Textile Tectonics

Ventulett Symposium: Textile Tectonics, 8th of November 2008, Georgia Tech

The meeting of architecture and textiles is a continuous but too often forgotten story of intimate exchange. However, the 2nd Ventulett Symposium hosted by the College of Architecture, within Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, was one of these precious moments celebrating such a marriage. Organized by Lars Spuybroeck, principal of Nox, Rotterdam, and current Thomas W. Ventulett III distinguished chair of Architectural Design, the event was embracing the textile tectonics as a core topic, praising textiles as the key component of architecture, relying on Gottfried Semper’s understanding of the discipline. Inspiring time gathering some of the most exciting architects of the moment, Lars Spuybroeck, Mark Burry, Evan Douglis, Michael Hensel and Cecil Balmond were invited to discuss their understanding of tectonics.

Freshwater Pavillion by Nox Architecture, Lars Spruybroek

Sharing a common conception of tectonics “as the expressivity of matter itself”, and all agreeing on the fact thatarchitecture is now at a stage where the classic opposition of structure and ornament, or abstraction and empathy begins to dissolve”[1]; Lars Spuybroek started the day highlighting Gottfried Semper’s theory, considering his abstract materialist approach of architecture. According to Semper, architecture is based on these fourth constitutive elements: earth mound, wooden poles, textile enclosures and fire as in the earliest forms of building, but by reading the Style[2], there is a clear evidence of Semper’s preference for textiles, perceived as “the main agent of architectural form”, “the original technique for creating architecture”[3] as represented by the ‘the hanging carpet’. It remains the prime spatial division. Textiles from the beginning shared the tectonic role with wooden structures and Spuybroek supports this idea, but implied in his position is the transmaterialization of textiles into stone and steel, textiles being used rather conceptually than materially speaking. The idea here is not to build with textiles but to inform the stone, the rigid matter with a textile thinking in order to go beyond the classical rift between ‘structure’ and ‘ornament’, ‘abstraction and empathy’, ‘matter and expressivity’, providing again architecture with ‘continuity’ and offering textiles a theorical position often denied in academic contexts[4]. Where Spuybroek diverged from Semper is in the order of the four elements. He proposes a complete reversal ‘where tectonic precedes the textile’: “I want the textile itself to become tectonic without the help of the wood or any other support. Then, the soft elements will become rigid through collaboration, by teaming up, weaving, bundling, interlacing, braiding, knitting or knotting, and through this convolution the whole will become strong and rigid”. Digital techniques are the tools allowing such a change of paradigm from hard to soft. But what he also calls ‘soft constructivism’ has ‘nothing to do with hard materials mimicking softness or liquidity but with softness and flexibility building structure[5]’. He illustrated these words by various projects including the Maison Folie in Lille (Nox, 2001-2004), D-tower (Nox, Doetinchem, 1998-2004), and The Three Graces (Nox, Dubai, 2008).

Mark Burry, Professor of Innovation in Spatial Information Architecture, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, but also executive architect and researcher to the Temple Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, approached textiles at a metaphorical level as well, throughout his work at the Sagrada Familia. He focused his discourse around the ‘weft’ and ‘warp’: the hybrid building process behind the Gaudi temple, after the death of his creator. Burry has been involved in the construction’s pursuit of the non-achieved building from 1979 till now. He used the term weft and wrap, the two directions of textiles, to refer to the mixed methodologies used to pursue Gaudi’s work at the Sagrada Familia: a combination of traditional crafts (sculpting, molding, etc), direct legacy of Gaudi’s apprenticeship and contemporary digital crafts technologies (parametric tools for instance). But, it’s worth noticing that most of the drawings and plans of the Sagrada Familia have been lost. Only few models with incomplete information remained. Burry is presently the humble man –supported by an incredible team, still including few assistants of the time of Gaudi- behind this process, trying to bring to life Gaudi’s piece of art through this fusion of techniques. It is an impressive work, where the most difficult task remains to communicate to the builder how to build from the models. He started his lecture giving an insight on Gaudi’s own methodologies, including the up-side down/bottom-down hanging-chains models of the Colonia Guell Church model and then, introduced some of the methods used to rediscover the tectonic virtuosity of Gaudi. All of them, both craft and digital, are intuitively or not, but completely driven by mathematics. This mastery of mathematics allows the extreme fluidity of Gaudi’s architecture. A fluidity that is visually close to textiles, and that also reminds me their numeric origin[6]. But the main lesson of this talk is certainly to establish Gaudi as the precursor of this architecture of continuity, the one who found how to marry its artistic sensitivity with a real sense of construction and engineering, far ahead of his time.

Michael Hensel, chairman of OCEAN Research Network, Professor Research by Design AHO Oslos School of Architecture and Design as well as Director of the Emergent Technologies department at the Architectural Association, London, was the only one to engage the debate from a true materialist point of view, arguing that metaphors will not lead us further. His talk was lead by performance-oriented design, organized around three key characteristics of textiles: ‘pliability’, ‘structure’ and ‘fibrosity’. His understanding of textile tectonics was driven by biology, a discipline that operates in the same range of scales as architecture does, world of living fibers that operates from nano to macro-scale; he also suggested biomimetics[7], to solve the ornament/structure antagonism. Referring to the tent model and implicitly to the understanding of textiles as a space divider, he emphasized that textiles are not separating as such as stone, simply because they are nothing but an impermeable, non-porous surface. He would rather consider textiles as a permeable and living membrane, facilitating exchange, illustrating the words with biological examples, among others, the cactus’ skin controlling the exchange of water between the plant and its surrounding. The pine cone effect was also mentioned to show how this concept can be translated into smart materials, as biomimetics research has lead to the design of smart textiles with the same abilities to control moisture exchange as pine cone does. He made the point clear that in biology, all fabrics are dynamic and multi-purpose in opposition to building’s skins, where the architectural tradition still lay on the classic dichotomy between the inside and the outside. He presented a couple of design projects informed by these biological precepts such as Meta-patch[8] (Kellner J., Newton, D., 2004), a dynamic and adjustable wall, “material construct that has an active form, one capable of being adjusted to multiple curvatures in a smooth and continuous manner”, as described by Michael Weinstock. “This makes it quite different to the traditional architectural understanding of a form as a static tectonic geometry, the outermost surface of a structure or artifact. The Metapatch is a closer to the biological understanding of form – as something never quite static, subject to change but persistent over time, and generated by internal process”, here in particular the intelligent use of wood directionality and reaction to stress. An inspiring approach that reintroduce materials properties in the heart of the architect approach and offers new possibilities to play with the instability of materials, an empirical methodology traditionally devalued.

