Tensegrity is a portmaneau of ‘tension + integrity’. Buckminster Fuller coined the term, to indicate that the integrity of the structure derived from the tension members, not the compression struts. Can you see? (The easiest way to understand tensegrity is to have a model in your hand – then these properties are self-evident.)
Most of our houses and other man-made structures are ‘compressionegrities’ – their integrity lies with the continuity of compression from the highest brick in the Empire State Building to the lowest – the compression runs in a line from element to element. We have thought of our bodies in the same way: the skeleton is a stack of bones, like a stack of checkers – a continuous compression structure – with the individual muscles hanging off each bone to move it.
But every classroom skeleton you have ever seen is wired together; the actual skeleton the bones float in a sea of soft-tissue.
The fascial continuity idea suggests that the myofascia acts like a tensegrity around the skeleton – a continuous inward pulling tensional network like the elastics, with the bones acting like the struts in the tensegrity model.
Playing with these models reveals several unique features:
- Put strain into the structure, and the deformation is distributed all over the structure. Continuous compression structures like building do not show this property, but bodies do. Where will a strained compression structure break? where the strain is greatest. Where will a tensegrity structure break under strain? at its weakest point.
- Expand the structure in one dimension and every dimension expands. Neither building nor toothpaste tubes display this property, but balloons and bodies do.
- Tensegrities can be built in hierarchies – each element of a tensegrity can be built of smaller tensegrities – making for the most efficient use of materials, an evolutionary imperative.
Research into fascia has shown how it works on many levels as a distributive network. The body is at least responding like a tensegrity structure, and many of us believe that it is operating as a tensegrity structure. Perhaps it operates more like a tensegrity structure in Fred Astaire than it does in Jackie Gleason.