In architectural applications, textiles typically play an interior role. From furniture to flooring, fabrics are a common component of indoor environments. Regarding the building envelope, textiles are most often used on the interior side of the façade as curtains or shades. However, fabrics also serve essential roles outside the envelope. Historically, textiles’ relatively insubstantial and often vulnerable qualities have limited their exterior applications to relatively small zones, such as awnings or locations less accessible to user interaction due to vandalism concerns. However, advances in architectural textile technologies and their capacity to support climate adaptation in buildings suggest expanded possibilities for exterior textile applications.
Anni Albers, the preeminent German textile designer, anticipated this unlikely trajectory for fabric in buildings. “If the nature of architecture is the grounded, the fixed, the permanent, then textiles are its very antithesis,” she wrote in the 1957 article “The Pliable Plane: Textiles in Architecture.” “This basic difference, however, has grown less clearly defined as new methods, affecting both building and weaving, are developing and are adding increasingly to fusion as opposed to linkage.”
Appropriately, a recent exemplar is a newly completed textile industry innovation hub. Texoversum, an education center for the Faculty of Textiles and Design at the Reutlingen University of Applied Sciences in Reutlingen, Germany, is a 32,000-square-foot facility incorporating classrooms, laboratories, workshops, and a material library. For the new flagship building in a city once known as the “Oxford of the textile industry,” an architecture-engineering team from Germany’s University of Stuttgart aimed to demonstrate the advantages of advanced textile architecture. Architect Achim Menges and engineer Jan Knippers, pioneers of advanced fiber technology research at the university’s Institute for Computational Design and Construction and Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design, collaborated with Markus Allmann of Munich-based Allmannwappner on the project.
Exterior textile applications typically employ prefabricated swaths of a homogeneous material. For example, Jean Nouvel’s Danish Radio Concert House in Copenhagen, Denmark is clad in a semi-transparent blue fabric. Studio Fuksas’ Zenith Music Hall in Strasbourg, France is wrapped in an orange textile. In contrast, Texoversum features a different approach with a “woven” façade composed of bichromatic fibers spaced at generous intervals. These carbon and glass fiber strands form a multifaceted, heterogeneous skin perforated with various voids, permitting unobstructed views in strategic areas. This textile façade is comprised of 12.5-by-6-foot triangular modules that were fabricated using the design team’s robot-driven, fiber-winding technology. Remarkably, each module weighs only 55 pounds. and thus may easily be transported by one person.
Unlike many exterior architectural textile applications, the 1-foot-deep Texoversum elements are self-supporting and do not require an underlying structure. The façade acts as an external shading device and a balustrade for upper balconies. The team determined the density of the fibers according to visual requirements, including the percentage of daylight permitted in the building and the views out from within, as well as structural performance. Four types of modules each feature a different-sized opening for views, and a specialized module enables the façades to wrap corners seamlessly.
This envelope strategy offers a compelling example for architects and engineers preparing buildings for a more volatile climate, as the façade modules significantly mitigate solar heat gain as shading devices and provide additional protection from wind and storm debris. Although each building face of the Reutlingen University project is similar, the Texoversum module design could easily be tuned to a building’s unique climatic context by densifying and expanding the fiber and void spacings based on different solar orientations. With its minimal structural attachment requirements, the Texoversum strategy is also a strong contender for adaptive reuse applications—enabling climatic and aesthetic upgrades to existing structures with minimal additional weight.
The intentional distance between the outer textile elements and the façade's glazing visually reinforces the structural capabilities of the skin. The lightweight yet rugged modules are only supported by the exterior balconies plus two horizontal bracings at the upper edge of the building. This overall design approach is purposefully contradictory: The gossamer cladding appears like a fragile skein reminiscent of spider webs or Raschel lace, yet its robust, self-supporting capacity is simultaneously evident. Combining two seemingly conflicting characteristics—lightness and heft—is precisely the design team’s aim and embodies a vision of architectural textiles’ future. According to Knippers, “the façade expresses engineered textiles as a driving force for innovation in technology.”
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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