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Swarm at Southern Alberta Art Gallery viewed from the park



Interior of  Cocoon Structure





Artist: Lancelot Coar, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Interview 65

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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.



Lancelot Coar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, and is a researcher at the Center for Architectural Structures and Technology (CAST).  At CAST, Lancelot explores the creation of dynamic architectural and structural systems that embrace and are defined by the transformative nature of building materials. Lancelot’s research examines a design and building method that creates an active dialogue between the physical and social forces that shape all structures. His research has included working with fabric formed ice structures, fabric reinforced concrete structures, and flexible fiberglass and bent wood framed structures.

Lancelot Coar received Bachelor of Science degrees in Architectural Engineering and Civil Engineering from Drexel University, Philadelphia and later received his Masters in Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. His work has been featured in a wide range of publications and he has exhibited in museums and galleries in Europe, the United States and Canada.  He is also a founding partner in CoRe Collaborative and a member of the performance art collective The Abzurbs. Lancelot's Website


Artist: Lancelot Coar


Tell us about your work?

In my work I explore how the invisible forces that run through all materials can be expressed and inform the creation of dynamic structural systems. I am interested in understanding structures as active ‘living’ things rather than as inert objects, and the act of their creation as an event of discovery rather than one of assumption. In the structures I build I attempt to expose and enhance the subtle qualities of the materials in order to help express the ‘desires’ they contain. In other words, I treat materials as collaborators in my work. The result is often a structure whose form derives from a conversation between a site, a material, and myself, rather than an abstract idea or ‘concept’ I might have about them.

Another aspect of my practice is the inclusion of the public within the creation and life of these structures. I have found that the unexpected forms and unexpected behaviours in structures can offer unique opportunities for the public to discover new potential understandings of their built environments. I design many of my projects to be built from relatively simple materials, processes, tools, and techniques so that those who help to make them can learn quickly and be active participants in the process of creation.


Installation at MMX with Patrick Harrop for the Transmedialle Festival in Berlin, Photo P. Harrop



From where do you get your inspiration?

I am very interested in the common language that underlies all materials and natural phenomena. More than simply in a physical or elemental way, I find that the behaviour of materials, when stressed, reveals a complex beauty that humbles almost anything we attempt to shape in the world. 

I think that when we create from understanding the nature of something, as opposed to creating based on only our idea of it, we arrive at very different things. In this way, I am interested in building structures based on understanding some aspect of a material’s inherent nature and elaborating on that nature, rather than dictating what a material should be shaped into, based on an abstract (and external) idea of it.

Finally, I’m most inspired by the ability of materials to naturally shape efficient and beautiful structures. Finding a way to learn from these innate abilities in materials can help merge our industrialized practice of construction with biological/natural processes. Some very direct approaches to move this way is in the creation of form-finding and flexible structures like tensile membranes and liquid-to-solid materials like concrete, ice and wax. 


Cocoon at night with shadows from visiting skaters



What do you think of us placing your work within the context of fibre art?

I think it’s great. I have found that by describing what my work is, based on the coincident designation of a practice, also limits what discoveries might be found in the work, because of our inevitable preconception of what we expect to find within that practice. However, by viewing my work through different “lenses” I often discover new things about it that I had not previously considered, because we are conditioned in academia and practice, to work (and thus think) only in the disciplines we are trained in. As a result we often do not realize that we are only seeing our work in that way. 

In many projects I work with traditional fabrics to build structures in art galleries, so in a direct way one could call this fibre art. However, to touch on the deeper implications of your question, I have come to realize important things through the ‘lens’ of seeing my work as fibre art. For example, I have recently discovered that the fiberglass bars I use to create flexible frames in the structures I build (commonly used as ‘rebar’ in reinforced concrete construction) speak to the creation of a textile built from glass fibres. If I only saw myself as working with rebar, I would consider my work as assembling bars (as is commonly done in construction) rather than interlacing or weaving them. The behaviour of these structures have also reinforced the notion of them being a ‘fabric’ in that they respond and are formed by the forces I introduce to them, rather than being the result of the assembly of the individual bars themselves. The major difference is that the ‘fabrics’ that I am making have the ability to resist compressive forces, rather than only resisting tensile forces like most fabrics we might think of. So even being viewed as fabrics, these structures still resist my instinct to categorize them.


