The Fabric of Architecture. Essay by Bradley Quinn

The Fabric of Architecture

Visionaries know that the cutting-edge in architecture is not sharp, but sensuous and soft. At a time when architects are pioneering tactile surfaces, fluid façades and mobile structures, fashion is revealing new potentials for building design. Yet the exchanges between fashion and architecture are rarely acknowledged, as architecture is equated with density and mass, and fashion with lightweight, transitory expressions. But as we explore some of the ideas, techniques and materials they share, we discover that there are threads that bind.

By Bradley Quinn

Fabric is one of fashion’s signature materials, and one that shares a long history with architecture too. Throughout time, woven and felted textiles have created portable dwellings and enclosed open-air spaces. Fabrics enable fashion and architecture to become one in the built environment, where architects interpret textiles as a material that can be used in built structures on many different levels. In the hands of fashion designers, fabric is used to craft wearable shelters, while architects are discovering roles for robust textiles in permanent structures.

Today, soft, fabric-based structures are weaving in and out of public space, popping up in sports arenas, airports, trade shows, urban parks, shopping centres and residential projects. Felted fabrics provide efficient sources of insulation, which architects piece together like the patchwork of a quilt. Some exterior textiles have a capacity for channelling and reflecting natural light that creates new possibilities for harnessing solar energy. Metallic fabrics, coated textiles and non-woven fabrics make it possible to fold, pleat and drape whole façades, making elasticity a central component of building design.

Architects are increasingly drawn to the tailoring techniques of draping and pleating, resulting in flexible structures that outperform steel and concrete. The use of tailoring techniques signals a lo-tech departure from traditional building methodology, giving architecture the potential to create radical new styles. Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall House illustrates how draping and pleating can create a new approach to architecture. The exterior walls of the house open to the outdoors, revealing wide deck spaces on the first and second floors of the building. The pliable fabric used in the walls’ construction makes it possible for them to fully retract, channelling more light and air into the core of the house. In winter, they close to retain heat. The supple surfaces and pleated folds of the textile walls evoke the fluid construction of a garment more than they do architectural structures. Just as some garments are worn open or closed to reveal or conceal parts of the body, the retractable walls open to expose the structure or close to hide them from public view. As wind and weather conditions also cause the fabric to move, the notion that a house is or should be a fixed entity is challenged altogether.

Inflatable structures are one of the most tactile expressions of architecture today. The structures are soft, but quickly gain mass as the air-filled pockets they contain inflate and expand. Because they are sustained by pressure, the fabrication of inflatable structures requires sewing skills that surpass conventional construction techniques. If the seams are not sewn with sufficient tension or along the right curve, they pull apart and cause the structure to deflate.

Inflatable buildings can be recreated in different locations instantly; they take minutes to erect and later shrink to one-tenth of their expanded size when deflated. Supported by steel lintels, they hold their ground as portable outdoor architecture, or as indoor pavilions that provide a uniform backdrop for exhibitions or events. Architects borrow from fashion to make it possible for inflatable membranes to create a lining on the inside of a building. An inflatable interior is required to flex and adhere to the existing architecture much like a garment’s inner lining moves in response to the movements of the wearer. Inflatable membranes have to be pattern-cut, sized and sewn together with Savile Row-like scrutiny.

Fashion and architecture are coming together spectacularly in soft structures, and also working together to create solid forms. Architects working with concrete are using fabric to create new textures and shapes, making textile moulds to form walls, columns, bridges and façades. They make concrete more tactile than conventional construction techniques can, and the colours, textures and finishes that result imbue architecture with new styles.

Just as a corset moulds the body’s contours into an hourglass shape, reinforced textile sheaths fabricated with eyelets and laces sculpt wet concrete into curvaceous silhouettes. The Fabric Formwork project, an initiative developed at the Centre for Architectural Structure and Technology in Canada, creates tube-like textile structures that are far more effective than conventional moulds. A corset provided the inspiration for a technique developed to create a shapely concrete column within a textile sheath. After the concrete is poured into the sheath, the laces on the surface are drawn in and tightened, creating a mould that compresses the concrete exactly as a corset would cinch a waistline. The technique enables architects to create a wider variety of shapes than those currently used in structural concrete applications.

The exchanges taking place between fashion and architecture are creating a new range of possibilities that take both in exciting new directions. Contemporary fashion is providing new inspiration for architects, while also presenting fresh possibilities for interior design. As buildings, public spaces and landscapes are inspired by fashion, the potential to experience architecture as a tactile arena could change our experience of the built environment forever.

Author, academic and fashion industry strategist, Bradley Quinn is an expert on wearable technology and emerging trends. He has written several books, including Techno Fashion, UltraMaterials, Textile Futures, Design Futures, Fashion Futures and Textile Visionaries. Based near Paris, Bradley also directs Bureau Bradley Quinn, a communication agency for the creative industries.