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Mike Schlaich
Schlaich Bergermann und Partner, www.sbp.de



This tower, which is probably the highest tensegrity structure built so far, might become the new symbol of
the Rostock fair ground. The tower consists of six so-called twist elements of 8.3 m height, each made of
three steel tubes which are stabilized by three diagonal cables and three horizontal cables. Together with the
stainless steel needle placed on top, this sculpture reaches a height of 62.3 m. The paper briefly describes the
history of tensegrity structures, the conceptual and structural design as well as the non-linear analysis which
was necessary for this highly pre-tensioned lightweight structure.

Keywords: tensegrity, towers, cable structures, light-weight buildings

On first sight the structure appears confusing (fig. 1,
The world’s highest tensegrity tower was completed 2). Even experienced engineers need time to
just in time for the opening of the International understand the load transfer between the tower
Garden Exhibition in Rostock (IGA 2003) and components. However, after a while this sculpture
serves as a landmark on the grounds of the trade fair reveals its inner order which causes it to change its
Hanse-Messe. The tower is visible from afar with a appearance depending on the angle one looks at it
total height of 62.3 m and may have deflections (fig. 3).
greater than one meter during storms.

Figure 1. The Tensegrity tower in Rostock Figure 2. Close-up

VOL. 45 (2004) n. 145

Figure 3. Nine Elevations

2. TENSEGRITY success) to introduce tensegrity principles into

modern architecture, the American sculptor
The American inventor, engineer and architect, R. Kenneth Snelson applied such ideas in his work.
Buckminster Fuller, coined the term “tensegrity”, a Snelson’s 30 m high “Needle Tower” is a true
combination of tensional and integrity [1]. True tensegrity structure, as no element in compression is
tensegrity structures consist of a continuous system connected to another element in compression. The
of elements in tension and a discontinuous highest tensegrity tower built before the Rostock
secondary system of elements in compression. tower was constructed in 1968 at the Smithsonian
Buckminster Fuller poetically described such Institute in Washington, D.C. The very first to
structural systems as “islands of compression in a experiment with tensegrity structures was perhaps
sea of tension.” These extremely lightweight and the Russian artist Karl Ioganson whose sculpture
transparent structures require high pre-tensioning “study in balance” was created in 1921 [4].
for stability.
Presently, Japanese designers are perhaps the most
Still, tensegrity structures are very lively, in spite of active in the field of tensegrity structures [5], [6].
high pre-tensioning. Particularly, tensegrity towers
are extremely flexible and yielding structures of
very limited practical use. Numerous university 3. CONCEPTUAL DESIGN
studies around the world have done little to change
this fact. One can find thousands of internet sites on The architectural design of the Hanse-Messe called
tensegrity structures. The only practical application for a large timber hall, a conference center, as well
for tensegrity structures has been the so-called as a tower to act as a symbol for the complex. After
“cable domes” [2]. Large span roofing systems it became clear that the tower would neither support
based on the spoked wheel systems [3] have been large signboards nor would be climbed by its users,
successful and may also be categorized as the large deflections of a tensegrity structure were
tensegrity structures in the furthest sense of the no longer a criteria for exclusion.
The jump from 30 m to 60 m (with needle) as the
Before Buckminster Fuller, who tried (with limited highest tower was achieved using a trick: permitting

contact of certain compression elements, three main Ease in pre-tensioning and stability dictated the
independent compression elements are formed. This geometry and the angle of rotation (30°) of the
decidedly increases the rigidity of the system while twist-elements. The plane defined by a bar and a
at the same time simplifying the visual impression diagonal cable must bisect the angle between two
of transparency (fig. 4). Experts still refer to such a horizontal cables [8]. This geometry inhibits
system as a tensegrity structure [7]. twisting during pre-tensioning. Still, the dead load
causes a small rotation of the twist element which
cannot be compensated by pre-tensioning.
However, overall this effect can almost be
eliminated by alternatively stacking left twist-
elements on right twist-elements.

A: twist element A (upper B: twist element B (upper

triangle rotated by +30°) triangle rotated by –30°)

Figure 5. Twist elements (twisted left, twisted right)

Figure 4. Pure Tensegrity and the Rostock solution

Still, the tower could only work if very tight

tolerances were respected. This leads to a precision
in design, fabrication and construction usually
found only in mechanical engineering. This
assignment was successfully mastered by the
contractor and his steel shop. High strength
materials such as fully locked coil ropes, which are
typically found in suspension bridge structures,
were used for the tower.


The tower consists of six so-called twist-elements,

each 8.3 m in height. Each of these elements
contains 3 bars in compression (273 mm diameter
tubular steel sections with wall thickness between
12 and 40 mm), three galfan coated diagonal cables
(50 mm to 75 mm fully locked coil ropes) and three
smaller horizontal cables (30 mm to 50 mm). Figure 6. Detail geometry
VOL. 45 (2004) n. 145

A 15 m high stainless steel needle creates the tower foundation. Pile design was governed by the
pinnacle of the tower and protrudes 12.5 m above tension forces due to the high wind loads from the
the top twist-element (fig. 7). The needle is hung on Baltic Sea and the low weight of the structure,
3 pre-stressed stainless steel cable ropes (1 x 37 which created large bending moments and relatively
Ø=20mm). The tower weighs a total of 50 tons. low axial forces acting on the foundation.

