A brief history of fabric architectural structures

From its humblest beginning as the most basic of shelters, the fabric structure has come a long way.

A brief history of fabric architectural structures

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A long history

Although the temporary nature of fabric shelters means there is little pre-historical archaeological evidence, it is thought that humans have been building tents as shelter for over 40,000 years. These comprised animal skins or leaves over poles – usually wooden, although people would have used whatever was available. In the case of the Eskimo tribes, this would have been whale bones.

Easy to build and dismantle, fabric structures were perfect for the nomadic lifestyle of our ancestors, many of whom eventually settled in more permanent buildings. There are still many nomadic communities that use tents today, such as the black tents of the North African Bedouin, the Mongolian yurts, and the tipi of the First Nation tribes of North America, although the latter are generally only used for ceremonial purposes.

Even after western society became settled in permanent structures, fabric structures played a big role in military campaigns by providing temporary shelter for armies on the move; for example, picture the Roman encampments portrayed in film. Tents and other fabric shelters are still used by armies across the world.

The use of these structures in mainstream architecture and construction started at the end of the 19th century. Russian engineer Vladimir Shukhov designed a steel-clad metal frame tensile structure for the structural engineering pavilion at the Nizhny Novgorod exhibition in 1896 and German architect Frei Otto further championed the use of tensile structures at the German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal and the 1972 Munich Olympic Stadium.

Modern usage

Advances in modern engineering have led to lighter, stronger metals and – more importantly – stronger and more sophisticated architectural fabrics that can withstand the elements, as seen in projects involving fabric structures by Fabric Architecture and other suppliers. This has led to fabric structures, which can be far more versatile and cost effective than a permanent building, being used more and more frequently and for more varied purposes.

Today, in addition to the tensile structure’s most basic form of the tent, we have more sophisticated fabric architectural structures such as Greenwich’s O2 Arena. This is a far cry from your two-man tent, but the principal remains the same – fabric stretched over a frame and secured.

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