The Father of Tensegrity – Kenneth Snelson
When I type the word "tensegrity" into my phone it suggests "tense gritty". I think Kenneth Snelson thinks the same way. "It feels like a bad breakfast cereal, " he quipped as he literally chewed the word on its way out of his mouth during the first few minutes of his lecture Thursday night at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
For someone who doesn't like it, he would go on to use that word quite a lot tonight.
Kenneth was here because Pittsburgh has one of his pieces here – "Forest Devil" and was recently moved from its location downtown to the museum proper. He remembers it all quite fondly. All the materials were made in Pittsburgh, he made he cables himself, and there were balloons everywhere at the public opening. He especially liked the balloons.
The son of a photographer and building contractor who built models as a child, Snelson studied painting for 2 years at the University of Oregon but it was at Black Mountain North Carolina in 1948 that he became obsessed structures, studying with Albers, de Kooning and Buckminster Fuller.
Bucky was trying to build his first geodesic dome back then, and it wasn't working very well. As structures go, they were "supine domes". Snelson went away inspired and began building small structures. One of these features what he called an "X-Module" and was based on a kite frame. Fuller was enraptured with it and shortly thereafter invented the word "tensegrity" and declared that all of his structures were "tensegrity structures". As far as the controversy goes, Kenneth said, without a trace of rancor, " I've told this story a lot and don't want to anymore but let's just say that Bucky decided that it was his and not mine."
It wouldn't be until a Fuller exhibit 1959 in New York City that Snelson would finally get the credit he deserved (thanks to one of Fuller's assistants).
The evening was full of great stories, amazing photographs, lab notes and computer animations. At 86, Kenneth is spry and still very vital.
Making these tensegrity structures is not " an analytical or mathematical process" for Snelson, and sometimes they do fail. A wire gets wrapped over a strut rather than under and "Pow! There's this huge sound" and it all comes tumbling down. There is famous piece in Grand Rapids that slowly collapsed (losing its tensegrity?) even though it's construction was "validated by a complicated computer system".
These days Kenneth is obsessed with "Binariness – where lines intersect" which has led him to a very deep study of weaving.
"Weaving is the mother of tensegrity."
I have heard that he doesn't believe in/endorse the theory of biotensegrity and the when he subject of "dynamic tensegrity" (very big in the robotics world) came up he simply said this: "It's not my interest. I'm interested in structures".
I highly recommend Snelson's book "Art and Ideas" – a free download at his website where you can also find many of the pictures and videos we saw at this extraordinary evening.