Figure 7. Stainless Steel needle during erection

Figure 8. Typical node
Two bars in compression and 4 cables are joined at
each node. The large diagonal cables are connected
using open spelter sockets pinned to thick plates
which are in turn welded to the bars in compression.
At the nodes, bolted butt plates create a rigid
connection between the bars (fig. 8). Using a pined
connection between the bars would lead to
kinematic connections.

Early in the design it became apparent that the

tower would best be erected by joining
prefabricated twist elements. The use of double butt
plates allowed these pre-fabricated twist elements to
be easily connected and eased erection. The
individual elements were connected to each other Figure 9. Connection of prefabricated elements and
with high-strength bolts (M30, 10.9). In order to temporary stressing frame
avoid using double horizontal cables, a temporary
steel frame with integrated pre-tensioning jacks was
used during erection (see fig. 9, for details on 5. STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS
fabrication and erection refer to [9]).
The two most critical load cases were pre-
At the foot of the tower, three connections are tensioning and wind. Dead load played a much
created using base plates (t = 100 mm) anchored to smaller role. The wind loads were treated as linear
a pile cap. Three drilled piles (Ø = 0.5 m) form the distributed loads on all cable and tube sections and

were calculated using the German Code DIN 4131 pre-tensioning. This is especially so for short
Anhang A and the draft of the DIN 1055-4 from cables. For the 9.6 m long cables, a strain of only 20
March 2001. The Code also stipulates that wind mm is necessary to reach the desired pre-tensioning
loads are also to act on cable and tube sections (1100 kN). A variation of only 10 mm can decrease
covered with ice. Using such increased sections, the the pre-tensioning by up to 50%.
wind velocity can be reduced and the resulting
stresses from the two load cases were more or less Because of this effect, the pre-tensioning load case
the same. was studied with coefficients of safety of γv = 0.65
and γv = 1.35. The calculations showed that even
The first natural frequency of the tower occurs at under such unfavorable load cases, the system still
f= 0.6 Hz. The corresponding mode shape is that of exhibited enough bearing reserves. The system was
a cantilever. The dynamic response of the structure studied using a 3-D finite element model taking into
was taken into account by an additional load factor account geometric non-linearities and large
of safety of γd = 1.3. deformations. Compression elements were finely
subdivided and modelled with local imperfections.
The stiffness of the system depends heavily on the Several possible eigenforms of the tubes were
pre-tensioning. Low pre-tensioning would lead to studied to determine the most disadvantageous
large deflections due to wind, earlier cable drop- imperfection. The worst second order effects
out, large bending moments in the bars and possibly occurred for a parabolic deflection of these
to a reduction of the bearing capacity of the system. elements as defined in the German Code DIN
On the other hand, high pre-tensioning can also 18 800 Part 2. The maximum values were taken as
reduce the bearing capacity, e.g. highly compressed 1/200 of the compression elements. For the tubular
tubes might buckle earlier. The chosen pre- sections, these imperfections were chosen so as to
tensioning force (at 30% of the tensile strength of act in the direction of the maximal bending moment
the cables) was so that no cable will go slack under in their middle.
service loads (1.0 x wind load).
The horizontal deflection v of the tower pinnacle
It is difficult to precisely reach the desired due to dead load plus wind loads (factored by γw) is
pre-tensioning. Slip of the anchor cone in the shown in fig. 10. The graphs show the structural
spelter sockets, cable creep and even small errors behaviour of the system for various levels of pre-
in steel work fabrication (such as a variation tensioning (65%, 100% and 135% pre-tensioning).
in the node distances) can have a large influence on

v [mm]

Figure 10. Horizontal displacements of the tower top for dead load, pre-tensioning and wind loads
VOL. 45 (2004) n. 145

It is obvious from the graphs that the structural this field many useful, light and elegant structures
behaviour is very dependent on the system pre- can still be expected.
tensioning. The diagonal cable at the base of the
tower goes slack at a certain value of wind load.
The tower remains stable, but there is a notable
decrease in rigidity (kink in the curve at point 1). By a Client:
further increase in loading, the cables above begin to IGA Rostock gmbh
successively go slack (points 2 and 3), each bringing
about a further decrease in system stiffness. Project Management and Architecture:
von Gerkan, Marg und Partner, Hamburg, Germany
“Failure” was calculated to occur at over double the
expected maximal wind load (γw=2). The theoretical Conceptual and Structural Design:
breaking load of a horizontal cable is first reached in Schlaich Bergermann und Partner, Stuttgart,
the lowest twist elements (points V1) followed by a Germany (collaborators: Arturo Ruiz de Villa
failure of a diagonal cable (points V2). Failure of the Valdés (analysis) and Christiane Sander (drawings),
cables occurs at the same wind level for all levels of as well as B.Friedrich, U. Burkhardt and H.
pre-tensioning. It is independent of pre-tensioning Jungjohann)
(points V1 in the graphs). Only the deflections vary
for the different levels of pre-tensioning. However, Fabrication and Erection:
the graphs also show that the structure with 65% pre- Mero, Würzburg, Germany
tensioning fails slightly earlier, due to buckling of a
compression element (point V3). Bending moments
in the rigidly connected column elements increased
more quickly, for the structure with low pre-stress REFERENCES
due to larger deflections and the design stress of the
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