‘Hanging carpets remained the true walls, the visible boundaries of space. The often solid walls behind them were necessary for reasons that had nothing to do with the creation of space; they were needed for security, for supporting a load, for their permanence, and so on. Wherever the need for these secondary functions did not arise, the carpets remained the original means of separating space. Even where building solid walls became necessary, the latter were only the inner, invisible structure hidden behind the true and legitimate representatives of the wall, the colorful woven carpets.’
— Gottfried Semper in THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF ARCHITECTURE AND OTHER WRITINGS, 1851
In times of constant and unpredictable change, we look at textile as one of the most adaptive and comforting materials. Adolf Loos, resonating Semper, wrote, ‘The architect’s general task is to provide a warm and liveable space. Carpets are warm and liveable. He decides, for this reason, to spread one carpet on the floor and to hang up four to form the four walls.’ In Loos’s houses, textiles appear to also cover the windows, as he told Le Corbusier once, ‘A cultivated man does not look out of the window; his window is a ground glass; it is there only to let the light in, not to let the gaze pass through.’
With textiles in architecture, the tents used by nomadic tribes come first to mind. Nomads have no conception of dwelling as a thing of permanence, and their tents do not erect a clear boundary between inside and outside. These are ideals that in our highly mobile lives are embraced (until recently), but in which we have adopted few of the tools from the nomads. Within the nomads’ possessions – almost all containers, from the bags to the tent, along with the mats, rugs, and cushions – are made of textiles.
The last revival of an all-over textile presence in architecture was probably in the 70s, when fashion designers and editors, amongst others, had their houses designed as tented interiors. Stefano Mantovani designed Valentino Garavani’s penthouse in Rome, in which each room took a different, but always textile-based theme. The living room was, for example, made as an Ottoman tent, where ceiling, walls, curtains and sofa were covered in the same fabric. Possibly the hero of these interiors is Renzo Mongiardino, who designed for people like Marella Agnelli, Guy de Rothschild and Lee Radziwill, who weren’t exactly embracing Hans Wegner and Pierre Paulin for their houses, but instead chose to exorbitantly furnish their interiors with pattern-rich textiles. Jonathan Anderson, whose fashion label J.W. Anderson and work for Loewe is modern in the extreme, has long counted Mongiardino among his lodestars. ‘You have an entire world in his spaces, every detail considered. Fundamentally that is a modern act,’ he says.
Adolf Loos pointed out in his text, ‘The Principle of Cladding’, the problem with building a house out of carpets alone. He argued (much in line with the tent), that a structural frame is necessary to hold the tapestries in the correct place: ‘to invent this frame is the architect’s second task’. ‘It was in this sequence that mankind learned how to build. (...) Man sought shelter from inclement weather and protection and warmth while he slept. The covering is the oldest architectural detail.’
The ‘covering’ in architecture was rediscovered during modernism, as new construction methods became possible. Mies Van Der Rohe wrote on his design of the Two Glass Skyscrapers of 1922, that in modern building techniques, especially in high-rise, new structural principles in the form of steel skeletons are available. Designing outer walls that carry weight was therefore not necessary anymore and new materials for façades could be explored to express the gained possibilities. In a charcoal drawing of his second iteration of the glass skyscraper, the façade proposed in glass has a curtain-like expression, which hangs loosely around its inner structure. The separation of structure as a necessary support, and walls as non-load- bearing elements that define the spatial qualities, is especially interesting for us in relation to textiles. Textile, in this view, could regain its position as the main space-defining material, such as we can see in works, for example, by Smiljan Radic and Shigeru Ban.
Gottfried Semper established an argument and understanding of the origin of architecture in man’s need to cover himself, initially with tree bark and later on with textiles. The intrinsic link between the covering of a wooden stick structure to make a tent, the covering of an interior to create a comfortable and expressive room, or the covering of a whole building, all, in a way, relate to the dressing of ourselves. We wear cloth to adapt to our environment (and recently to protect others from the spread of a virus). The style of cloth we chose is an expression of our social, personal and cultural identity, which eventually come to symbolise us. Our taste for architecture is defined by similar interests.
Anni Albers pointed out in her text ‘On Weaving’, the beautiful and rich characteristics of textile, from its abilities to enclose and extend space, to painterly elements, such as light, shadow and colour, to textural elements of the inherent structure of the material and our marks of working it. In order to understand what creates the material aspects of textile, we have added an extensive, though summarised, outline of different weaving techniques and their characteristics, as well as different knitting, colouring and pattern- making methods, and sewing and other binding techniques. With the focus on textile, we can study space as an adaptive environment, from rugs and tents that can be travelled with, to technologically advanced woven fabrics that can adapt to changing conditions, such as climate or acoustics. Or we can use textiles that express our personal and cultural identities and lifestyles, or those we wish to connect with. In all possibilities, textile will be our main space-defining material for the architecture we will work on in this semester.