Textile Architecture
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History of Textile Constructions

From Indian 'conic' tents to high-tech tensile constructions

Tensile architecture is probably one of the oldest methods used to provide protection from adverse climatic conditions and against predator attack.

A tent as protection from adverse climatic conditions 
A tent as protection from adverse climatic conditions

The humble ‘conic’ tent  for example is the simplest form of tensile structure, and was perfect in places where two conditions prevailed: a shortage of building material and a need for mobility. Evidence has been found which confirms that humans have been making tents for at least 15,000 years. Animal skins were used initially, and only 3000 years later, woven fabrics.

There were different structures of tents. They depended on the different materials available at the time – for example the American Indian tepee, the Bedouin tents or the Mongolian yurt.

Indian conic tent 
Indian conic tent

One of the first applications of tensile technology came at the very beginning by transferring sailing principles. The spectators at Roman amphitheaters (e.g. the Coliseum) were protected against the sun by a textile construction. It was the luxury that pampered audiences demanded at the time.

A special construction provided sun protection at the Coliseum in ancient Rome. This retractable awning was called a “Velarium”. It was located above the maenianum summum in ligneis, which was the highest balcony of any amphitheater. The construction was supported by several timber masts and cotton fibre ropes. As legend has it, there was a team of 1000 experienced sailors from the Roman navy who had the privileged position of operating the construction. They had the task of resolving any problems related to the rigging. Weather changes like strong wind and heavy downpours of rain were a challenge for them.

Velarium in Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant 
Velarium in Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant

An ancient principle combined with innovation

The purpose of the awning and textile structures was (and still is nowadays) to protect the people against adverse climatic conditions and predator attack. While the construction was mind-blowingly ahead of the times, the material was not. The textiles which were used did not have the capabilities to handle rain or wind in a sufficient way, which caused the canvas to be continuously replaced. Constructions on the basis of the “Velarium”, as it is described by historians, can be found today as well.

Of course, the 1000 sailors have been replaced with efficient electronic motors, while the timber of the masts are these days mostly steel or alloy and the cotton fibres have been replaced by steel cables. However, the most important change and the biggest innovative development had been carried out on the textile itself. Nowadays high tech PES / PVC membranes are the appropriate choice of textiles for blinds, awnings or huge structures like stadiums.

European Championship Stadium at Posen, Poland (inside) 
European Championship Stadium at Posen, Poland (inside)
European Championship Stadium at Posen, Poland  
European Championship Stadium at Posen, Poland

As well the construction, design has developed over time, using more advanced materials and construction methods to create larger and more diverse structures such as the European Championship Stadium in Posen, Poland.

Modern fabric materials in modern architecture can shape space, enabling architects to sculpt 3-dimensional areas in a manner that is not possible with any other type of material. This kind of architecture also offers much more: the designer is able to play with light and use it to naturally illuminate the space, soften it, fuse it, sharpen it or shape it. This creates a mood and ambiance to reflect the architectural intention, resulting in an energy saving covering system while approaching the elementary need to be in touch with nature. The dynamic shapes and forms of membranes allow new possibilities in stimulating the architect's imagination.