Does the column have to be square?

‘Does the column have to be square?’ [1]
A Review by Nina Shen-Poblete on The Second International Conference on Flexible Formwork in Bath (27-29th June, 2012)

Anne-Mette Manelius: Detail

Anne-Mette Manelius: Detail

Introduction & brief overview:

Flexible formwork is a relatively young technique of casting concrete. The earliest patents appeared at the very end of the 19th century, and the first decades of the 20th century. With the exception of James Waller, who in the mid 1950s enjoyed commercial success with fabric formwork, most practices remained privately held techniques [2]. Amongst pioneers such as Miguel Fisac and Kenzo Unno, Mark West is considered one of the ‘father figures’ of the last resurgence of development in flexible formwork, which began in the mid 1980s. And since then, and perhaps as a consequence of, research interests sprouted spontaneously and globally, establishing organisations such as ISOFF, which stands for International Society of Fabric Forming.

The conference in Bath is the second organised event, engaging a confluence of just under a hundred delegates from various disciplines, ranging from architects, researchers, contractors, artists, engineers, to textile specialists. The three-day proceedings were hosted by the department of Architecture & Civil Engineering on the campus of Bath University, and an intensive series of theoretical presentations were sandwiched between practical workshops and social events. The academic papers were delivered in a tight succession but in a genuinely convivial atmosphere, and lively discussions often spilled out into the interval space. A great proportion of the participants were also presenters, and despite the fact that one could regularly rub shoulders with eminent professors and experts, I was taken by the lucidity and openness in their manners of speech, their indisputable intellect and sincerity when engaged in conversations.

To summarise such widely divergent interpretations and techniques of flexible formwork from the conference proves almost an impossible task – one that has to be attempted and contested, nevertheless. Speaking in a very broad sense, the speakers roughly divide into five difference categories.

The first group approaches fabric formwork through material theory and practice. They are theorists / practitioners who sought to find formal expression of concrete through a process – set up to make visible the dynamic interactions between the structural behaviours of fabric, and the chemical forces of concrete when setting – Mark West, Remo Pedreschi, Walter Jack Studios, Alan Chandler, Katie Lloyd Thomas and Anne-Mette Manelius. They share another common ground, that is of their preference to low tech, craft techniques in concrete casting, making the technology more widely available to low capital building cultures and a design methodology relying partly on intuition.

The second group of speakers focused on formwork’s flexibility in the process of form taking and de-forming, with this end they developed alternative materials other than fabrics. They are industrially orientated and market driven researchers who aim at finding the correct balance between the efficiency of formwork fabrication, re-usability and control. Their techniques are innovative, deploying technologies ranging from cad controlled tools to domestic utensils: point-controlled non-porous membrane; wax; pneumatic shell structures with segmented flat sheets; vaccumatics (a vaccumed sac filled with expanded clay); flexible grid shells; flexible rods and ice sheets, so on and so forth.

The work of Heinz Isler stands in a category of its own. Isler was a Swiss engineer who developed sophisticated shell structures and precise sets of construction procedures at the time when digital technologies were unavailable. He experimented with various techniques: mount dug from a ground, wet hessian draped over reinforced mesh, latex rubber, until finally settling on a way of using timber lathes supported by an elaborate structure of timber falsework. The lecture was delivered by Professor John Chilton, who is currently authoring a larger and more comprehensive book on Isler.

Amongst others there were also contractors who developed a specialism in using fabric formwork, and were able to deliver difficult project on tight budgets exploiting the economy of fabric formwork system and its adaptability in difficult site conditions.

The last category comprises of experts who specialises in computer modelling and analytical programmes, and highly complex systems of calculation.

The ideas presented by the first group relate most closely to the set of arguments developed in my own dissertation on rigid formwork, thus I have expanded these lecture notes into an extended review.

