Common Ground


Arsenale | Biennale | Venice | Italy


The Swiss engineer Heinz Isler (1926-2009) is regarded around the world as one of the pioneers of shell structures. In particular, he gained renown for his experimental methods of form-finding and the resulting expressive shell structures produced in thin-walled concrete. Over his life-time he was able to realize almost 1400 shell structures in Switzerland alone and thereby shape the built landscape of his native country.

Early in life, Isler developed an interest in nature which would later shape his entire body of work. Natural shell shapes in particular piqued his curiosity and sense of wonder and he was able to develop three physical processes of form-finding for shells: expansion forms out of growing foam, pneumatic forms out of pressurized rubber sheets and hanging forms out of cloth. Almost all of his designs are based on one of these experimental processes. For design refinement he was using larger models for the precise form-finding, the measurement of internal stresses and the calculation of shell thickness. Isler’s experimentally generated shell can be built with a minimum amount of material while remaining resistant to tears and breaks.

The solving of technical problems, however, did not constitute the primary goal in his dealings with shell construction but was the consequence of an aesthetic consideration. “Shell structures have an inherent capacity to express structural beauty” and it is “the virtually unlimited potential of nongeometric shell-shapes, which especially pleased me because of their high aesthetic value”. It was this inherent beauty that was the driving force behind Isler’s study of shell form.

The Biennale theme Common Ground explores how the work of the major protagonists of contemporary architecture is based on historical lineages of collective research. In the exhibition, the work of Zaha Hadid is put in relation with form-finding experiments of Heinz Isler. 

Exhibition:  29 August – 25 November 2012

Exhibition Design: Toni Kotnik & Zaha Hadid Architects