At first glance, structures seem to only provide the stability for the building and not as an element that contributes in the creation of architectural space or as a tool to convey architectural concepts. However, such a superficial way of considering the role of structure in design is what really creates a border between its true potential uses and the actual way that it’s being used. Structure in architecture, if well employed and well included in the design process at an early phase of the project, can really achieve very interesting results in term of delivering design ideas and determining the shape, beauty and identity of the building. Want to see how far can structures go beyond its functional use to achieve all of this? We invite you to look through this list of 5 Architects/Architecture firms that we consider among the best on choosing the structural system for their projects in way that serves design concepts each one of them in his own way.

1. SANAA

One cannot talk about the role of structure in shaping the architectural space without mentioning the work of SANAA. Founded in 1995 by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA is a renowned architecture firm with plenty of creations across the world and Japan. Their design approach reflect a desire to work with bold shapes and to incorporate elements of doubt that demands to visit the building to actually understand it, which in this case makes the structure a key element of design that must be considered wisely to serve the design considerations rather than making it more difficult to understand the spatiality of the place, something that SANAA are really good at; incorporating structural elements in the narrative of their spaces. Taking as an example their Tsuruoka Cultural Center in Japan, this project is a collection of fluid volumes set at different heights, one slightly leaning on the other becoming smaller toward the perimeters of the site in order to merge the building with its surroundings creating a form that looks like sails, waves, slender blades and airy sheets of paper, in which even the most solid materials become delicate and refined.

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Tsuruoka Cultural Hall in Yamagata prefecture, Japan by SANAA ©SANAA.

And what emphasize more the slenderness of those volumes is the sweeping metallic structures and roof lines that are visible from the inside making it as if the roof is simply laid on the thin white beams in a very neat way. We can clearly see that the modernity and the simplicity of the structure system suit the concept’s purpose while maintaining a balance with its natural shape.

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Interior view of Tsuruoka Cultural Hall in Yamagata prefecture, Japan by SANAA ©SANAA

2. Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava took the relationship between architectural space and structure to a whole another level. As an architect, structural engineer, sculptor and painter, his very rich background allowed him to introduce the structural element not only as a spatial component that serves the design but also to become the main actor in creating the space in a way that the structure itself becomes the space and cannot be treated separately anymore, in other words, without structure there is no space. This seamless integration approach of architectural design and structural engineering is the key behind the overwhelming and dramatic architectural space in Calatrava’s work.

Top Architecture Firms on choosing the structural system for their projects - Santiago Calatrava
World Trade Center Transportation Hub by Santiago Calatrava  © Hufton+Crow.

3. Toyo Ito

Known for creating conceptual architecture, Toyo Ito have always paid particular attention to structures and materials in his projects because of the importance of these two elements in his conceptual approach. According to the architect himself, structural analysis is a primordial phase in his design process in order to figure the perfect structural system without mitigating or altering his concepts. That is why he don’t consider structures as a problem but rather as a parameter that should be included from the very beginning of the process to able to convey his strong conceptual ideas  behind his architecture. One of the most relevant works of Toyo Ito when it comes to he role of structure is the famous Sendai Mediatheque in Miyagi prefecture in Japan. The main idea behind this project was to remove the fixed barriers between different functions to evoke the image of how cultural facilities should really be. This openness is the direct result of the simple structure of the building consisting of flat concrete slabs penetrated by 13 steel shafts, or tubes as called by the architect, allowing the various functions to be freely distributed throughout the open areas between the tubes.

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The visible tubes through the façade of Sendai Mediatheque in Miyagi Prefecture by Toyo Ito  © SHIKENCHIKU-SHA japan architect vol 65.

In addition, these tubes vary in size and house Sendai Mediatheque’s utilities and vertical circulation including both elevators and stairs. Each of the thirteen shafts is independent of the façade and allow for its free form plan while simultaneously showing how light and transparent the structure really is.

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Vertical circulation inside one of the tubes of Sendai Mediatheque in Miyagi Prefecture by Toyo Ito  © Sendai Mediatheque website.

4. Frei Otto

Frei Otto, architect and structural engineer, was behind some of the most important structures and design ideas of the last century. He pioneered the use of modern, lightweight, tent-like structures for many uses and founded several institutions that were dedicated to lightweight structure In his case, structures were the starting point in the design process even before the concepts since he always questioned the economical and ecological values behind any building and was attracted to lightweight structures because of what they offer in terms of building with less as he were also possessed by the idea of trying to build the best spaces with as little as possible. Frei Otto does not pick or develop a structural system for his projects, in fact the structures that he creates are the project themselves.

Top Architecture Firms on choosing the structural system for their projects - Frei Otto
Munich Olympic Stadium by Frei Otto © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn.

 5. Steven Holl Architects

Geometry is one of the most important aspects of steven holl’s work of architecture since they’re keen to well integrate their projects in the site and to obtain a deeper beginning in the experience of time, space, light and materials in which geometry and shape manipulation is deeply involved in a very sophisticated manner and as a result, this requires also a very sophisticated structural system that can maintain this geometry. Steven Holl architects tries to provide the perfect structural solutions for their complex designs in a clever way that relates to the project’s concept without ruining the spatiality and functionality of the space. Their choices for the structural system for their built projects are the result of an intensive amount of research and experimentation that involves all the parameters of the design. This experimental process is what makes every single structural solution that they provide unique and specific for each project.

Top Architecture Firms on choosing the structural system for their projects - Steven Holl Architects
NANJING SIFANG ART MUSEUM in China by Steven Holl  ©Steven Holl Architects.

Waddah Dridi
Author

Waddah Dridi is a Tunisian architecture student in the National School of Architecture & Urbanism of Tunis (ENAU). Driven by curiosity and passionate about the multitude of scales in architecture, his approach is to freely experiment with the design possibilities in order to figure the perfect correlation involving all the parameters.

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