Critical Review of Group 1

Conditions of Fabric Formwork

Mark West: Hanil Visitor Centre Guest House

Mark West: Hanil Visitor Centre Guest House

Mark West relates that learning how to use fabric formwork relies on building an intuition of what the fabric can and cannot do – the flexibility of the material and how it offers form [3]. ‘Buckling is a natural phenomenon associated with compression’ [4], and West experimented with the structural possibilities of the ‘pull buckle’ and the ‘push buckle’ [5]. Reflecting on the process, West attempted to distinguish the structural from the decorative, and this is never straightforward. In concrete casting the fabric performs two structural functions – first it rigidizes in tension providing supports to the wet concrete mix as it sets, and second it gives concrete a formal structure which can potentially optimise its strength. The example Mark gives is the creation of a scissor column by shifting the angle of one side of the formwork, constructed out of a piece of fabric hung between two flat sheets of timber. This results in a hydraulic torsion along the vertical axis of the column [6].

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

West hints at a kind of unknown intelligence, or a ‘wildness’ present in material nature – ‘in a material world, it does its own thing’ [7], which could be articulated through careful design. ‘ The push and pull between looseness & restraint, thus become an intellectual problem that challenges the designer’ [8]. The balancing between exerting control and letting go of it, takes place both in the planning and at the stage of execution. Professor Remo Pedreschi says that ‘ if the process of design requires a particular level of precision and repetition, it can be controlled relying on technologies such as laser cutting, in order to set parameters for the un-controllable aspects’[9]. More so than rigid formwork, the stage of fabric formwork design and manipulation extends beyond the drawing board to the site, where pre-anticipation gives way to a more intuitive, in-situ response. Unlike rigid formwork, where the design of the form and formwork making are often separated practices, the use of fabric formwork demands a greater understanding of the casting process from the designer. In many cases the designer is also the maker, who engages directly with the fabric, the restraining devices and concrete to complete the formal design. This open-ended process offers huge potentials in generating forms with geometrical complexity in their geometry previously unpredicted.

In my view, fabric formwork forces us to conceive of concrete, its mould, and the set of techniques for using it as a system. Prior to establishing this system, the individual components such as the concrete and fabric have reached a level of sophistication in their individual domain: the late development of concrete has been a gradual refinement of the mix that ends in self-compacting concrete and spraycrete; and materials such as geotextiles, latex rubber, pvc, etc. have been widely used commercial products. However, these knowledges exist as separate entities ‘working without knowing each other’ [10]. As such the initial appropriation of materials and techniques in fabric forming can be described as the ‘abstract stage’ [11], using the theory of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, where the placing together of the separate parts is hesitant at the beginning and create the zones of imperfection that provide the conditions for innovation and technical evolution [12]. The controlling techniques are gradually refined and specialised materials are further developed to that effect. The process of individuation of both the techniques and the material weaves in many different types of knowledges, and such was demonstrated by Professor Pedreschi in one of his student’s attempt at casting a complete spiral staircase using fabric formwork. The design of the process is extremely complex, as each component of the staircase – the treads, the risers, the balustrades and structural supports requires a different fabric cutting and sewing technique, as well as a different pouring position. Nevertheless the process integrates craft skills and digital technology, and human beings remain the tool bearer.

Remo Pedreschi: Disruptive Technologies 02

Remo Pedreschi: Disruptive Technologies 02

A Disruptive Technology, A Subversive Practice

Fabric formwork as a technical innovation has many advantages over traditional construction methods. According to Pedreschi, these attributes include 1. a fabrication method that can exploit digital tools, and not always relying upon skilled labour such as carpentry to achieve precision and control; 2. the optimisation of formwork re-use which results in reduced material cost; 3. the flexibility of form. These qualities make fabric formwork a ‘disruptive technology’ [13] that does not always bode well in the construction market. A disruptive technology, describes Pedreschi, is often cheaper, smaller or more convenient than those established technologies that dominate the market.’ [14]

One of the main difficulties with fabric formwork, is the transfer of knowledge – what language would be most appropriate for its documentation and specification? Fabric formwork is a technique, a series of actions choreographed by intuition and craft knowledge, and as Pedreschi puts it, ‘it is a piece of sticky information that does not translate. How do you specify that to the contractor?’ Lloyd Thomas provided the example of annotated sketches in the casting of Wall One for the Chelsea Flower Show, produced by Pedreschi and Chandler with their students. Manelius rigorously categorised the experiments according to the typologies of the elements (beam / slab / wall / shell / column / arch / other) and then the different types of formwork principles including the framing (rigid back / frame) and the role of textiles (hung / embraced/ etc). Whilst the former uses a direct visual language communicable to both the architects and the makers, the latter begins to develop a system of codification. Both methods however, face difficulties in its acceptance when the technique is inserted into the rigid codes of existing building practices and conventions. Furthermore, most architectural practice and construction process cannot accommodate the open-endedness in practices such as fabric formwork, as it requires greater flexibility from the client, architect and contractor than conventional procurement routes. Experimentation and knowledge production in fabric formwork find fertile ground in an educational environment as a process lead approach to design and research, where the students become lead users and inventors of formwork practice.

