What Is Tensegrity?

In 1948 the artist, Kenneth Snelson created a sculpture called “X-Piece” which later inspired the term “tensegrity”.

In the 1960’s the artist, inventor and mathematician R. Buckminster Fuller coined the term “Tensegrity” and articulated its principals. The word tensegrity is a portmanteau from the words “tensional integrity”.

  • It is a self-supporting and a self-correcting system
  • It does not require any internal vertical or horizontal supporting structures
  • It contains isolated, non-touching compression struts within a continuous tension system

Tensegrity systems are unique in that they are stabilized by continuous tension elements with discontinuous compression elements or floating compression. This is in contrast to most man-made structures which are stabilized by continuous gravitational compression. A somewhat modern-day example of this is Stonehenge which if taken into space would fall apart into its separate components and result in large rocks floating around. Whereas tensegrity structures maintain their shape in and out of gravity. Today tensegrity structures are mostly seen in pieces of art, bridges, domes and children’s toys.

Tensegrity is the pattern that results when push and pull have a win-win relationship with each other. The pull is continuous and the push is discontinuous. The continuous pull is balanced by the discontinuous push producing integrity of tension-compression. Push and pull seem common and ordinary in our experience of life that we think little of these forces and one might assume they are opposites.

Buckminster Fuller explained that these fundamental phenomena are not opposites, but complements that could always be found together.

In his 1998 article in the Scientific American, entitled “The Architecture of Life”, Donald Ingber described cellular tensegrity, which refers to a living self-stabilizing system secondary to the distribution and balance of tensional and compressive components. Ingber interest in tensegrity, like Fuller, started with an interest in art and mentions Snelsons sculptures when describing his interest. According to Fuller there are 2 types of tensegrity structures prestressed and geodesic. For the intent of this article I will consider the prestressed structure. Prestressed structures are formed from a series of discontinuous compression-resistant elements held within a web of continuous tension elements. These structures can be altered either by adjusting the amount of tensional prestress within the structure or by repositioning the intermittent compression-resistant elements. There are some key elements that describe a tensegrity structure. These structures are all self-stabilizing secondary to their level of prestress. This in turn allows the systems to transfer applied forces throughout the structure which allows for flexibility and shape change while minimizing damage to the structures. Because of the prestressed nature of the system, the structure will resume its prior shape when the force ceases. Ingber described these common features when applying this to living cells.

Later Steven Levin MD coined the term biotensegrity and applied the same principals to the living organism not just cells. Which applies to the following.

  • The human body functions as a Tensegrity system so long as dysfunction in the body is not at a level to negate the Tensegrity phenomenon
  • The goal of the physician is to alleviate any dysfunction and therefore enable the Tensegrity potential to re-emerge
  • A disrupting force may produce impact either locally or at a distance thus it becomes prudent to identify the most restricted area.
  • Intentional Integrity is the process by which tensegrity is restored.