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Purple S.T.E.A.M.

Main Library features a public art installation in the plaza at the corner of Roxboro Street and Liberty Street. Titled “Purple S.T.E.A.M.”, the piece is a large, futuristic purple sculpture designed by Volkan Alkanoglu and 3D printed by Branch Technology. At 27 feet long, 14 feet wide, and 17 feet tall, it’s one of the largest permanent 3D-printed public sculptures in the United States.

With the use of novel technologies and its dynamic form, the 3D-printed matrix creates spatial ambiguity and visual effects by the merging, blending, and overlaying of its thousands of individual elements. The structure appears to transform throughout the day as the light changes from day and night. This environment offers a sense of place where visitors can read stories, connect, or start a conversation.

As part of the design process for the piece, a survey was sent out to the Durham community to gather people’s associations with Durham, libraries, and reading. Over 1,000 community members responded. Describing the results, Alkanoglu said, “The Durham community is truly diverse in many ways and has a strong desire to question the status quo. I returned to my studio and started to create a project that would push the boundaries of both technology and design innovation.”

The feedback from the survey helped set these goals for the design:

  • Design an iconic structure to complement the building and create a sense of place.
  • Offer interactivity and engagement for the public of all ages.
  • Express color and abstraction while encouraging creativity and playfulness.
  • Celebrate the library community and embrace the notion of learning and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics).

The color of the structure was influenced by two books frequently mentioned as favorites in the survey responses: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. Its method of creation and name both reflect the library’s commitment to STEAM education.

The sculpture was 3D printed by a fleet of six-axis robots using carbon and ABS filament. The 3D print consists of structural cells forming a large space frame structure. The process offered unprecedented design freedom to the project, opening up possibilities that would have been impossible with traditional construction methods. “The geometry of this design is very complex, and we had to create some new algorithms and establish unique capabilities, but our team of computer scientists and robotic experts was excited about this task,” says Melody Rees, who oversaw production at Branch Technology. The use of this unique and newly available large scale 3D-printing technology exemplifies current developments in the new tech industries of the American South.

“During the installation process, people would stop by and ask if we are building a spaceship. They have never seen anything like this before,” said Alkanoglu. “This is exactly the kind of curiosity and discourse we hope to achieve.”

Facade of Main Library along Roxboro Street, with a large purple sculpture in front of the stairs leading up to the building

Project credits

Project name: Purple STEAM
Design: Volkan Alkanoglu
Material: 3D printed carbon and ABS
Digital Fabrication: Branch Technology
Structural Engineering: Nick Geurts / Yetiweurks
Landscape and Light: Carolina Outdoor Lighting Professionals, Inc
Photography: Ryan Tyler Martinez
Commissioning Agency: Durham County
Project Management: Brenda Hayes-Bright, Durham County Engineering Dept. & Environmental Services
Location: Durham County Main Library, Durham, NC
Building Architect: Vines Architecture, Project Architect Frank Jackson
Date: October 2020

About the artist

Volkan Alkanoglu is a designer based in Portland, Oregon. His work is focused on the pursuit of novel form through spatial, material, and technological explorations. He is the founding principal of VA | DESIGN.

As an educator, Alkanoglu previously served as the Director for Graduate Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, design faculty at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, and lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in Cambridge.

Alkanoglu is a LEED Accredited Professional in the US and has completed art installations across the country.

About the fabricator

Branch Technology is a prefabrication and technology company based in Tennessee that specializes in large scale 3D printing.

They use a patented 3D printing process called Cellular Fabrication, C-Fab®. This unique printing method allows the material to solidify in open space, creating a polymer matrix in virtually any shape. The construction and technology company is inspired by nature and uses its process to build sustainably and efficiently through hardware and software prefabrication innovations.

Images courtesy of Mark Herboth Photography LLC