Shadow study of Swarm at Southern Alberta Art Gallery" Photos by Rod Leland

Shadow study of Swarm at Southern Alberta Art Gallery" Photos by Rod Leland

How do fibre techniques and materials relate to your practice?

I am finding that constructing both tensile membrane structures as well as compressive rigid fabric structures (like the fiberglass one described before) has led me to explore a range of fibre construction techniques at a range of scales. With tensile fabrics l often work with a serger, which is an amazing machine, and other traditional fibre tools and materials to assemble large semi-flexible fabric structures. I work this way to build both model-scale as well as full-scale tensile membrane structures. 

When I move to work with compressive (rigid) fabrics, like the fiberglass structures, I use traditional construction tools and materials, however I use them to work in fibre construction techniques. For example, I use drills and gear clamps (commonly called “hose clamps”) to connect fiberglass poles together, and depending on the torque I use on the drills, I build a tighter assembly of the poles to a looser one between each other. The effect of this is that when I complete a larger assembly, or interlacement, of these ‘fibres’ into a fabric, the tightness of the assembly creates a similar effect to that of a tighter weave of a fabric. I can create a woven assembly of compressive bars that behave with a high bias stretch or, with the same materials, a more rigid stiffer woven panel.


Coar making final adjustments to the On The Road structure, Photo D.Rey

On The Road at Old Market Square in Winnipeg


What other mediums do you work in, and how does this inform your work?

Working with a range of materials is actually an important aspect of my research.  I am deeply interested in the inherent universal force-flow properties that all materials share. This invites, and almost requires, a wide range of explorations with many materials. 

So far I have worked with fabric and concrete, fabric and ice, fabric and wax, bent (post-tensioned) wood, bent (post-tensioned) fiberglass, and steel. In my experiments with each of these materials, I have constantly been surprised by subtle characteristics of a material, which did not seem significant at the time, arising in another form with a very different material. As a result, my effort to develop a broader understanding of materials and their desires has become a search for building an intuitive or implicitunderstanding of them, rather than an intellectual or explicit one. This goes back to our habit to label things into known categories (or practices) before we have given ourselves an opportunity to consider them on their own terms, without preconceived ideas of them. 


D_RAW Installation by architecture students in Clearwater Manitoba 4


What bridges the works that you have created in differing media?

I would say that my desire to experience the inherent vocabulary all materials posses to manage energy flows, is what ties my work together. The way in which materials seek to establish equilibrium between the external forces on them (induced both by our will and the influences of the environment) and their internal reactions to these forces, reveals the potential to create a dialogue between our ideas and the realities of the world. In this way the materials become a bridge between us and the world in which we live.


D_RAW installation of woven wood strips at the RAW Gallery with Ronnie Araya



What specific historic artists have influenced your work? 

Ernst Haeckel: A German biologist/philosopher/artist who documented thousands of new species of animals and organisms. Often his drawings would show not only the immense mystery of detailed observations, but also a dynamic morphology inherent in each of the organisms he studied.

Antoni Gaudi: A Spanish/Catalan architect who used both known and unknown techniques in form finding, including dynamic geometries, stereo-static modeling (hanging chains), and gravity formed fabric forms. Simply, he used natural forces as a vocabulary that he incorporated into the shaping and ornamentation of his structures.

Jean Prouvé: A French craftsman who designed folded steel (monocoque) structures ranging from furniture, to bicycles, to building components, to full buildings themselves. His forms spoke to an arts and crafts upbringing melded with an industrialized capacity through the use of modern tools. Also his social and cultural stance on his practice with his workers was admirable and resulted in the creation of a working culture not simply a work force. He included them in the selection of commissions and on the terms of fees and work output. Plus he built bikes for them to get around on!

Kurt Schwitters: A German painter who worked a lot with mixed media and was greatly influenced by and influenced Dada and Surrealism movements. I particularly like his Merz projects as well as his construction of the Merzbau/ Cathedral of Erotic Misery; an improvisational and relational structure that emerged over time in his studio, and which was later destroyed in WWII.


On The Road fibreglass and fabric detail



What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work? 

