Cambridge, MA

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Schwerpunkt


The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology wanted artwork for the entrance of their McGovern Institute. Ralph Helmick designed Schwerpunkt, a sculpture comprising 100 suspended neurons, to reflect the institute’s mission and attract visitors toward the stairs leading from the street level entrance up to the main offices. SGH consulted on the structure and materials for the art installation and its support from the building.

The metal neurons, each printed with a unique combination of configuration and size, are suspended from the ceiling in a seemingly random pattern. Ralph Helmick’s vision comes to life when visitors view the sculpture from a specific perspective on the balcony and discover the gold-leafed neurons create the image of a human brain. This visual phenomenon exemplifies a focal point of discovery, or in this case, a Schwerpunkt of profound scientific breakthrough. Highlights of SGH’s work on this project include the following:

  • Computational Design and Analysis. SGH worked with the sculptor’s model of the 100 neurons and added the existing structure above. Through an iterative approach, we simultaneously evaluated varying parameters, including the spatial location of the neurons combined with deflection of the suspended ceiling above.
  • Material Testing. Since the sculpture hangs from the existing ceiling assembly, we needed to understand the ceiling’s structural performance to accurately locate the neurons. We tested sample ceiling panels in our laboratory to quantify the strength and stiffness.
  • Structural Strengthening. SGH determined the ceiling was too flexible and recommended adhering thin plexiglass to the ceiling panel to provide additional strength and stiffness, while retaining the existing ceiling depth.
  • Three-dimensional (3D) Metal Printing. By modeling the neurons, we achieved a high accuracy in our analysis and in the input for the 3D metal printing process, allowing the neurons to be fabricated as solid pieces compatible with the gold leaf.

Project Summary



Completion Date
New Construction
Structures | Advanced Analysis
Helmick Sculpture
Specialized Capabilities
AI & Automation

Key team members

Paul Kassabian
Paul Kassabian