Building with textiles

April 1st, 2015 / By: / Features

A report from the TextielMuseum exhibition: the current and future potential of textiles in architecture.

By Marie O’Mahony

The use of textiles in buildings is by no means new, with early examples of dwellings made using branches and animal furs that can be dated back more than 35,000 years. The TextielMuseum in Tilburg, Holland, is in a unique position to consider the historical as well as the present and future directions of textiles in architecture. Earlier this year, the museum hosted an exhibition on the subject that included leading architects, textile manufacturers, textile designers and researchers. Accompanying the show was an Expert Meeting in which I was an invited participant, with a leading architect and smart material experts from industry and academia.

While the museum has its origins in the Dutch textile tradition, its role today references the historical, while instigating research, collaboration and dialogue between the textile industry and other design and architecture disciplines.

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Astrid Krogh’s HORIZON (center) is hangings with fiber optics, paper and LED lighting. Aoife Wullur’s Shades of Light (right) is luminous room dividers with lines of conductive metal and LEDs attached with wire “spiders.” Photo: Astrid Krogh

Located in the south of Holland, the TextielMuseum brings with it more than a century of industry links, from its origin in manufacturing to its restoration as a museum space and TextielLab in 1986. An extension was added in 2008, and under the leadership of director Errol van der Werdt the museum has set the goal of becoming Europe’s leading center for textile knowledge and expertise by 2018. Exhibitions, events, expert meetings and innovation are key to realizing this goal, with the exhibition “Building with Textiles” and the accompanying meeting forming part of the plan.

Textiles are now seen as the fifth key building material, alongside steel, stone, concrete and wood, according to museum publicity. The development of interior textiles with special functions—from air purification to integrated light, images and sound—offers new possibilities to design smart and interactive interiors.

Building with Textiles

The exhibition Building with Textiles ran at the museum from Sept. 27, 2014–Jan. 25, 2015, divided into four distinct areas covering the historical tradition, contemporary case studies, textile lighting for interiors and current research into textiles for architecture.

Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Prada Transformer (2008). The structure can be placed on one of the four sides to allow for four different functions. The PVC material is commonly used for wrapping large pieces of industrial equipment. Photo: Marie O’Mahony
Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Prada Transformer (2008). The structure can be placed on one of the four sides to allow for four different functions. The PVC material is commonly used for wrapping large pieces of industrial equipment. Photo: Marie O’Mahony

Entering the exhibition, visitors were presented with a full-size Mongolian yurt that allowed both interior and exterior to be seen, making the construction clearly evident.

Early photographs of families living in the dwellings gave a sense of how they were used, and also served as a reminder of the contemporary trend in architecture photography in which people are so often omitted—giving little sense of how our modern buildings function.

The visionaries who pioneered modern textiles in architecture were well documented, mostly in photographs, with some architecture models. From Vladimir G. Shukhov (1853–1939) to Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) and Frei Otto (1925–2015), the origin and evolution of modern architectural membranes were covered.

Expo 67 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, was seminal in bringing lightweight structures to public attention. It featured the work of Buckminster Fuller, who designed the U.S. pavilion, and Frei Otto, who designed the German pavilion. Both groundbreaking structures attracted huge numbers of visitors.

The five projects included in the exhibition were diverse, geographically and conceptually. Rem Koolhaas’ OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) showed the Prada Transformer (2008). Designed for luxury fashion label Prada, the structure can be repositioned to perform different functions (hence the name). Measuring 20 meters high, it encompasses four steel forms braced against one another. The forms—circle, hexagon, rectangle and cross—can be rotated to become the floor, wall or roof. The steel structure has been wrapped in a fiber mesh and glued into place before being sprayed with a synthetic material provided by Cocoon Holland BV, more often used for wrapping large pieces of industrial equipment for storage. The client, Miuccia Prada, describes her thinking behind the building: “In my mind they [the arts] may be mixed but I want to keep them separate…So the Transformer concept was not for a generic space, but to be very specific, with all things separate in one building.”

Samira Boon, Super Folds (2013–2015). This series of research experiments is intended for application in architectural interiors, part of an ongoing body of work with the TextielMuseum in Holland. Photo: Marie O’Mahony
Samira Boon, Super Folds (2013–2015). This series of research experiments is intended for application in architectural interiors, part of an ongoing body of work with the TextielMuseum in Holland. Photo: Marie O’Mahony

Additional case studies included Bloom by DO|SU Studio Architecture, “One Ocean” Thematic Pavilion by SOMA, Soft House by Kennedy & Violich Architecture Ltd. and the Piazza Shading Project for the Prophet’s Holy Mosque in Medina by SL Rasch GmbH Special & Lightweight Structures.

