Pushing Boundaries: 11 Exteriors That Use Fabric For Protection, Shape, and Longevity

Pushing Boundaries: 11 Exteriors That Use Fabric For Protection, Shape, and Longevity

Architecture – once it moved out from under its cavernous beginnings – started off largely nomadic. For a long time, the shade of trees and moveable tents made from animal skin were utilized instead of more permanent dwellings to meet nomadic lifestyles and basic survival needs. These early portable structures were primarily supported by wooden frames and were used by various ancient civilizations, including the Bedouins in the Arabian Peninsula and the Native American tribes in North America. The advent of woven cloth some 40,000 years ago made the dwellings even lighter and easier to transport, a boon to nomadic cultures around the globe.

Though tents have remained popular since then in recreational contexts and as a staple of the architectural form, contemporary architecture has rediscovered the principle of draping fabric and taken its development further – not just for temporary structures, but for permanent buildings and installations, too. Advanced and durable materials have turned fabric into a facade and roof alternative that has sparked a highly specialized sector within the construction industry and created some of the most intriguing exteriors around the globe.

From tensile fabric structures to pneumatic systems, ETFE foils, photovoltaic fabrics, and modular systems, architects and engineers have a wide array of techniques at their disposal and their advantages make the materials an increasingly popular choice for building exteriors. Fabric-based construction not only offers aesthetic appeal but also provides lightweight, flexible, energy-efficient, durable, and sustainable building solutions. With a growing emphasis on economically conscious and innovative practices, its use for project exteriors has gained significant popularity since it first appeared on the global industry stage in the form of Frei Otto and Rolf Gutbrod’s German Pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal.


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Overall, fabric is significantly lighter than traditional construction materials like concrete, steel, or brick, resulting in a reduction of the total weight of a structure, which saves costs in terms of foundation requirements and transportation. The ease with which it can be manipulated into complex shapes and forms allows for innovative and unique designs that can enliven both newly built projects or refresh older exteriors with select architectural interventions.

Fabric materials can also often be recycled or repurposed and require fewer resources over their lifecycle. The incorporation of passive ventilation and light-transmitting membranes further reduces energy consumption by providing automatic regulation through the creation of a thermal lag and stabilizing the indoor temperature in both hot and dry climates. In the warmer months, natural ventilation through the building ‘skin’ can help remove excess moisture in the air, resulting in a reduction in the load placed on cooling systems.

Tensile fabric structures, for example, are a construction technique that utilizes fabric membranes tensioned between supporting elements to create dynamic and visually striking facades and roofs. This technique employs high-strength fabrics, such as PTFE-coated fiberglass or PVC-coated polyester, which are known for their durability, weather resistance, and translucency. The fabric is tensioned over a structural framework, creating an elegant, lightweight, and often colorful surface.

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Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) foil is another lightweight and transparent material that has revolutionized the construction industry. This translucent fabric is known for its high strength, chemical resistance, UV stability, and self-cleaning properties. ETFE foil can be applied in multiple layers to create cushion-like structures, providing excellent thermal insulation while allowing natural light to filter through. Modular fabric systems, on the other hand, utilize pre-engineered fabric panels that can be easily assembled and disassembled to create versatile and adaptable structures. These systems provide flexibility in design, enabling architects and builders to create customized exteriors that meet specific project requirements and are suitable for temporary structures such as exhibition pavilions or event spaces due to their portability and ease of installation.

Below, we take a look at 11 projects from our database that use fabric to protect their facades or interiors, generate unexpected design shapes, and provide their inner structures with improved longevity.

Textile Academy NRW / slapa oberholz pszczulny | sop architekten

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Bar Futebol Clube Pinheiros / Bacco Arquitetos Associados

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Merkez Ankara Showroom / Yazgan Design Architecture

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Juniper House / Murman Arkitekter

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Bragado Building / BBC Arquitectos

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Fishery Terminal Lonja De Pescado / Estudio Acta

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Portimão Shading Structure / Atelier Cais

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Zorgvlied Crematorion / GROUP A

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East 34th St Ferry Terminal / Kennedy & Violich Architecture

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Wasit Natural Reserve Visitor Centre / X Architects

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United Nations Porte Cochere / FTL Design Engineering Studio

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Discover more fabric exteriors in this My ArchDaily folder created by the author.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Building Envelope, proudly presented by Vitrocsa, the original minimalist windows since 1992.

Vitrocsa designed the original minimalist window systems, a unique range of solutions, dedicated to the frameless window boasting the narrowest sightline barriers in the world: Manufactured in line with the renowned Swiss Made tradition for 30 years, Vitrocsa’s systems “are the product of unrivaled expertise and a constant quest for innovation, enabling us to meet the most ambitious architectural visions.”

Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.


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Fabrics in Interiors: Creative Possibilities as Architectural Elements


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