Ernesto Neto: A Brazilian artist who works a lot with sheer elastic fabrics, masses of small scale weights (usually rice, spice, or other things) that contribute to the form, size, smell, and colours of his fabric installations. He often creates all encompassing environments sucking the gravity from the surrounding structure.

Andy Goldsworthy: A British sculptor who works in the natural environment, seeking the extraordinarily subtleties in basic materials and amplifies their nature through temporal constructions in-situ. 

Gordon Matta Clark: An American artist (son of Matta, the surrealist artist) who used the byproducts of architectural production and consumption to explore invisible potentials through the subtraction of material. For him the performance of these transformations were as much about the work as the work itself.


On The Road structure being installed by volunteers from St. Claude Manitoba

On The Road project at Victoria Beach


When did you first discover your creative talents?

I’m not sure what ‘talents’ you might be referring to however, I can maybe talk to my discovery of the questions I feel motivate the work I do.

I always knew that I wanted to study architecture, however, I intuitively knew that I wanted to study architecture for much more than just formal reasons. When considering what to study for my undergraduate degree, I decided to postpone architecture and instead study engineering as a foundation to lead up to my architectural pursuits and attended Drexel University in Philadelphia to study Civil and Architectural (structural) Engineering. During my final year there, I remember the moment when I realized that all the forces we were trained to analyze, calculate and design for, actually possessed a formal and behaviourial nature that was highly disparate from the structures we were building to support them. Despite the static and rectilinear forms of most modern structures we build, the actual nature of the forces that move through them are strikingly curvilinear in form and dynamic in behaviour, and frankly beautiful. As a result, the formal and tectonic vocabulary of most of what we build has an inherently limited relationship with the materials and forces that flow through them. I realized that all of my education to design and analyze static, rectilinear and finite structures, was itself inherently limited in how it might help me discover a design and building language that emerged from the actual nature of things. It was at this time that I realized that my work outside of my formal education would be to, in essence, deconstruct much of what I learned, to distill and reframe the foundational ‘truths’ that I could continue to build from. For me, this is when my creative focus first had a direction.


On The Road shadow pattenrs created by fabric panels


Tell us about your training and how this training has influenced the artistic side of projects such as the Fabric Building Model and the Fabric Reinforcement Model?

As I describe before, my formal training in engineering and architecture have served to create more of a foundation upon which to develop a practice than defining the practice itself. As a result, the artistic aspect of my work comes from the melding and departure from these practices to arrive at a project that straddles and borrows from each.

The Fabric Building Model and Fabric Reinforcement Model are both studies of what structures might look like if their reinforcing could follow the actual shapes of the forces in that structure. Since the physical laws that support buildings are so tied to the form of structures, the architectural and artistic implications of these studies are highly dependent on the organization of the structural members rather than a formal composition. So in this way the creative act for this work is more like a curation of how those forces flow through matter, rather than a subjective determination of them.


Swarm at Southern Alberta Art Gallery viewed from the park


Explain how you have developed your own style?

I don’t think I have developed a “style”, but rather a way of working.  Because so much of what I focus on is the dialogue I establish with the materials, spaces, and forces, the resulting form or material language that emerges, becomes a reflection of that conversation. I would say that over time, these conversations have become more focused, and at the same time, more mysterious to me. I am finding more subtle and slippery questions as I continue to play with materials, rather than finding more conclusive answers. It is frankly a very humbling and exciting way of working.


Swarm at Southern Alberta Art Gallery


What project has given you the most satisfaction and why?

I would have to say that the project I was involved with last winter resulted in one of the most comprehensive dialogues I have had to date with the influences (force flows) of a site, community, and the materials of a project. 

In the winter of 2011, I worked on the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture project for the International Warming Huts Competition for the frozen river trail in Winnipeg, with over forty students from our school. In this project we built a fiberglass framed, fabric formed, ice structure that people could pass through while skating on the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. For this project, we used fiberglass rods to assemble a flexible skeleton (or “rigid fabric”) upon which a flexible cotton blend fabric skin was applied. We then drilled a hole through the ice of the river and pumped out river water and sprayed it onto the skin in layers, so that the sub-arctic temperatures of Winnipeg would freeze it to create a rigid protective shell. Others have explored these ideas like Heinz Isler, Arno Pronk, and Dirk Osinga, at various scales and using natural and artificially generated freezing conditions.

