Chuck Hoberman makes structures transform

REALLY bright kids who live and breathe computers, who love special effects in movies and win national science competitions, may one day refer to Chuck Hoberman as "Transformation Man."

Add architects, structural engineers, designers, and those in jobs not yet invented, and the question is: Who is this Chuck Hoberman, and what is he transforming?

Standing in his apartment/design studio next to a strange-looking, spiked sphere suspended shoulder-high from wires, Mr. Hoberman says, "The basic premise of what I'm working on is developing a series of means to make structures transform."

He demonstrates. By pulling a wire slowly, the compact sphere - made of short, narrow, connected pieces of aluminum that pivot and turn like complex scissors - begins to expand (the pieces opening and shifting in unison) from the original 16 inches across to twice the size, then three times the size until it is transformed with mathematical elegance into a six-foot-wide, airy sphere echoing all that Buckminster Fuller loved about geodesic structures. Small to big - and back

It is extraordinarily pleasing to watch it unfold from 16 inches to six feet, and then shrink again, transforming itself from small to big and back again, but always remaining a sphere. As far as anyone knows, Hoberman's design, and the mechanics involved, have never been put together before in this transformational way.

The end results are some big steps for "Transformation Man" toward developing new possibilities in architecture, toys, packaging, folding roofs, folding luggage and briefcases, folding structures, and probably many other applications as yet undiscovered.

Tall and lanky, Hoberman speaks with deliberate precision, but with a soft edge of wonder and appreciation for what is happening to him, and the potential applications. "I'm incredibly fortunate to have these ideas," he says, "and to be able to pursue them." His concepts and models were recently featured in Discovery magazine, and his "transformations" will be included in a Discovery Channel program in the fall.

He is as pleased with the aesthetic response to his new "transformations" as he is to the evolving practical applications.

"Yes, there is the pleasure one gets from watching the mathematical relationship that is being expressed in a very sculptural way," he says, "and these are the harmonies that people respond to."

The harmony created confirms the not-so-obvious: Simple mechanisms made complex can be shaped into extraordinary structures that "transform." One of Hoberman's spheres, expanding to 18 feet in diameter, will be the centerpiece of the new Liberty Science Center opening in October in Jersey City, N.J., an exploratory center overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The sphere will open and close by motor.

Max Cameron, manager of exhibit development at the center, says, "Chuck is one of those people who really pushes the envelope. We're hoping his structure will become a great icon for the center because of the wonderful, organic process that it goes through."

A guided tour through Hoberman's combined studio and apartment includes a stop at the small paper models that gave shape to his original concepts.

While a graduate student in engineering at Columbia University, Hoberman became fascinated with mechanisms that start small and become large. Prior to graduate school he had been an sculpture student at Cooper Union in New York City.

Holding forms made of pleated paper and metal, and changing their shapes while he talks, Hoberman says, "These are sometimes compared to origami, which they are, in the sense of being folded paper, but they differ in two key respects: the thickness of the material, and a continuous fluid motion" when unfolded. Big-scale idea: `iris dome'

One of the paper models starts as a pentagon shape as thick as a deck of cards. It opens accordion style, can then be flattened, and finally curved to form a cone shape.

While working a few years ago for a company known as Honeybee Robotics, Hoberman designed a deployable shelter using these principles for a National Aeronautics and Space Administration space station, but the shelter was never produced. Hoberman holds four patents on his ideas and has three more patents pending.

His most compelling idea, with potentially great impact on architectural concepts, sits in model form in the studio. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, it is an intricate, four-foot-wide scale model of an "iris dome" made of interlocking aluminum pieces that pivot.

Activated by a hand crank, dozens of pivotal points move the structure slightly upward at a slant to come together and close in a dome shape.

"This could be a retractable roof," says Hoberman, turning the crank, "and rather than going from a small size to a big size, it expands and retracts like the iris of an eye. Right now the thing that I'm most passionate about is this sort of large-scale architectural application. But there are many, many other applications that may turn out to be the way such structures are realized. I'll go along with it; the world will tell me what's going on. I don't need to impose it."

What also excites inventor Hoberman is the prospect of people sitting in such a structure, perhaps at a sports stadium, and experiencing a transformation of their own. "The roof goes back," he says, "a circle of light opens up and gets larger and larger until the structure disappears and you're in the outdoors. Just as a kind of poetic experience, I think it will be something remarkable."

In early 1993 a line of toys based on Hoberman's concepts will be introduced to the public. Some will be four-wheeled, fold-up play vehicles for children; others will be "board games" that start small and become large enough for children to walk through.

"Chuck has the remarkable ability to balance the aesthetics with the engineering," says John Gentile, president of Abrams/Gentile Entertainment in New York, the company that will license the toys to manufacturers.

With an eye on American culture, Hoberman is critical of what he says detracts from the values of the "built environment" by the uncertain values he sees in a technological society.

"Right now our technological imagination is captured by the computer and the electronic media, and the direction is away from the realm of built structures," he says. "I think there is a need people have for a sense of positive relationship to the physical world, to relate to the earth. Large structures play a particular role in cultures embodying the values and aspirations of the civilizations that produced them.

"I'm hoping that the wonder of an iris dome and other transforming structures will help bring a sense that we can interact with the planet."

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