Gottfried Semper, a 19th century German architect, saw skills other than masonry and carpentry as shaping architectural practice. With his anthropological lens, he included pottery, ceramics and textiles as fundamental elements of building.
In fact, the artisanal-industrial world of textiles and processes of weaving were integral to his conception of architecture — not a sideshow. He saw Europe’s textile traditions playing a significant role in transforming the practice as it faced challenges generated by industrialisation and modernisation.
Woven tents, reeds cladded with mud, interlocking wooden beams — all involve cloth making, the principles of weaving and an awareness of textures of fabric that have historically been central to creating habitats.
The tent, the mat, the curtain, the awning, and all such materials were valued for their lightness and ephemerality, which they infused into structures, homes and habitats.
They may have initially responded to needs of movement and flexibility, or the temporary occupation of spaces or were used simply to create lighter structures, but eventually became part of conventional practice.
In 2015, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London organised an important exhibition on the architecture and textiles of India. The exhibition’s website states: “A number of the textiles in the Fabric of India exhibition were made to be used in architectural contexts, whether as furnishings for buildings or as a type of portable architecture in themselves”.
The author Rosemary Crill goes on to say, “When we visit historic buildings in India today, they are usually empty shells which give no idea of how they could function as liveable spaces. The missing element is textiles, whether in the form of lavish furnishings and patterned clothing, or basic practical additions like awnings on the building’s exterior. Textiles can transform not just the appearance of a building but also its function”.
Such spotlighting brings our attention to such missing elements in contemporary architecture, but more importantly, to their missing memory and experience.
The thoughts and framework of mainstream architectural practice today allow this dimension of building to recede from significance. Conversely they encourage the materiality of brick, concrete and steel to become metaphors to think about habitats themselves.