Fabric formwork leaves on the concrete surface an extremely expressive language, which sometimes can become problematic in a public context. West uses the anecdote of the canopy he designed for the Women’s Hospital in Manitoba, where the form of the columns and the fabric’s ‘buckling’ effect accidentally generated an eroticism that was considered offensive and irrepressible by any subsequent remedial actions. At the end, parts of the columns had to be buried – edited out, which was in West’s opinion a more powerful political and aesthetic/poetic gesture.

Does the column have to be square?

Fabric formwork experiments are radical in ways in which they directly challenge and probe the accepted codes of practices and aesthetics. The effects of which allow fabric formwork to be deployed under specific context to push the boundaries of social etiquettes. The tensions they set up bring to light the fact that building forms and architectural language are constricted and codified by established procedures and knowledge, and raise questions that would otherwise be muted by rigid formwork.


[1] Pedreschi, Remo. ‘Smart Processes, fabric formwork as a disruptive technology’, 2nd International Conference on Flexible Formwork, Bath, 27-29th June 2012.
[2] West, Mark. ‘How Flexible’, Ibid.
[3] – [8] Ibid.
[9] Pedreschi. Ibid.
[10] Simondon, Gilbert. ‘I: Abstract Technical Object and Concrete Technical Object,’ Chapter One, The Genesis of Technical Objects. On the [11] Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Paris 1958, trans. by Niniam Mellamphy (1980) p. 18
[11] Simondon, ‘II: Conditions of Technical Evolution’, Ibid. p.22
[12] Ibid.
[13] – [15] Pedreschi.

Nina Shen-Poblete studied at the Glasgow School of Art and furthered her architectural education at the University of Westminster, where she was awarded a first class masters degree in 2012. Her dissertation aims to establish a cultural history of concrete formwork, and parallel to becoming an architect she is also pursuing a career in researching, writing & teaching.

Review of ‘The Object Of Labor: Art, Cloth & Cultural Production’

By Jasleen Dhamija

'The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production' ed Joan Livingstone and John Ploof, School of Art Institute, Chicago Press 2007

The Object of Labor is a publication, which brings out the very quintessential elements of creativity in a very wide sense, not only for those who create, but also those who use it creatively. My initial response to the publication was of dismay at the rather over-crowded cover, with a collage of unattractive images. The main title also struck me also as incongruous. In fact, neither the cover design nor the title does justice to the wide and excellent coverage offered by this publication.

The Indian theory of aesthetics is based on the rasas, the very essence of emotions and of creativity. The Rasik or Rasika, the one who derives the very essence of pleasure, is an essential part of the process of the act of creation. Thus art is expressive of the holistic view of life and the editors say so correctly. “Originating with the history of survival, cloth manufacture and its accompanying division of labor, expands to impact all spheres of culture and power” and go on to say “crossing between arenas of function, craft, art, and ritual, the meaning of cloth from its most banal to its most splendid form affects our daily lives and welfare in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, invention and technology, commerce and work”.

The book comprises of a range of articles written by people with varied backgrounds from folklorists, interdisciplinary artists, writers and curators, cultural activists, anthropologists, designers, media specialists, educationalists and community workers. In addition there are practicing artists, whose sensitive creative expressions are excellently reproduced. The most evocative is the work of Anne Wilson, entitled “Damask”. This is a sensitively created embroidery on the textured damask fabric with the use of hair. Darrel Morris “I mean this” is an extraordinary expression of contemporary art forms using embroidered forms and textures to make powerful statements. The two expressions are so distinct and yet each appeals to our sensibility.