Since this project was going to be subjected to intense physical environmental loads on site, I had to dive deeply into the material properties and behaviours in order to anticipate any potential failures that could happen once built. This included collaborative research with the Civil Engineering Dept. at the University of Manitoba, Z3rch Structural Engineers, and others. We did discover a number of important things about the structure, we were able to only anticipate so much, since the actual conditions of the site were impossible to fully predict or model ahead of time. The nature of the structure we had planned to build was, in the end, only able to be realized once all the factors of our planning and the site came together. 

Once built, the structure, shape, space, shadows, colour, texture and changing nature dissolved any singular speculation by engineering or architectural analysis. It became a dynamic participant with the site and defied any preconception of it that I might have had before it’s making. It glowed at night, it melted, it swayed and it breathed and resisted categorization. I don’t think of this work as an ‘artistic’ or ‘architectural’ or ‘engineering’ project, but a project born of all three. In the end it revealed more than what I could have imagined.



Coar spraying water onto Cocoon Photo M. Leger


What project are you working on now? Do you work on multiple pieces at a time?

I do work on multiple works simultaneously, but usually these works reflect some idea or question I have at that time.

Right now I am working on the use of wax as an analogue material to study the creation of ice structures. I am building a heated table, on which I can melt wax, and apply to a fabric formed panel; once powered ‘off’ the table can cool and rigidly the fabric forms as structures to study. For me this model scale study of wax is analogous to, full-scale ice and concrete structures. It is a study of how to work with fabric-formed shell structures made with phase-changing materials. I am also interested to pursue a more complete study of how the interlacement patterning of the flexible bars can construct rigid fabric structures.


Coar working at CAST on fibreglass structure, Photo Y. Subotinci


Tell us about your studio and how you work:

Most of my work is done at the Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (CAST) at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture.  Professor Mark West, who has developed many fabric-formed concrete techniques for architectural, engineering and sculptural projects, founded this laboratory. At CAST we explore the subtle language of material behaviour in order to learn from them. Another way of describing it is that we play. I believe play to be an important approach to design and creation. It is an improvisational interpretation of the moment. In playing, our unconscious relationships with the things we work with are invited to participate in the form of intuition. This intuition is what helps to push against conventional ways of interpreting the things we make and things we come across. Ultimately, I feel like my work is aimed at building on my intuition in a more direct way. I frankly have no idea if this is truly possible, but attempting it has been a fruitful endeavour so far.

In the studio I work with wood, fabric, plaster (sometimes to model concrete for larger scale works), wax, fiberglass, steel, and rope. I use smaller models to understand how to build larger scale versions. Everything is analogous to another thing, while also being a full-scale thing itself. 


Framing of Cocoon on the Assiniboine River, Photo M. Leger

Interior of Cocoon structure


When working on an installation how much do you improvise when you are on site?

Improvisation is key. Although for many of my projects I do quite a bit of planning, most key decisions are made there on site. In this way, a state of mind is required where I can anticipate many variables that may arise. But I also am not worried when new ones appear, although this is easier said than done!  I have found that the most memorable moments in a project have come when improvisation was required to solve a problem I did not, or could not, plan for.


Flexible Wood Structure Study


How have your expectations changed over the years?

I would say that my expectations in my work have not really changed in as much as they have become more focused. I am more interested in the continuity of ideas between projects than ever before. I am more focused on how one project or one material can implicate another, and how this can lead to a more comprehensive way of working, where one idea bleeds through many material explorations and many design projects.


Fabric Formed Plaster Panel Study


Where do you imagine your work in five years?

I imagine my work becoming larger, more complex, and participating in many spheres of environmental, social and cultural realms. I am not interested in my work being only confined to the studio. I believe it is incredibly important to expose work to the world beyond our ideas and ones self. In this way, I hope that I continue to test these ideas in areas outside of my control. As a result, my future direction will be largely determined by the outcome of my engagement with these uncertain environments I hope to build in.


Curtain Wall Fabric and Ice Installation at the University of Manitoba



What interests you about the World of Threads festival?

The World of Threads festival is an impressive collection of critical art practices in the fibre arts. I personally feel that fibre arts have an immense capacity to influence artistic, architectural and design practices, and having a forum and venue to explore the results of people’s work with this material is vital to advance these ideas.


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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.