The fabric of architecture

We associate textile mainly with fashions. The textile industry does however have numerous other applications. The book Technotextiles reviews the most recent developments in textile technology in various industries, linking developments in fashion, architecture, design, art and science. The most significant sources of inventiveness originate in America, Japan and Europe. Below some of the finest, funniest and to architecture most interesting applications.

Future developments of materials, including textiles, focus on the issues of energy and sustainability. In this context “intelligent buildings” are debated and researched as well as, increasingly, “intelligent materials”. The book Technotextiles provides a fascinating and detailed vision of the future. There is a growing demand for wovens that combine strength and functionality in a lightweight product at a competitive price. These developments are realized with new technical processes and by cooperation between scientific institutes and industry. Prime quality of these textiles is their functionality. To remain competitive materials must have a maximum array of functions. And manufacturers increasingly incorporate the aesthetic values of textile in their products. Technical textiles for architecture are basically membranes for tent constructions, sunscreens, and hygienic ceiling elements. These must be strong, transparent, dirt repellant and washable.

Tent Constructions
Tent constructions must have a minimum twenty-year life for permanent use, and for temporary use must be strong yet easy to erect. As early as 1917 a patent was obtained for a woven material designed to withstand internal and external pressure. The design was never used in an application. Only in 1950, advanced materials research made membranes for tent constructions a serious option. John Thornton of Ove Arup & Partners said in 1992 on the subject of tent constructions: “We expect them to perform with the same reliability as a conventional structure.” Pioneer Frei Otto based his designs on natural systems. This process requires effective communication between architect and engineer. Only then the construction can be expressive in both form and function. Instances are conical shapes created via drawing or pushing through rings, umbrella constructions, hyperbolic constructions with masts and cables.

Material for membranes
Most membranes are made of glass fiber or polyester. Coatings protect the membrane against grime. Teflon coated glass fiber is suitable for permanent applications. Teflon contains microscopic glass particles making the glass woven durable and strong, water repellant, chemical resistant and non-flammable. PVC coated polyester is ideal for collapsible structures. This is not a very durable application: the plasticizing components emerge on the surface causing a sticky coat to which grime adheres. It is cheaper than the stronger glass fiber membrane though. “Soltis Blinds” by the French company Serge Ferrari SA is a sunscreen system made of polyester, coated with PVC. This makes it fungus and grime resistant. Additional benefit is that via convection the heated air is discharged through the woven material.

Air cushion structures
Polyurethane coated polyester is ultra lightweight and suitable for three dimensional air cushions. The most spectacular applications are those by Mark Fisher who created the inflatable pigs for Pink Floyd and the Indian priestesses for the Rolling Stones. The American company Larger than Life Inc. makes inflatable advertising objects. This type of object requires specialized expertise and only a few companies have the required capability. Hoechst produces fluor-plastic films, Hostaflon ET and TF, to be coated onto glass fiber. The application of two or more coats creates air pockets generating an insulating effect. An advanced woven for architectonic applications is Outlast by Gateway Technologies Inc. Traditional roofing materials have relatively poor insulating qualities. Outlast is claimed to have a strongly accumulative effect. The system uses “Phase Change Materials” (PCM’s) capable of absorbing and emitting heat. These PCM’s can be either applied as a coating or incorporated into the woven.

Geo Synthetics
Geo synthetics, for in or on the ground applications, are moisture permeable. A geo membrane is  moisture impermeable. One of the earliest examples of geo synthetics was constructed in 1595-1171 BC. The Ziggurat Aqar Quf near Baghdad is constructed of clay blocks reinforced with horizontally placed woven reed mats. A very early form of reinforcement. A modern version of geo synthetics are he nylon “mats” on the seabed supporting the Delta Sea Barrier Project.

Hybrid Materials
In hybrid materials heavy materials are partially substituted by flexible textile-based and non-textile based rigid materials such as glass, carbon, metal and ceramics. The resultant lighter weight is used widely in the construction and automotive industries. Absorption of seismic shocks, acoustic absorption, vibration absorption and thermal insulation are properties that ensure their continued application. Glass fiber wovens can be made of three grades of glass fiber, each for the specific application and the finish as required by the application.

The principal properties of carbon are strength, absorption of odors and vibrations, conductivity of electricity. Textiles incorporating carbon are used in health care, clean rooms, the food processing industry, and the hotel and catering industry.

High-frequency transmitters in combination with micro-processing equipment can cause problems due to interference. This problem occurs in offices and hospitals and is traditionally resolved by installing galvanized metal or heavy steel sheets to create a protective area. Much less weight results from using a metallic nylon woven as wallpaper over which can be applied any regular wall finishing product. Other producers make metal wovens or wovens with metal coating for applications where temperature control and static electricity are factors.

The prime quality of ceramics is their resistance to very high temperatures without distorting or decreasing in strength. They are also excellent insulators and resistant to chemicals. The first function of the extraordinary “foam ceramic” Puremet was to filter molten metal. Open-cell foam is treated and then incinerated, leaving only the ceramic. The American designer Harry Allen discovered the beauty of this material and used it to make lamp fixtures that look like inflated luminescent sugar cubes.

Three-dimensional textiles
Thermal reshaping, foaming and three-dimensional weaving using advanced weaving machines are just some ways to turn a woven into a three-dimensional intermediate product.

A composite is a combination of two or more materials creating totally new properties. The principal property of a composite textile is weight reduction. For instance Para Beam sheets, three-dimensional glass fiber wovens that can be hardened or foamed creating hard, ultra light yet strong sheets.

Electronic Textile
Artists make highly imaginative creations combining cyber, electronics and IT technologies. Consumer items, computers and phones in garments, to substitute portable and mobile units. A walking tele and cyber unit as fashion statement of the future, where you wear contact lenses that bring the vacation brochures literally on your retina when you want.

Vitamins and Minerals
These are just a few of the potential scenarios. In the past few years there have been numerous developments in textile design that were generated by material and technologies with a conceptual background.

Textile design in general is a highly advanced industry that creates some amazing results.  The developments applied in the fashion industry reflect a refreshing and multi-functional approach.
Fabrics can be treated with chemicals and vitamins that, incorporated in hollow fibers, are gradually released into the body. This technology was developed for space travel but today is used in regular garments. In the same way medication, perfume and anti-odor agent can be integrated into the textile. In Japan textile traditionally occupies a strong cultural position and has developed into a highly valued art form. This tradition is being continued – supported by subsidies – ensuring that currently the most innovative applications come from Japan.

Textile Finish
But also Western fashion designers, like Donna Karan and Helmut Lang, make intensive use of new finishing technologies. Japanese textile designers like Reiko Sudo and Makiko Minagawa use water, heat and chemicals to treat textiles. Metal sprays can be used as a coating to obtain a glossy appearance. The link to architectonic applications is readily made. Textile as imaging material plays an important role. New developments are only a matter of time.