Fabric structures are among the oldest form of architecture, dating back to nomadic times when shelters were made of animal skins and tree branches. Throughout history, they have been adapted in one form or another by different groups of people living in a variety of environmental conditions. These structures have evolved over the years with advances in materials and technology, and are growing in importance today.
Architectural fabric structures—also referred to as tensile membrane structures textile buildings, or fabric roofs, to mention just a few terms—come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be inside, outside, permanent, temporary, large, small, air-supported, air-inflated, tensioned, or draped. These unique forms have played a major role in modern architecture, interior design, and special events since the tensile structure type was introduced to the world by the noted German architect and engineer Frei Otto (1925– ).
The term “fabric” refers to the material or membrane used to create these lightweight structures. The material may have an open weave or be constructed of woven base cloths of varying strength, and it is protected by a coating to provide thermal, fire, water, and ultraviolet (UV)-light resistance and protection from the elements.
Today’s fabric structures are designed and constructed independent of geography. They transform space and have both a festive and elegant quality. Fabric structures are used for a variety of purposes. Besides providing temporary housing for garden parties, circuses, and disaster victims, they serve as amphitheaters, sports stadiums, airports, atriums, building facades, interiors for special events, festive pavilions for housing, parks, resorts, and more.
The term “fabric architecture” encompasses not only sophisticated tensioned membrane structures, but also beautiful forms of sculpture, visual display, signage, and shelters made with modern fabrics that can be erected quickly anywhere in the world, either temporarily or permanently. Seeing one of these structures, a viewer might be tempted to think they are nothing but steel, fabric, and cables, but they are not as easy to construct as they look. Architectural fabric structures require a unique collaboration among designers, engineers, manufacturers, fabricators, and installers. The size and extent of the team depend on the complexity of the project.
Fabric Architecture is a book I wrote intended to educate those interested in designing and building fabric structures, from novice to professional. It is not a technical book, but rather a catalog of images ranging from interior stretch fabric sculpture to tents and awnings, dome stadiums, and unique lightweight structures using durable architectural fabrics and films. It is not focused on engineering matters or historical perspective, but rather on aesthetic and creative issues. It is intended to is an inspire, to help you make your fabric structure a reality.
To learn more about the history of fabric structures or their technical aspects, see Frei Otto’s Complete Works, Horst Berger’s Light Structures: Structures of Light, Klaus Michael Koch’s Membrane Structures and Tensinet’s European Design Guide for Tensile Surface Structures.
Till Next time.