Waclaw Zalewski: Shaping Structures

Waclaw Zalewski, Professor Emeritus of Structural Design at MIT, is recognized as one of the most innovative and influential structural designers practicing today. During a sixty-year career he has developed elegant solutions to the problems of structural stability, conservation and construction efficiency, including pioneering concrete floor and roof systems and structural forms for high-rise construction which visually express the structural principles of his buildings and the flow of forces through them.

The exhibit, which features structures built in Poland, Venezuela, Spain and South Korea, examines not only how the structures work but also the process of their design and construction. It includes an ingenious folding pavilion for a world's fair in Seville, a roof of steel that floats on a halo of light in a Korean arena and a soaring supermarket roof in Poland. It also features unbuilt projects demonstrating simple strategies for building on steep slopes with challenging soil conditions, based on the premise that the growth of many dense urban areas in the world is restricted by precipitous valley walls.

Born in 1917, Zalewski began his studies of structural engineering in Warsaw in 1935. But just before he was to receive his degree in 1939, German armies invaded and occupied Poland, making further academic work impossible. He joined the Polish underground army and was frequently forced into hiding, providing him ample time to reflect on his studies and to read extensively on structural behavior.

He soon looked beyond the curriculum he studied in engineering school to develop a lifelong interest in how the flow patterns of forces through structures might suggest more efficient forms. As his projects began to be built after 1947, he developed the dual goals of shaping structures according to internal forces and designing efficient processes for their construction.

Following a twenty-year career in Warsaw and in Venezuela, Zalewski was invited to join the faculty of MIT's Department of Architecture, where he taught as a tenured professor from 1966 until his retirement in 1988.