A change in physical state of a material can have powerful implications for architecture. It can also have a powerful impact on the mind. The process of creating solid materials through the use of malleable fabrics is being explored in architecture in several veins. The results are structural elements whose experiential qualities differ from other common building materials.
Three precedents offer a glimpse into fabric to solid types of materials. The first is the Lincoln Park Zoo South Pond Pavilion by Studio Gang architects. Inspired by the tortoise shell, its laminated structure consists of prefabricated, bent-wood members and a series of interconnected fiberglass pods that give global curvature to the surface.1 The material fiberglass is a composite of a mesh of fine glass that is covered in a resin that hardens to make an extremely lightweight, strong, and rigid material. It has been used in architecture for window casings and flat roofing. In the pavilion however, the fiberglass is uncolored and remains translucent and textural in appearance. Self-supportive and resistant to water, the panels of the pavilion react with light in a multitude of ways effectively serving this semi-sheltered architecture.
In an alternate take on impregnated fabric, the company Concrete Canvas created a new material that was developed for the award winning Concrete Canvas Shelters, a building in a bag that requires only water and air for construction. 2 Concrete Canvas (CC) is a flexible cement impregnated fabric that hardens on hydration to form a thin, durable water proof and fire proof concrete layer. Essentially, it’s concrete on a roll, all you have to do is just add water.3 Developed with military and disaster relief infrastructure in mind, the material has recently been used by industrial designer Florian Schmid to create sewn and cast furniture. What is most intriguing about this material is its development as a formidable structural, aid-driven solution and the later recognition of its textural beauty, which was then applied in a design that required both structure and emotive qualities.
The idea of a solid material that has the textural look of a fabric has also been explored by Andrew Kudless of Matsys. In his P-Wall, Kudless explores the self-organization of material under force. Using nylon fabric and wooden dowels as form-work, the weight of the liquid plaster slurry causes the fabric to sag, expand, and wrinkle.4 Not only does the P-Wall contain the alluring textural look in its plaster units, but the shapes formed as a result of the casting process have a volumetric quality not typically associated with rigidity. As a result, physical interaction with the wall can provide somewhat of a shock for the visitor.
Whether shaped into place and hardened or shaped by the process of adding the hardening substance, materials made from a combination of flexible fabric and some hardening agent certainly create new interesting qualities. While visually evocative, the contrast of rigid solid and textural look could be viewed as mere “dressing” of a solid surface. If one looks at the entire process from the separate materials and how finished elements are shaped and formed, it seems clear that there is more going on than a trick between the eye and the hand. In each precedent, the shape ability of the fabric and the rigidity of the final product are both vital to the design as a whole.