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Graphics for better buildings

Continuing Education | July 1, 2008 | By:

Enlivening building façades and streetscapes to create places for people.

It is time that designers take a breath of responsibility and think creatively. Fabric architecture’s uses, new materials and technological advances offer endless options and incredible design possibilities.

As an environmental designer, the main focus of my work is with how places communicate and function for their use. With backgrounds in textiles, graphics/printmaking, color, theater and cultural anthropology our firm, Maestri, loves the challenge and art of fabric. In fact, we encourage its use whenever appropriate, especially on a large scale to create a place, which I define as “a space that attracts people.” In recent years, we’ve found that, increasingly, design solutions have involved the creative use of fabric. As designers, we are all challenged to understand this phenomenon both technically and culturally. These developments are reflected by the very existence of this publication and the number of increasingly great (and unfortunately awful) examples manifesting in the built environment faster than we can imagine.

Looking back

In the essential human need for food, clothing and shelter fabric today is mostly associated with clothing or fashion. However, the word “fabric” refers to the underlying structure of an artifact made by weaving, felting, knitting or crocheting. Woven cloth originated in Mesopotamia around 5,000 BC. From flax and raffia to camel hair and bamboo, methods of thatching or woven woods allowed primitive and ancient societies a way to use fabric in enhancing the function or identity of shelter. We can imagine thatched roof structures or nomadic tents, and examples from around the world come to mind: decorative yurts of the Turkish or ancient Mongolian tribes, Navajo blankets hung over a doorway, or intricately woven fares (huts) in the South Seas. An early example of a textile threshold is the Japanese noren, which became a commercial curtain in the Edo period (1630–1867). The noren fabric announced a shop’s purpose with very bold graphics, while creating some privacy and protecting the shop from cold winds and the sun. This example is the mother of commercial awnings. Flags and banners with heralds and monograms evoke images of the warring conditions of the Middle Ages. Ironically, this imagery continues today in similar nomadic movements of American military troops in tents. Throughout history, fabric architecture has been used to identify people by its structural form, or the pattern of markings of the tribe—from basket weaves to woven storylines of life’s journey.

Tandem use

We use fabric for similar reasons today—to serve a function or to identify a place. In the best case, it does both. The beauty of fabric is its ability to expand our experience and space while providing a connection to nature and specific context. For instance, our firm has just installed giant fabric mesh light shades that serve as sun umbrellas in the intense Los Angeles sun and transform into beacons of light at night. This use creates intrigue and a safe wayfinding path on Sunset Blvd. In Vancouver, British Columbia, I’ve enjoyed a warm coffee under a delicatessen awning hung from building-to-curb, which served as the neighborhood’s living room during a rainstorm. In windswept Chicago, a fabric vestibule serves as a heated space for a hotel doorman. We have used fabric on a cruise ship to help define the pool area and to act as a retractable sunscreen. Many skylines include tensile structures for outdoor events that serve as a dramatic identity and insurance policy for the venue. Fabric can also soften the street experience, which is readily seen in historic photographs of American cities with their huge striped awnings and bunting. Retractable and celebratory, these urban elements are all but missing today. As planners revisiting our downtown environments, we are stunned at the flatness of today’s street. Redefining the use of awnings and perpendicular elements can help articulate the vitality and special personality of the street and anticipate zones of welcoming activity ahead. From function to theatrics, fabric allows flexibility to our buildings by expanding use and enhancing visibility.

Another wonderful characteristic of fabric architecture is the softening of space and the possibilities of layering, filtering light, luminescence and color. Light and shadow is an attractor of people. Imagine the seductive magic of three-story tall billowing drapes at the entrance of Miami’s hotel Delano, where pool cabanas are curtained at sunset and set the stage for the undeniable sensuality of flickering lights.

New materials and surface treatments

Fabric is about transformations—in and out, or open and closed. It can personalize space and define it. The most exciting part is the speed at which innovation is propelling the increased use of these materials. Developments like woven metals—such as stainless steel fabrics that drape and reflect like silk—have tickled our imagination.

One of the biggest changes to the industry is the ability to print on exterior-use materials. There are positive and negative implications of technology that allows us to readily print in a cost effective way. Whether using the heat transfer Sunbrella Graphics System© (SGS) or digitally printing vibrant full-color artwork or photo reproductions in high resolution, the options are endless. No longer limited by sewn applications, interior materials, or short-term life, the world of possibilities using fabric is very exciting and scary at the same time. As a proponent of reinfusing symbolic meaning into our built environments, I realize there is a delicate balance to maintain. The idea of graphic/surface treatments on all kinds of fabrics, from mesh to a myriad of awning materials, is a dream. However, less skilled results could also create a nightmare.

Soon our technologies will provide even more flexible materials that will certainly become media “skins” to our buildings. These may include streaming video images—virtual, responsive projections, 24/7—at the push of a button and at someone else’s control in the public realm. To believe that cities will absolutely shun this kind of advertising is a bit simplistic. Maestri has just completed the design of some wonderful 18m-high “tall walls” of advertising on Sunset Blvd. We would do the same any day for Times Square, Tokyo or media defined environments. However, when asked to wrap a building in media in the neighborhood of the White House and our national monuments, we draw the line.

The big question is, should “every” city, just because it can, fill up available visual space anywhere? Are there appropriate contexts? And what is an environment like with surfaces all covered in media skins in lieu of investing in more permanent upgrades to buildings? The time to ask these questions is now. Any city reviewing this issue is certainly not unique. Perhaps certain communities would opt for a “Bladerunner” kind of world. It’s just that, once you pull that thread, it starts to unravel. For instance, how do you feel about spam, or pop-up banner advertising all over your computer screen? We could be talking about the same thing vis-à-vis the environment, but it would be right outside your window. Now is the time to examine our preferences. Cities have a huge responsibility to consider the consequences very carefully if they move in this direction. Our firm is familiar with the behind-the-scenes deals and what happens when a city (or developer) sells its face. The truth of the matter is, it costs a great deal to build the infrastructure, and it also costs for design and programming, and to replace the image after you have grown weary of it. In many downtowns, the large advertisers are making a commitment to replace the images in key locations such as Times Square or Hollywood about every three to six weeks—to the tune of millions of dollars a year in leasing facades and printing. A Nike advertisement would seem perfect for its hometown of Portland, Oregon, but how does it play in Wichita, Kansas when the runner image becomes last year’s fashion?


If your firm is dealing with these issues and would like some professional assistance, please consider collaboration with an environmental designer. Environmental Graphic Design embraces many design disciplines including graphic, architectural, interior, landscape and industrial design—all concerned with the visual aspects of communicating identity and information, wayfinding, and shaping the idea of place. You can obtain a referral (regional, domestic or international) by contacting the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD), which is an international non-profit educational organization. SEGD members are leading designers of destination graphics, identity programs, directional and attraction sign systems, exhibits and placemaking.

Paula Rees is president of Maestri in Seattle, a multi-disciplinary design firm involved in urban planning, environmental graphics and the marketing of real estate properties.

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