The other interesting contribution is by practicing artists and researchers, who combine the knowledge of the practice and the years of research on the subject as in the case of Janis Jefferies and her article “Laboured Cloth: Translation of Hybridity in Contemporary Art”

The contributors span many cultures as does the location of the study. The article on Sujani of Bihar is written by a team of writers, including Viji Srinivasan, an Indian socio-economist and activist, Laila Tyabji, a designer and organisor of the crafts sector, who heads one of the most important NGOs of crafts in India, Skye Morrison, a Canadian folklorist, designer, educator and curator and Dorothy Caldwell, a texture artist, teacher and curator, whose work incorporates North American Stitching. It is an interesting study of the work of women who were initiated in this work by Viji, as a means of income generation. Viji used the Sujani tradition, which belonged to Dharbhanga, a culturally rich area of Bihar, which has very strong Maithali cultural traditions. They took inspiration from the Maithali tradition, but the women carried this tradition into the contemporary world interpreting their lives creatively.

Amazwi Albesifazane echoes the voices of women gathered together in an embroidery project. Peer groupings of women work together and speak of the hidden and repressed aspects of personal, cultural, and political history. This difficult process is facilitated by trained coordinators drawn from the geographic area of operation for whom the conditions and the culture is familiar. This historical information is written in the original indigenous language, then translated into creative work and is presented by Andries Botha, a sculptor and cultural activist.

Sadie Plant’s “Ada Lovelace and the Loom of Life” is a superb piece of research and writing, which looks at the origin of weaving and brings us to an appreciation of jacquard loom weaving being the origins of the computer, which has revolutionised the world today. It comes as a surprise that in the mid nineteenth century it was a woman Lady Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who was a mathematician and who made an extraordinary contribution along with Charles Babbage, who created the first fully automatic calculating machine. The publication is full of such gems of information.

The consistent theme of this books is the quest to retain identity following major upheaval. This preoccupation is not limited to those disposed and driven away from their original habitat, but also those whose land is always changing. Immigrants are very distinct from nomads. The immigrants initially negate their traditions, while nomads surround themselves with expressions of their cultural traditions, so as to demarcate their own space. The very fact that amongst the nomads of Iran the mobile tent has the same name as the women’s outer cover, the chador, indicates the importance of defining their own space with the use of a fabric.

This publication touches upon a number of subjects and is a pleasure to own. Every time one opens its pages some new insights enliven the mind.

Jasleen Dhamija is an Indian craft writer and author of Living Tradition of Iran’s Crafts, Handwoven Fabrics of India, The Woven Silks of India and Indian Folk Arts and Crafts

Review of ‘What’s the Use of Art: Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context’

By Alison Carroll

What’s the Use of Art: Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context ed: Jan Mrazek & Morgan Pitelka, University of Hawai’i Press, 2008

What’s the Use of Art is a collection of nine scholarly essays by Western experts, plus an introduction and conclusion by the two editors, on valued cultural objects in India, Japan, China, Indonesia and Cambodia. It is held together under three groupings: Functions, Movements and Memories, though these slip away in reading the density of the essays themselves. More useful is the general overlay of the question of function and value of the objects, and how these are maintained both within these particular cultures and by outsiders, including of course the cultures of the writers.

As Morgan Pitelka says in the introduction, the objects of these Asian cultures are exemplars of the broader question of value of objects from different places, especially those which tend to ‘describe and value’ others (see Chapter 1).

Questions on the complexity of value weave throughout the book, with the different focuses – from Japanese disposable temple ceramics, to potent keris in Bali, to Angkorian royal inscriptions – and continually challenge our own positions. This was more rewarding than the more awkward overlay of the more truly Western concern with the art/craft nexus. These are objects of value, no matter how they are described, or used. Perhaps a better title than ‘objects of use’ might have been ‘objects of power’.

As some of the essays discuss, e.g. on Angkorian inscriptions, the word and idea of ‘art’ is long used in Asia, though in many places, such as Japan, the currently used word is a quite modern invention. While the newness of such words is often raised as an example of Western intervention, the discomfort with ‘art’ vs ‘craft’ rarely receives the emotional heat of such discussions in the West. I remember a leading Pakistani artist and curator, when asked about the situation of craft vs art in Pakistan, replying that there were many greater issues for debate and concern there than this.

