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Massive Equine Statues Require Engineering Finesse

Rendering of 30 m tall equestrian sculptures
The 30 m tall equestrian sculptures are being assembled in the Scottish town of Falkirk, in the United Kingdom. Graeme

Engineers work with a Scottish artist to create the tallest equine sculptures in the world. The works will be part of a new park in Falkirk, Scotland.

May 7, 2013—When a sculpture reaches a certain scale, the artist must sometimes partner with a team of engineers to help bring his or her vision into reality. At 30 m tall, there is no doubt that a pair of horse head sculptures that are being assembled in the Scottish town of Falkirk, in the United Kingdom, have reached that threshold, and considerable engineering finesse is needed to ensure that the finished work is both true to the artist’s vision and structurally stable.

The Kelpies, as the work is known, is being constructed as part of a larger effort to develop the site, which is in central Scotland between the towns of Falkirk and Grangemouth, into a 350 ha urban park to be called the Helix. In 2006 Scottish Canals, a public corporation that is part of the Scottish government, commissioned Andy Scott, an artist based in Glasgow, to create a work that would serve as a landmark for the Helix and, in conjunction with a 1 km extension of the Forth and Clyde Canal, provide a visual gateway to the inland waterways of Scotland. “The client did a survey of sculptors in Scotland and came to me in the end thanks to my folio of equine artworks,” says Scott, who is known for such distinctive sculptures as The Heavy Horse, a 4.5 m tall Clydesdale made from galvanized steel members that is located near the M8 motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Before Scott was chosen, Scottish Canals had already developed a rudimentary sketch of a colossal steel equine sculpture for the site and a team from Atkins—a global engineering firm headquartered in Epsom, United Kingdom, that had worked with Scottish Canals on the Falkirk Wheel, a boat lift that connects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal—began studying the feasibility of creating such a sculpture. Scottish Canals commissioned Scott to expand the original idea and make it a landmark art installation that would resonate with the public. “The original concept was based on mythological water horses [known as kelpies], which in ancient Scottish legend inhabit lochs and rivers,” Scott says. “I took that concept and moved with it towards a more equine and contemporary response, shifting from any mythological references towards a sociohistorical monument intended to celebrate the horse’s role in industry and agriculture as well as the obvious association with the canals as tow horses.” 

 Engineers used computer modeling to arrange the sculptures' stainless steel panels

Engineers used computer modeling to arrange the sculptures’
stainless steel panels. Atkins

Scott developed a series of designs for the sculptures, including one that would have featured horses emerging from waves. But the more he studied the landscape and thought about the visual effect of the sculptures, the more convinced he became that, rather than full horse bodies, the sculptures should be just heads. “The necks and heads would be more punchy and much more immediate on the horizon,” Scott says, adding that he had to ensure that the sculptures could be easily interpreted from the nearby highway. “When you’re putting artwork so close to a busy motorway . . . there can’t be any risk of driver distraction in terms of people slowing down to make out what it is,” Scott explains. “That sounds ridiculous considering the thing’s going to be one hundred feet high, but from a long way off I wanted to make sure these things had a real sense of presence.”

Scott created maquettes of the sculptures and presented them to the engineers so they could see what he wanted to achieve. “Andy created the first-stage maquettes—the head up and the head down—basically to get the process started and to get us all discussing it, and to attract funding to the project,” says Felicity Starr, the senior engineer on The Kelpies project for Atkins. “Once that was done, we kind of had a look at it with him, and we came up with some improvements.” For instance, Scott’s design included a mosaic of individual steel panels for the horses’ skin, but the engineers suggested that the bottom 3 m of the full-scale works be solid so that people wouldn’t be able to climb the sculptures. Moreover, Scott’s maquettes included a great deal of detail in the horses’ manes, but the engineers told him they would not be able to reproduce that level of detail on the full-scale sculptures without incorporating large amounts of supporting structure, which Scott wanted to minimize. “So he created the second-stage maquettes, which we scanned [into the computer], and they tell us where every individual panel actually exists,” Starr explains. (The second-stage maquettes are now on display in Chicago as part of the Chicago Park District/Chicago Sculpture International Outdoor Exhibition, where they will remain until early August.

 Image of the maquettes that were used to design the 30 m tall sculptures

 The maquettes that were used to design the 30 m tall sculptures
are on display in Chicago until early August. Hanneke

The engineers spent a great deal of time figuring out how to achieve a workable solution to give the horses’ skin the appearance Scott desired. “Andy’s model has thousands—literally thousands—of skin panels,” Starr says. “So to try to condense them down to a number we could work with and that we could perfect and have some control over how they would meet and how they would form—that was a really big challenge.” The team used a software program to group 9 to 12 of the individual panels together to form larger plates; team members then used other programs to digitally flatten and then pull the plates, defining the points at which they would connect to the underlying support structure.

“We could never create the perfect three-dimensional shape that Andy wanted; we had to create an approximation to it,” Starr explains. “So we’d pull it at individual positions to see where it went and whether it was acceptable or whether we needed to think again or try and change the grouping [of the panels]. It was quite a lengthy process.”

The engineers sent a test plate to the steel fabricators on the project, SH Structures, a firm based in Sherburn-in-Elmet, United Kingdom, that specializes in the design and manufacture of complex steel structures, to prove that the plates could be pulled into the necessary shapes.

The geometry of the skin plates and Scott’s desire for the sculptures to be as opaque as possible defined the arrangement of the underlying tubular steel lattice support structures. This transparency technique is one Scott uses on a regular basis. “One of the things that draw me to it . . . is the play of light, both man-made and natural, through the objects; it creates quite an ethereal [form] and can create quite unexpected results in terms of the visual appearance of the artwork,” he says. To achieve the desired effect, the engineers worked with Scott to determine where the horses’ muscle groups should be and therefore where they could incorporate a considerable amount of structure without it looking out of place. “There [were] a lot of those sorts of discussions going on, trying to understand how we could squeeze in the structural members we needed without impacting upon what was required,” Starr says.

 Engineers modeled the sculptures' underlying support structures to achieve the desired effect

 Engineers spent a great deal of time modeling the sculptures’
underlying support structures to achieve the desired effect. Atkins

Adding to the challenges was the fact that the sculptures were to be free of interior columns so that people could be allowed inside to view the cathedral-like spaces and structural support system, Starr says. “Obviously the external panels are where the main visual impact is, but that internal structure, because of the detail that has been put into where each individual line goes in The Kelpies, looks beautiful itself,” Starr says. “It’s quite stunning, and hopefully that will come across to everybody else who sees it.”

Each of the 300-ton horse heads will rise from a 1,600-ton concrete foundation supported by 32 m long piles fixed in rock. London-based Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering designed the foundations and is now in the process of constructing them. Each horse head will be surrounded by a reflecting pond that is designed to enhance its visual appeal. “There’s going to be some pretty fantastic illumination planned to make them reflect even more,” Scott says. “It will be pretty amazing when we get them put together.”

Upon the work’s completion, which will be in the fall, The Kelpies will be the tallest equine sculpture in the world. The work is expected to become an international attraction, drawing people to the Helix, which is slated for a grand opening in April 2014. Starr says she has been honored to be a part of the project, which she thinks will be awe inspiring not only for the artistic detail of the sculptures but also for the engineering ingenuity required. “I think The Kelpies showcases what can be achieved with lots of imagination and teamwork as well as ingenious manufacturing techniques,” Starr says. “It has been incredible being part of something so unique and innovative.”


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