‘Mass to membrane’ continues to influence the future of architecture

August 1st, 2018 / By: Bruce N. Wright / Features

Nicholas “Nic” Goldsmith, FAIA, has been a major player for more than 40 years in the development of fabric architecture in North America and around the globe through his leadership of the innovative architectural/engineering firm FTL Design Engineering Studio, based in New York City. I’ve known Nic for more than 20 of those years, and we recently sat down to discuss his take on how the field is progressing, and what we might expect in the near future.

Bruce Wright: Nic, I know that your new book, Mass to Membrane (available fall 2018 from Oro Editions, ISBN 979-1-940743-89-9), covers what you very clearly and convincingly outline as the historical progression of architecture from heavy, massive buildings to ever lighter weight structures that take advantage of new materials, such as flexible composites like architectural fabric. But, what is your take on current architecture in general around the world?

Nic Goldsmith: We are in an evolutionary moment in architecture where things are changing from the “glass box” period of today, and are starting to see what I would say is a lightweight “foil” period of tomorrow. There are about 10 to 12 ETFE projects in North America being done every year now. People are recognizing the technology much more, and although it’s still in its nascent period of growth, we can see its development.

There is all of this new technology of intelligent skins (including intelligent fabrics) being experimented with. We see amazing applications in wearables and functional apparel augmenting human performance and assisting people with disabilities; there has been this sort of technology transfer from apparel design and safety vest or protective clothing design using intelligent fabrics. We are seeing fabrics used in industrial design where previously hard materials were only considered, such as car bodies, and at some point we will see an explosive growth of the intelligent skins period in architecture and construction.

BW: What do you attribute this to? And do you feel this is positive?

NG: As I mentioned, there has been this technology transfer from apparel design using intelligent fabrics. And it obviously will soon become part of architecture; it’s just a matter of time. I’m very positive about all this. We will have multiple layered cladding skins, each responding to unique requirements. We’ve got fabric sending signals on fibers. … There is so much that we can do now, but it all needs a national support group, an architectural institute like the National Science Foundation (NSF) that gives out grants to support the research and integration. There are not a lot of architectural grants out there for this sort of research.

We are coming to a point of intersecting technologies that are overlapping but not fully integrated. There are cable net structures, foil pillows, framed grid shells. To some extent it’s almost a Frankenstein moment; people are taking things from here and there—like slapping on bolts to the neck of Frankenstein’s monster to attach a head—and mixing up systems because they are so new. There’s nothing wrong about this, but they are just not fully integrated yet. We have all these things, but are trying to figure out what to do with them; trying to understand what the aesthetics and integration of the divergent systems should be.

Another trending moment is with issues of sustainability. There is the sneaker company, Nike, making products out of recycled plastic that is harvested from the ocean. Did you know that there is this huge mass of accumulated plastic floating in the ocean? It’s about the size of Texas, some 1,200 miles across! We can’t keep dumping plastic into the environment because it will all end up in the ocean. That’s not the answer. What Nike is doing is part of a number of little steps that need to take place. Maybe these little steps can reduce the plastic island in the ocean to the size of your house? This is important.

Another example is Freitag, the company that takes old truck tarps and makes high-end backpacks, luggage and luxury fashion bags out of it. We must continue to be aware of these issues and make an effort to reduce waste, recycle materials and make something useful from them; as they say, turning lemons into lemonade.

BW: You address some of these issues in your new book, Mass to Membrane. What was the inspiration; what triggered you to write the book?

NG: Since I have been designing innovative structures for more than 40 years through my practice at FTL, and have taught at different schools including the University of Pennsylvania, Pratt Institute, Columbia and Cornell for more than 20 years, I have come to reflect on how to present this specialist technology to a wider audience. The actual spark that made me consider it was when Lindsey Falk, a professor at UPenn, once told me after hearing a series of my lectures that I needed to write this down as a book. This text is my attempt at explaining the different elements of lightweight structures in a series of discrete chapters showcasing the various aspects of this technology, including where it is coming from and where it is going.

BW: Who is your main audience? And what other audiences are you hoping to attract?

NG: My main audience is an educated but nonprofessional audience, and as such I have used many personal narratives to help explain some of the ideas in the different chapters; I find it a more approachable format than a stricter textbook approach, which many people find somewhat dry.

BW: What are three or four “takeaways” that you’d like readers to get from reading Mass to Membrane?

NG: First, I want people to understand that architecture is not a static process, but rather one that has always been changing based on developments in building technology. If one looks at architecture in this way, one sees that architectural development has been a slow evolution from the massive pyramids of Egypt, to the framed structures of Greek and Roman construction, to the lighter Gothic vaulting and eventually to the modern architecture of the twentieth century. This is an almost linear progression from solid mass constructions to diaphanous skins of glass and steel; it is our historic journey from mass to membrane. The next step into tomorrow will be lightweight ‘skin’ constructions of tensile membranes, mesh systems, clear foil pillow systems and composites of all of these.

Second, I wanted to describe the design process and the distinction between the idea of creating cool shapes and forms which I call ‘shape making’ versus the notion of ‘form finding,’ which approaches the design process by trying to understand the material intelligence of each material and how they want to be joined together. This distinction may not be very important in a more conventional architecture, but in lightweight structures it is the difference between efficient and expensive, and in my opinion between beautiful and ordinary.

Third, I want to increase the discussion about fabrics to include lighting, climate, acoustics, interiors and movement and not just ‘how does it stand up.’ To the IFAI readers who are already working in membranes, this book gives them a background illustrating how their work fits in a larger historical perspective, and describes the complex series of issues that membrane constructions need to address.

BW: How can a reader get the most out of reading this book? What strategy would you recommend to get these key takeaways?

NG: Since I’m a visual person, this book has a large visual format that ties into each chapter. It is designed to be simultaneously read and looked at, with the images reinforcing the text. It is meant to be an enjoyable experience, not an academic one; however, also one which contains much information and hopefully challenges our understanding of these structures.

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, a consultant to architects and designers, writes frequently about architecture, design and textiles for Specialty Fabrics Review, Fabric Architecture, Advanced Textiles Source and other international journals.