such as tensegrity. The ancient form of kite frame, two sticks crossed
with string-connected ends, comes closest to this type structure; what's
missing is that the sticks do touch one another at their crossing point.
As best I can define tensegrity, based on what my sculptures contain:
a closed structural system composed of a set of three or more elongate
compression struts within a network of tension tendons, the combined
parts mutually supportive in such a way that the struts do not touch
one another, but press outwardly against nodal points in the tension
network to form a firm, triangulated, prestressed, tension and compression
The reason is that it's possible to build such a structure whose network
is non-triangulated. Such structures are flaccid and decidedly not firm.
How do you adjust the tension on your sculptures?
analogous to tuning a stringed instrument. In assembling the sculpture
for the first time, I invariably need to change some of the tension
members, remaking them either longer or shorter to achieve the right
amount of prestressing. Every part depends on every other part, compression
and tension members alike, so that knowing which wire to alter is a
matter of experience. After the final adjustment, further changes over
time are seldom necessary.
Do the wires thread through the tubes?
wire is separate and connects only specific points from one tube end
to another, performing a particular task. The wires are never threaded
through the structure like a string of beads as appearances might suggest.
What happens if a wire is cut?
a wire in a simple tensegrity structure with few parts causes a major
deformation or collapse. The more complex the structure, depending on
which wire is removed, the milder the damage.
Your work is often associated with the ideas of Buckminster Fuller. What
was your relationship?
was an art student just after World War II and I was attracted to the
work of the Russian Constructivists and to the larger world of geometrical
art that evolved worldwide in the first-half of the twentieth century.
In the Summer of 1948, when I was twenty-one, Buckminster Fuller became
a huge influence from the moment I met him at Black
Mountain College in North Carolina. I went there from my home in
Oregon to study only with Josef Albers the Bauhaus Master. Professor
Fuller arrived for the summer session as a substitute for an architecture
professor who withdrew at the last minute. It was Fuller's first teaching
His public lecture
on the evening he arrived from New York was surprising and exhilarating,
especially because we knew nothing about him and it was clear to all
that his ideas were novel. He was not the celebrity that he later became.
So in those short summer weeks virtually the entire small college, sixty
or seventy people, decided to sign up and audit Bucky Fuller's class.
I was assigned the role of class monitor.
long lectures covered a menu of subjects, for me his presentation of
three-dimensional geometry and its structural associations, delivered
under the label "Energetic Geometry", was fresh, a bit mystical,
and fascinating to all of us art-and-architecture students whose introduction
to form was largely from the square-and-cube world of the Bauhaus. Even
so, in his structure/geometry inventory there was no such thing as tensegrity;
and the geodesic dome was then a pattern of thirty-one great circles
surrounding a sphere, not the now familiar form based on the icosahedron.
All during the
summer, the resident math professor Max Dehn softly protested that we
students could have looked up all of "Bucky's" geometry right
there in the math library, but Professor Fuller, superb salesman that
he was, convinced us non-mathematical art students that he had discovered
these marvelous geometrical relationships for the first time and for
the good of humanity. But what he did add to it was his engineer's focus
on the structural stability -- or not -- of the Platonic and Archimedean
polyhedra - as well as an almost religious self invented doctrine which
asserted that here resided the deepest secrets of nature, heretofore
hidden from mankind. Whatever he claimed, he surely threw fresh light
on the subject. It was this study and this sensibility, tying together
form and structure, plus that strange mysticism which greatly affected
me during my young Black Mountain summer sessions over fifty years ago.
What Buckminster Fuller came away with in the following summer session,
1949, was work I had done at home that winter, an original idea, now
called tensegrity. Also see: http://www.grunch.net/snelson/rmoto.html
What's the difference between what you do and what an engineer does?
not an engineer nor a scientist. My training is in art and I make art.
Engineers make structures for specific uses, to support something, to
hold something, to do something. My sculptures serve only to stand up
by themselves and to reveal a particular form such as a tower or a cantilever
or a geometrical order probably never seen before; all of this because
of a desire to unveil, in whatever ways I can, the wondrous essence
of elementary structure.
I'd like to build my own tensegrity structures. What's the best way to
simple structures with basic materials such as chopsticks or soda straws
and string or rubber bands is the best way to understand what the push
and pull forces are doing. The artist/mathematician George Hart has
an amazing number of ideas and endless information at his website, http://www.georgehart.com/virtual-polyhedra/straw-tensegrity.html,
about geometry as well as instructions for making simple tensegrity
Are table size reproductions or possibly kits available?
except for small sculptures which, because of the way things go in the
art market, always up, they have gotten to be expensive. They're handled
by Marlborough Gallery,
It seems to me that "Needle Tower" or "E.C. Column" would make a magnificent
transmission tower, especially since the standard ones are not exactly
things of beauty.
a tower for such purpose is not very promising since these structures,
pure tensegrity that is, are quite elastic and flexible; too much so
for use as antennas with dishes mounted on top. Swaying in the wind
might be a disadvantage.
Is the Star of David one sees when I look up through your "Needle Tower"
meant as a religious symbol?
although the double triangle is there to be sure. The six pointed star
often seen in my sculptures is not intended as a symbol of any kind;
nor are the many crosses. Six pointedness in this case comes out of
the natural geometry of three elements (compression struts) at each
layer or module. The sets of three alternate with right with left helical
modules, adding up to six when seen looking up through the tower for
example. It's for that reason you see a six pointed star. A five pointed
star would be a challenge since dividing five by two gives only two
and a half. Two and a half compression members doesn't compute.
Are there problems with people climbing you artwork?
but I try to put the outdoor pieces out of harm's way whenever possible.
So far luckily no one has gotten hurt.