Evan Douglis, Principal of Evan Douglis Studio LLC and chairman of the undergraduate Departement in the School of Architecture at Pratt Institute, New York, entered the debate celebrating Gaudi as the exemplary example of fusion between science and mysticism, abstraction and empathy and stating that architecture should promote imagination and risk taking. Evan Douglis was really concerned by the question of meaning and the poetic dimension that architecture seems to have lost in the past decades. He advocated an attention to the unpredictable, a come back to ambiguity and complexity in order to find a new sense to architecture, quoting such examples as Ferro-fluid or Escher’s work. Undoubtedly semiotic plays a major role in his work and digitals technologies are the one that allow to manage such a complexity, in other words that allow to merge ornamentation and construction in a same process. As far as he is concerned, the tectonic issue now would rather be to decide what sort of narrative tectonic should convey, using typography as a level of complexity and ambiguity to reach within architecture. He then introduced some of his last projects including Helioscope presented in Orleans at Archilab and Flora Flex, both highly ornamental work combining aesthetic and structure in exuberant, nearly baroque modular systems. These porous architectural membranes are not without reminding us moucharabiehs and others structural filtering devices characteristic of Muslim architecture, highlighting another approach to solve the traditional opposition of ornament and structure.

Cecil Balmond, director of the Advanced Geometry Unit at Arup and Partners Ltd and practice professor of architecture, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, according to his background, concluded the discussion from an engineering point of view, dealing with geometry and patterns as a creative method of engineering structures. His incredible and unique apprehension of form’s generation was demonstrated through various projects such as the Chemnitz stadium (1995-1996, Chemnitz, Germany) where he worked as a structural engineer, the CCTV New Headquarters in Beijing designed with Rem Khoolaas (2008) but probably the most emblematic one was the Summer Pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in collaboration with Toyo Ito (London, 2002). The aim was to design a box-like building that release you rather than confine you. The goal has been achieved by a clever use of geometry, where the pattern becomes the structure itself, the point of fusion between the concreteness and abstraction of the building. In the same sense, the Pedro and Ines footbridge in Coimbra, Portugal (2006) sort of resume his thinking: “The co-existence of substance and pattern, and exploring the point where the two meet, elicits a response from those who come into contact with it. It creates an element of surprise, a feeling of delight that cannot be defined, it can only be experienced.”[9]

The day ended up with a debate open to the public, mainly dealing with architecture and the question of meaning. If there is no right or wrong answer to it, no doubt that this amazing panel gave us some inspiring clues about the future of architecture, conferring a central place to the various interpretations of textile tectonics.

Special thanks to CITA, Center for IT & Architecture, Copenhaguen, without who this report simply wouldn't exist.

[1] Georgia Tech College of Architecture, 2008, Ventulett Symposium: Textile tectonics program [online], (available at http://www.coa.gatech.edu/arch/news/dynabot_event_story.php?id=3249), [Accessed 11 Nov 2008]

[2] Semper, G., 2004, Style. Style in the technical and tectonic arts, Los Angeles : Getty Publications

[3] Spuybroek, L., 2008, Architecture of Continuity, Rotterdam: V2 in association with NAi, p…

[4] For a deeper look on the matter, please refer to Debray, R., Hugues, P., 2005, Dictionnaire culturel du tissu, France: Babylone in collaboration with Fayard, p5-6

[5] Spuybroek, L., 2008, Architecture of Continuity, Rotterdam: V2 in association with NAi, p228

[6] « Le tissage apparaît largement dès que l’homme a commencé à dénombrer ses troupeaux, à comptabiliser des stocks de grain, à commercer. […] Les textiles archaïques ont vraisemblablement joué un rôle dans les premiers pas vers l’abstraction du nombre. Dès que le compte est là, le tissage va avec lui, même si les comptes de fils sont au départ élémentaires». Hugues, P., 2005, Archéologie, In Debray, R., Hugues, P., 2005, Dictionnaire culturel du tissu, France: Babylone in collaboration with Fayard, p16

[7] the science that seek to understand living systems in order to translate them into mechanical structures and performative systems.

[8] More details about the project in: Hensel, M., Menges A., 2006, Morpho-ecologies, London: Architectural Association, p184-195

[9] Arup, 2008, Cecil Balmond’s unique brand of creativity [online], (available at http://www.arup.com/arup/feature.cfm?pageid=9818), [Accessed 11 Nov 2008]


  1. How inspiring- it's great to find a word like "tectonics" that describes this concept of a spirit-infused material. Reminds me of the long-held belief (supported by Gilbert and others) that certain metals have a soul. In terms of future textiles, we often find ourselves searching for the difference between "responsive" and "living". Thanks for the report, Aurelie!!

  2. Working on a differenciation between responsive, smart and living textiles for the Phd ... will share with you on due time ;)

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