Surface Design

Begüm Aktaş, M. Birgül Çolakoğlu

Published Apr 14, 2021

Free-form is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “having or being an irregular or asymmetrical shape or design” (Merriam-Webster 2018).  In the Oxford dictionary, free-form refers to “not conforming to a regular or formal structure or shape” (Oxford Dictionaries 2018).  Free-form is regarded as smooth, flowing shapes, with both positive and negative curvature, and unique and varying shapes.

Free-form surfaces appear in architecture thousands of years ago as dome-like shelters made from wood and willow materials. Through the years, complex free-form designs have been created as domes and sculptural building ornaments.  In the nineteenth century, with the industrialization of the construction and design environment, architects started to gain a significant amount of freedom in the expression of their designs and constructions. In contemporary architecture, free-form architectural designs have become widespread as designers and architects push the boundaries of Euclidian geometries in architectural designs.  With the utilization of computer-aided tools in the design process, digitally designed non-Euclidian geometries have frequently started to emerge because of the possibility to design almost every shape. The influences of digitalization in the design environment has also affected design methodology to enable sculpted shaped free-form surfaces to be designed and constructed.

A wide use of computer-aided tools in contemporary architecture has created an influential new architectural language of curved surfaces, non-repeating parts, free-form designs, digital analysis, and CAD (computer aided design) / CAM (computer aided manufacturing) fabrication. Despite free-form designs rapidly being popular among designers and architects, it is still difficult to find a proper geometrical definition of the term “free-form.” “The reason could be that “free-from” has been brought into the architectural vocabulary through the areas of 'computer graphics' and 'computational modeling techniques' and not through the discipline of geometry. (Eekhout, Gelder et al. 2015).

Designers such as Antonio Gaudi, Frei Otto, Buckminster Fuller, and Jean Prouve were experimentalists who defined parameters and then tested materials by making one-to-one scale physical models. Through these models, they explored the new possibilities of designs. Antonio Gaudi demonstrated the optimal shape of a structure under pressure as an effective shape by using catenary arch models (3D hanging model) (Figure 1). The complexly curved vaults of Gaudi’s Church of the Sagrada Familia were designed by utilizing such analog computational methods.  Other designers and mathematicians have used soap films to find minimal surfaces as an analog computation design approach.  By dipping a wire frame into soap to get such a minimal surface, Frei Otto was able to design exhibition halls, arenas and stadiums (Figure 2).  An experimental approach for form finding has also been used by Buckminster Fuller. “The Geodesic Dome of Buckminster Fuller is a geometrical shape that encloses the greatest volume with least surfaces.” (Dimcic 2011).

In the digitalization era, information technologists have realized that such analog design approaches and much more could be generated by digital tools rather than by analog means. “The idea was to encode the mathematical formulas for various types of curves into software, let the user input parameters specifying particular instances of these curves, and them employ display routines to trace out these instances on screens ..."(Mitchell 2001).  This successful way of application of digital free-form surface modeling in architectural projects based on mathematical formulas has enabled other designs such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Golden Fish Sculpture, and Experience Music Project (Figure 3).


Merriam-Webster Dictionary, (2018). Free-form [online]. Available from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/free-form [Last viewed 18 October 2018].

Oxford Dictionary, (2018). Free-form [online]. Available from: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/free-form [Last viewed 18 October 2018].

Dimcic, M. (2011). The Structural Optimization of Grid Shells Based on Genetic Algorithms. Doctoral Thesis, ITKE - Universität Stuttgart [Viewed 18 October 2018]. Available from: http://www.programmingarchitecture.com/publications/Dimcic_PhD_2011.pdf

Eekhout, M., B. v. Gelder, W. Lockefeer, M. Veltkamp and K. Vollers (2015). Free Form Technology from Delft. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, IOS Press.

Jiang, Y. (2015). Free Form Finding of Grid Shell Structures. Master of Science in Civil Engineering Master Thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.

Mitchell, W. J. (2001). "Roll over Euclid: How Frank Gehry Designs and Builds." Frank Gehry, Architect: 352-363. SBA73  (2015). El peix de Frank Gehry / Golden Fish, by F. Gehry [digital image]. Available from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/7455207@N05/16761043751 [Last viewed 18 October 2018].

Zexin, S. and H. Mei (2017). Robotic Form-Finding and Construction Based on the Architectural Projection Logic. IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, IOP Publishing.


Figure 1: 3D hanging model and a scaled model for the original design by Gaudi for the Colònia Güell Church and a partial view of the actual the Colònia Güell Church (Jiang 2015).


Figure 2: Frei  Otto  Experimenting  with  Soap Bubbles (Zexin and Mei 2017).


Figure 3: Frank Gehry's Golden Fish Sculpture in Barcelona (SBA73  2015)