Textile Tectonics

Wool Thread 
GaTech Fall’18-19
Instructors: Lars Spuybroek, Jonathan Dessi-Olive, Stuart Romm, Hayri Dortdivanlioglu

One of the biggest unsolved problems in architecture is the age-old separation of the materialist, utilitarian and structural side of architecture on the one hand, and its aesthetic, sensuous and even beautiful side on the other. Most architects just mix them a bit in the hope they get away with the fact they haven’t even looked at the problem systematically. In that sense, good architecture schools (that’s us) do not teach “how to design buildings” (any average school can do that), but how to approach such fundamental problems in a systematic way. Not by giving answers, but by offering techniques of questioning. That means we are experimenting in a precise manner, by testing ideas, diagramming them, drawing conclusions, and preparing a range of steps forward before actually moving.

In the nineteenth century the division between both sides of architecture became most urgent in the division between two types of schools: a) the Polytechnique, a school that promoted a clear-headed approach reasoning along the lines of precise data while focusing on structure and materials, while the other school, b) the Beaux-Arts based itself on formal and aesthetic issues. The chasm between Polytechnique and Beaux-Arts is still visible in today’s architecture, for instance, in Norman Foster’s product-oriented, technological architecture and the late Zaha Hadid’s sculpturist architecture concentrating on dramatic effects of massing and lighting. Generally speaking, a Polytechnique architecture is crystalline, which follows rules of simple geometry, while a Beaux-Arts architecture often follows sinuous lines of curvature. However, this opposition can be traced to the oldest forms of architecture, as expressed in the battle between structure and ornament.

Traditionally, it was accepted that architecture should simply deal with that division, as we can see, for instance, in the work of the Roman architectural theorist Vitruvius or that of the Renaissance architect Alberti. Such a view meant to concentrate on structure first, and then, to make the abstract geometry more appealing and beautiful, add figures of beauty such as acanthus leaves, garlands of fruit or colorful mosaic.

In architectural history only a handful theories have been developed to overcome the division between these two domains. One of the best and most original theory was concocted by the German theorist Gottfried Semper who reasoned that textile had a central position in the historical development of architecture. According to him, the earliest buildings were woven and plaited from leaves, twigs and branches, flexible materials that by themselves are too weak to form structure, but when woven or knotted together may turn into strong structural entities. Doing so, the structure both stands and shows a particular pattern that looks lively and decorated. In that regard, Semper merged two separate worlds: that of stable, rigid tectonics and that of weak, curved textile strands. This we call “textile tectonics”: not the adding of curvy, pleasing elements to a dead structure, but the merging of weak elements into rigid structure.


Such a historical view of architecture has an immediate effect on how to approach design itself. First of all, Semper’s theory involves procedural thinking: starting with flexible elements that then need to be teamed up. Such configurational procedures we call techniques. Second, it means such techniques are based on rules, similar to recipes and techniques in cooking: we start by preparing elements that by interaction team up and create structure. Thirdly, such a rule-based procedure is phased, it progresses stepwise and each step gathers more information and moves from a flexible state to a rigid one at the end.

All four studios will be procedural, rule-based and phased. Each studio will be based on its own types of flexible “textile” elements, with their own rule sets, and with their own types of results. But, because the four studios are based on similar techniques they will all contain research into the convergence of structure and ornament.

The four different techniques applied in the four studios are a) Tendrilling, based on the extravagant, plant- like architecture of Art Nouveau; b) Weaving, based on the intricate behavior of textile interlacing techniques of strands; c) Branching, based on the “wool-thread” technique invented by the German engineer Frei Otto; and d) Pleating, based on textile techniques used in fashion.

Obviously, no building (and we will design a rather large, multi-storey building) can be made of textile, so each studio will be phased in a way that the studies in textile techniques at the start of the studio are step by step transformed into rigid architectural materials. After thirteen weeks, at the end of the studio, it will be a spectacular sight to see how the early models have been transformed into large, recognizably architectural, structures.

Contrary to standard teaching techniques in architecture schools, we will not start by giving students the program and site. The studio will start with research, making models and diagramming. After the first phase (four weeks) the students will receive the site, and after phase 2 (seven weeks, midterm review) the program.

Georgia Institute of Technology
School of Architecture
245 4th Street, NW, Suite 351
Atlanta, Ga 30332