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Are Cylinders Becoming Cool Architectural Elements?

July 1, 2002
When we publish what has become our annual Fluid Power on Vacation feature article, we usually mention how hydraulics, pneumatics, or both technologies work behind the scenes to pull off some sort of dazzling effect. Occasionally, though, the guts of a machine are left in plain view for all to see.
When we publish what has become our annual Fluid Power on Vacation feature article, we usually mention how hydraulics, pneumatics, or both technologies work behind the scenes to pull off some sort of dazzling effect. Occasionally, though, the guts of a machine are left in plain view for all to see.

One instance that comes to mind is the Siegfried & Roy show in Las Vegas. Well into this high-tech extravaganza, a huge fire-breathing dragon moves to center stage. But instead of trying to make this look like a real dragon — or what a real dragon might look like — show producers chose to leave the skin off this imposing character. So the metal framework and hydraulic cylinders that bring it to life are in full view of the audience. Carefully orchestrated lighting and smoke create a dark, menacing aura around the dragon. So in a way, intentionally leaving the mechanical framework and hydraulic cylinders exposed transforms the essential mechanical elements into an art form.

This has been a trend in architecture for some time now. Here in Cleveland, designers of Jacobs Field decided to keep structural steel framework and giant turnbuckles exposed for all to see. A simple coat of paint provides the finishing touch. A similar theme can be found in the new parking terminal of our airport. This trend is repeated at public buildings around the world. Sometimes you’ll even see cases where mechanical elements that serve no structural purpose were added purely for visual effect.

Now I enjoy architecture as much as the next guy, probably a little more. But it’s static, so I don’t get too excited about it. I like fluid power because it is, well, power. Things move. So when a colleague (who does get excited about architecture) shared with me some information about Schouwburgplein (Theater Square), in Netherlands, I had to get at least a little excited.

Schouwburgplein is an open plaza in downtown Rotterdam that has been compared to Times Square without all the people. Of note here are several moveable floodlights that people can aim in different directions for reasons our sparse amount of information did not explain. But that’s not important. What is, is that hydraulic cylinders are an integral element of these giant structures. They are not hidden inside the structure, but displayed prominently as the means by which the structures move. I imagine that, when extended, the round, shiny surfaces of piston rods glisten any time of day — in stark contrast to the sharp edges and smooth satin finish of the lights’ framework.

Who knows what the future may bring? Fluid power may become so cool that architects begin specifying cylinders purely for their aesthetic value, even though nothing moves. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

Here's a closeup of a cylinder that controls motion of one of the four structures.

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