The exhibition section on lighting examples focused on the interior, including examples from Philips and Desso in their Luminous Carpets™ intended for route guidance for emergency exits. In the exhibition demonstration, it was shown rotating through a series of programmed patterns. The ultra-thin LEDs are embedded in the Desso Cradle to Cradle® EcoBase® backing. The carpet itself has increased translucency compared with conventional carpet design, to allow the LED lights to shine through.

Color was the dominant theme in this section of the exhibition, with Astrid Krogh’s HORIZON dominating the end wall of the room. The woven installation is four meters high and uses fiber optics, paper yarn and LEDs to constantly rotate through an array of colors.

The final area of the exhibition concentrated on research projects, some of which are currently being carried out at the museum. An example of this was the Boon Super Folds by Studio Samira Boon, woven folded structures that form flexible room dividers, a work in progress. In the commissioning of this research, the museum has also brought in experts to work alongside the museum’s own technical experts and the designer, an acknowledgement of the need for multi-disciplinary teams in developing this type of work.

Aleksandra Gaca’s BLOKO acoustic wall consisted of three-dimensional woven panels that provide acoustic insulation in gently curving sculptural forms. The work is site specific, and a good example of the potential for textiles as a building material to combine both functionality and aesthetics for architecture and interiors.

Aleksandra Gaca’s BLOKO three-dimensional woven panels provide acoustic insulation in curving sculptural forms, a good example of the potential for textiles as a building material to combine both functionality and aesthetics. Photo: Marie O’Mahony
Aleksandra Gaca’s BLOKO three-dimensional woven panels provide acoustic insulation in curving sculptural forms, a good example of the potential for textiles as a building material to combine both functionality and aesthetics. Photo: Marie O’Mahony

Exploring future development

The Expert Meeting, “Building with Textiles—Smart Textiles in Architecture and Interiors,” was held on Jan. 21, 2015, with an invited panel that included Sheila Kennedy (Kennedy & Violich Architecture), Koen van Os (Philips Research), Kaspar Jansen (Delft University of Technology, TU Delft) and myself. Scheduled breakout sessions allowed those attending to meet with exhibitors, curators and researchers throughout the museum. The key issue being addressed was the use of textiles in building, and extending the theme of the exhibition to further explore research, collaboration and future development in the field.

Although the panelists came from diverse areas, many concerns were similar. Sheila Kennedy put it succinctly, saying: “Our creative task is to bring materials to the future,” while acknowledging that “it’s a challenge to pull the present into the future.”

Architecture competitions and research commissions facilitate innovative thinking in the field, but commercial realities and finding open-minded clients remain a challenge that is being met, but perhaps more slowly than we might like. In moving forward, themes of smart design, collaboration and craft were discussed.

Smart design and interactive technologies are the focus of research and developments at Philips and TU Delft. Textiles as a conduit for technologies demand interdisciplinary teams to bring diverse areas of knowledge together. Sometimes this is possible within an organization, but increasingly it demands external collaboration. The big changes are in attitudes. When I first invited Philips to participate in a Smart Materials and Systems workshop that I was organizing at the Netherlands Design Institute in the late 1990s, the participant (not M. van Os) firmly announced that he could not talk about any of the company’s research in the field. The number of collaborations in this exhibition alone illustrates how even deeply entrenched attitudes can and must continue to change.

Craft as an enabler to consumer and client engagement was also discussed, and reinforced during the breakout sessions with exhibitors Samira Boon and Aleksandra Gaca. While performance and technology are underlying both bodies of work, it is their aesthetics, both visual and tactile, that engage.

In this context, I am referring to “craft” as those traces of human design or making that are retained in the final product. Both man and machine are necessary to the future of textiles in building. Dialogue and dissemination in exhibitions, commissions and events such as these at the TextielMuseum in Tilburg are essential to continued development in this field.

Marie O’Mahony is professor of materials art and design at the Design Faculty, Ontario College of Art and Design University; visiting professor at University of the Arts, London; and senior editor of Material Futures, Stylus Fashion.

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