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London Design Festival: Artful Imitation with Infinitely Recyclable Aluminum

A sneak peek of an immersive exhibit made from aluminum with the lowest carbon footprint on earth.

By Rachel Gallaher

Renderings courtesy of Nebbia Works

design installation of aluminum with cutouts in a courtyard seen from above.

Designed by Nebbia Works, the installation 'Between Forests and Skies' will debut at this year's London Design Festival.

A forest is about to sprout up in the John Madejski Garden at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, but visitors might have a difficult time identifying it at first. There are no plans for actual trees, plants, or green elements—instead, a nearly 10-foot-high rectangular pavilion (its multiple legs looks like they were peeled down from the central platform) that will be installed in the center of the Garden’s oval water feature. Designed by multidisciplinary architecture and design studio Nebbia Works in partnership with global aluminum-and-power producer En+ Group, the piece, titled Between Forests and Skies is part of the upcoming London Design Festival (September 18–26). Nebbia Works was invited by the V&A to propose a design for an installation using an innovative, ultra-low -carbon aluminum (created by EN+), but it wasn’t the firm’s first time working with a similar material.

“Aluminum is a metal of the future. Light yet durable and almost infinitely recyclable, it is a key enabler on the path towards a more sustainable economy and a post-Covid ‘green’ recovery.” Lord Barker, En+ Group

“We had previously started exploring the possibilities of aluminum as a recyclable design element with a series of tables developed over the previous year,” write architects and Nebbia Works cofounders Madhav Kidao and Brando Posocco in an email. “The commission allowed us to take some of this design thinking and research to a more architectural scale. The space formed is a manufactured forest, an unnatural imitation of our natural environment. The reflectivity of the aluminum is mirrored in the reflectivity of the water, and the experience of the pavilion is a dreamlike state between the sky and the reflection of the sky, the world and the reflection of the world. It shifts and changes throughout the day as the environment and activities that are reflected around it change.”

exterior of Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Located in the John Madejski Garden at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the work is made from 27 individual panels made from aluminum with the lowest carbon footprint on earth.

Crafted from 27 individual pieces bolted together with circular connection plates (each plate has a single waterjet-cut leg that is cold-bent out around a pipe using a gantry crane and a bit of brute force), the finished sculpture will demonstrate the durability and versatility of aluminum, while also drawing attention to the fundamental role of low-carbon raw materials in creating a more sustainable world. The innate strength of the material coupled with algorithmically solved leg positions allowed for a self-supporting structure that stands onto the ground with as minimal impact as possible.

"The pavilion is made from the lowest carbon aluminum ever produced, using breakthrough technology and the power of water,” says Lord Barker, executive chairman of En+ Group. “This method of production reinforces aluminum as the material with which we will sustainably build our future thanks to its infinite recyclability and capacity to be produced in line with a green economy."

Although the piece isn’t a forest in the traditional, flora-centric sense, a manufactured representational forest made from industrial materials serves as a chilling metaphor, and perhaps a bit of a warning, for the increasingly dire state of the earth’s natural habitat as global warming (and the seeming indifference of many humans and lawmakers) continues. There is no replacement for trees, let us not forget that.

London Design Festival installation with aluminum art installation people walking through exhibit, reflective surfaces

The immersive installation is meant to abstractly mimic a forest.

“Our inspiration came from investigating how we could exploit aluminum’s physical properties to manipulate our perceptions of the material,” Kidao and Posocco write. “Aluminum is strong, lightweight, malleable, and durable. It has a visual beauty that can mirror and distort, but we often perceive its qualities as mechanical, machined, and cold. We started thinking about how we could introduce character and romance into the material and the space, and how we could transform it so that it felt simultaneously organic yet synthetic.”

Another important element of the design was the ability to easily dissemble, move, ship, and reassemble the installation. The London Design Festival is only the first stop for Between Forests and Skies. After its residency at V&A, the piece will be taken apart, transported, and rebuilt in Glasgow, Scotland this November for the United Kingdom’s international climate summit COP26 in November.

art installation at Victoria & Albert Museum during London Design Festival, aluminum with water feature

After the London Design Festival, the piece will be disassembled and transported to Scotland.

“[We hope to take away a sense of] design optimism,” Kidao and Posocco continue. “The idea that sustainability should not be perceived as a hindrance to design thought. As we begin to move away from some materials and crafts because of their environmental impacts, maybe we begin to reassess our interpretation and uses of [alternate] materials. The other critical thing is to remember that as designers we have influence on industry through the supply chain. We can challenge producers and suppliers to appraise their practices and methodologies through the products we choose to purchase and specify—it is change at the industrial scale that we need to address.”


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