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Making the case for fabric

June 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

Commercial projects use shade to unify and transform large public gathering places 

By Bruce N. Wright, FAIA

“The architecture teleports you to a bazaar in a faraway land!”—Yelp report from a recent visitor to the Irvine Spectrum shopping mall in Irvine, Calif. 

Many visitors, like the one commenting on Yelp, are drawn back again and again to this Southern California shopping mall because of the enticing atmosphere of the mostly outdoor, inward-facing retail and entertainment center. It’s not surprising, given that the scale and architectural detail of this pedestrian-favored hub is based on the Alhambra, the famous and historic 18th century palaces and gardens located in Granada, Spain.

The original Alhambra is known for its fountains, gardens, running water, gates that demarcate sections, public squares known as souks, narrow streets and lots of sun. The same is true of Irvine Spectrum, which has all of these features and more, including a giant Ferris wheel, a 21-screen movie theater and the major retail anchors Nordstrom and Target. Macy’s held down a third corner but closed recently and will be replaced by up to 20 new stores.

Irvine Spectrum has been developed over several years, with its first phase completed in 1995. A second phase was added in 1998. Runaway popular success kept the posh lifestyle center growing with a third phase of construction added in 2002 and two more expansions in 2005 and 2006. However, too much of California’s unrelenting sun led to the call for serious shading to mitigate the blistering heat. With no air conditioning, except inside individual stores, the sweltering streets of Irvine Spectrum started to drive people away. J. Miller Canvas LLC, Santa Ana, Calif., was called upon to install a series of shades that would shelter shoppers from the sun while preserving streets with a feeling of openness and free-flowing space.

Initial cable-strung fabric shades were installed at roof height in 2016 and proved so transformative that J. Miller Canvas has been brought back for several additional installs to continue providing cooler passages while maintaining the open feeling of the shopping center.

Design of the cable-supported strips of shade cloth—dubbed “Paseo Banners,” says Dan Neill of J. Miller Canvas—“was a team effort from all parties: the architect, owner and us. Hundreds of yards of fabric, with varying degrees of opacity, were used to create very distinct shade patterns on walkways and walls.” The intent was to replicate dappled patterns on the pavement as if from trees and vines. The result is a subtle, mesmerizing and almost subconscious reference to the original Alhambra in Spain. “It creates a sort of sanctuary for people,” says Neill. And it works. People are coming back and shopkeepers are pleased with the results of a revived retail center.

“The majority of pedestrian streets at Spectrum now have these Paseo Banners installed,” says Neill, “but we are still being asked periodically to install panels throughout the mall.” He estimates that a total of about 13,000 square feet of fabric is up doing its work. In the end, fabric canopies, instead of heavier metal or cementitious materials, were the wise choice, as the client “did not want to lose the outdoor feel of the shopping center,” says Neill. “And the large spans required for a solid structure would have been too heavy and too expensive.” 


Project details

Irvine Spectrum Paseo Banners
Client: The Irvine Corp. Developer
Architect: Architects Orange
Design/Fabrication: J. Miller Canvas, LLC
Installation: Eventstar Structures
Fabrics: Firesist® from Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, LLC; Soltis 92 from Serge Ferrari North America Inc.

Bruce N. Wright, FAIA, is an architect and consultant to architects. He is a senior instructor at Dunwoody College of Technology and frequent contributor to IFAI publications.