This then is a concern of this book: that the debate about these cultures is so removed from those cultures. Where are the scholars, or at least the debate, from within these cultures? At least interviews with practitioners. A poem by Australian Aboriginal poet Anita Heiss comes to mind:

Aboriginal Studies
You ‘study’ us /Observe us /Analyse us /Write about us /You philosophise
/and scrutinize us /You lecture about  /and separate out /You debate and speculate,  /evaluate and investigate. /But who is it for, /If not for us? /When most of us  /can’t even read what you write /And don’t even  /know your words are in print? /And your royalty and lecture fees /benefit only you? /Do you really do it  /to educate others? /Really? /Now come on,  /Seriously – /Be honest, /You enjoy being  /the Patriarch or Matriarch /of your chosen field –  /The study of Aborigines.

Who indeed is the audience for this book? The complexity of the English for a start will preclude most (though not all) Asian readers. Surely this is an irony for a book about value and context.

Another concern is that it is a book about visual cultural objects with such poor visuals: no colour, small poorly reproduced b x w illustrations and not enough of them. When the authors are describing an object with great focus, let us all see it and try to evaluate its presence for ourselves. After the long story of Ganga Devi in Chapter 3, it would be good to see what she had actually done, as it would be to see Nyoman Erawan’s Ancient Time in context of Balinese symbolic belief, in Chapter 9.

As Pitalka says, there are multiple contexts of these objects and they change, including their place within museums. However, there is the implication that these objects find no adequate context outside their own, a thread through the book of regret towards change, and a note that these objects have had power that is unique to them (and stronger in Asian cultures than elsewhere, and something that is misunderstood elsewhere), that this power is being lessened and that this should be arrested. A memory of temps perdue.

Such positions immediately raise responses in the reader: I can think of the 18th century Korean scholar’s room recreated in the National Museum of Korea as a truly wonderful experience, furnished with treasures unlikely to be encountered by any but the very few elsewhere, or the tea-ceremony room in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where ceremonies do take place, or the installation by Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto For those who are poor, for those who are suffering, made in 1991 and placed at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1993, which led to visitors both Indonesian and non-Indonesian leaving flowers in memory of loss of all sorts. Further, in this context, Mrazek’s words about the “exclusive visuality of the modern art object” (p.300) seems to preclude such works as Dadang’s from such descriptions.

Perhaps another way through this complex area for non-Asian readers is to have threads in the book – like the power of objects in Asia – linked to Western experience: lessening the exoticising ‘other’ element of the discussion. For example, other cultures, including Western cultures, do venerate objects. Think of those saints’ bones or flecks of holy cloth in European reliquaries, or the feet of Christ figures worn smooth in Italian churches with the prayers of the faithful. Think of the carrozas or special carriages in Manila streets, where the Virgin and her attendants, reclothed in new and splendid raiment, come out into public view, living in the hearts of all there.

The performative, the issue of the importance of time, and the process of cultural action is an area, I think, of difference in ‘Asia’ compared with the West. This is touched on in the book, and it would have been good to have more, or done more vividly. But a book about objects perhaps is antithetical to this. The importance of performance was strongly brought home to me watching Aboriginal artists from Arnhem Land in northern Australia make a sand painting in a Tokyo plaza. The two Aboriginal men ‘smoked’ the piece and slowly created their imagery in the trucked-in sand. It had strength and importance to them, and to the watching Japanese it was totally understandable: the process of doing was understood and respected. The Anglos watching were much less comfortable.

And indeed perhaps the degree in Asia of the belief in the power of objects or spirits themselves is a matter of difference from the West. I curated an exhibition for an Adelaide Festival Beyond the material world, where I asked contemporary artists from Asia whose work included a sense of the unseen powers of life to make new works, and published interviews with people in Asia about their belief in a strongly spiritual world. The leading artists from Japan, Korea, China, Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia all produced key works that had their acceptance of the ‘non-material’ unselfconsciously inherent within them. I suspect it would be difficult to have the same result in the West.

The individual chapters of this book are full of their own spirit, crafted with love by their authors and much of this is conveyed to the reader. I wished, for example, I had known what the inscriptions on the temples of Angkor had meant before going there, as they brought life to those huge, seemingly impenetrable faces. It is good to have access to essays of such knowledge, care and affection: objects of value themselves.

Alison Carroll is Director of Asialink Arts, University of Melbourne