Chuck Hoberman has a vision of Buckminster Fuller. As the New York–based artist, mechanical engineer, and product designer expands his projects to large-scale architecture, he is integrating his mechanized elements to develop a new strain of sustainable and flexible structures that conceptually relate to what the late Fuller had imagined, but never realized, decades before. Often starting with the simplest of ideas, such as the mechanism of a scissors, Hoberman amplifies operability and motion by connecting a series of hinged units to playfully form what he calls the Hoberman Sphere. In 2002, he increased the scale of the sphere into a dynamic, fan-shaped proscenium for the stage show for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Of course, Hoberman, who presented his work at record’s 2007 Innovation Conference in New York, is not the only designer interested in mechanizing architecture. Critics such as Martin Pawley have envisioned flexible buildings outfitted with robotics. In 1987, Jean Nouvel famously tried—and failed—to do this at the Arab Institute in Paris. But it seems only NASA engineers have truly achieved the goal, having designed compact structures that can arrive on Mars to then unfold as instant habitats. For Hoberman, nature’s transformations inspire his new designs for dynamic screens, window apertures, and awnings, at the scale of architecture in integrated systems.

Among current projects with Foster + Partners in London, Hoberman is collaborating on three 4,500-square-foot plazas for the Aldar Central Market, in Abu Dhabi. The project is like a modern interpretation of a souk. Hoberman is integrating square units of operable, anodized-aluminum extrusions that can expand within a gridded structure to limit sunlight and wind. Alternatively, when the elements retract, they disappear within the structure, opening up the roof to sunlight and breezes. When in various stages of closed or open, the coffers make a play of shadow and light similar to an Islamic patterned array.

A second Foster collaboration is for shading devices housed beneath the glazed atria of two circular court buildings, the Regional Appeal Courts and the High Court of Justice, at the City of Justice, in Madrid, Spain. Inspired by leaves of trees, Hoberman designed perforated anodized aluminum units to create the effect of dappled sunlight, which also enhances the atria’s spatial experience. The various hexagonal, triangular, or rhomboid cellular units retract by folding into narrow bundles that disappear into the atria’s diagrid structure. The Regional Court contains a series of 121 units that measure 9-by-9-feet each. The eight perimeter atria have 168 units that are 7-by-11-feet each, while the High Court has 115 units 31¼2-by-13-feet each. Hoberman used a solar-gain diagram to locate the responsive units. Computer sensors will control the roof’s response. As Hoberman emphasizes, “This formula creates an adaptive building and responds in real time. By having the building capable of changing, you also have a new typology of what architecture can be.” Albeit belatedly, architects are finally catching up to what Fuller—whose death in 1983 will be commemorated in many ways in 2008—had always envisioned.