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.

Made in Haiti: “free” trade versus fair trade

Tailor Jonas La Base with the project’s first completed garment, Port-au-Prince, 2009; photo credit Carole Frances Lung

Tailor Jonas La Base with the project’s first completed garment, Port-au-Prince, 2009; photo credit Carole Frances Lung

Free trade and the expansion of Haiti’s garment manufacturing industry are being promoted as a vehicle for economic development in the Western hemisphere’s poorest country. Free trade, it is argued by lawmakers and corporations, produces a trickle-down effect: the creation of apparel manufacturing jobs will ease poverty and unemployment, improve living conditions, and even promote democracy and ease political disenfranchisement. Increasing corporate profits is seamlessly aligned with political and socio-economic development objectives.

These claims are contingent on the degradation of the term “free” in the context of the free market (Rogoff 2010), and on skewed understandings of “local” manufacturing. The term free trade suggests the free and unfettered movement of goods across international borders. Yet in reality, “free” trade is strictly and minutely regulated by a complex network of regional and international trade agreements. For example, trade preference levels govern duty-free benefits on apparel manufactured in specific countries, and can impose benefits or penalties worth millions of dollars at a time. Further, duty-free treatment for Haitian-made apparel is granted under very strict stipulations that are calculated based on, for example, the cost and origin of the fabric used to assemble the garments, and the country from which the garments are directly imported. As well, international quotas govern tariff designations worldwide, so that apparel manufactured in Haiti is granted duty-free status at the expense of apparel manufactured in another developing country. As Jane Collins observes, “To call these labyrinthine measures ‘free trade’ is to stretch the meaning of the term beyond recognition” (2003 p.52).

For Yannick Etienne, director of the Haitian workers rights’ organization Batay Ouvriye, “this model of development with free trade zones as its backbone for creating jobs is a failure. It creates wealth for the foreign investors and local factory owners but more misery for the workers” (Erkert Depp 2010). Garment workers in workers in CODEVI — Haiti’s only fully operational free-trade zone — earn less than many other Haitian workers because minimum wage laws don’t apply there. Free trade may spur job creation, however, those jobs remain low waged and precarious at the local level. Because the key actors in the global apparel industry are multinational corporations, they have no long-term commitment to the places where they operate — and so production and job creation remain mobile. While Haiti’s garment sector doubled to 25,000 workers between 2006 and 2009, it contracted overall from 100,000 employees in previous years, with those jobs having moved overseas to Asia.

The project Made in Haiti, initiated by artist Carole Frances Lung in 2009 and continuing today, also seeks to create jobs for garment workers in Haiti. MIH operates at a much smaller scale and on a more local level than do the multinational corporations currently operating in Haiti. Lung is a former garment worker whose art practice exposes the abuses of the global apparel industry through collaborative projects that harness sewing, skills sharing, and collaboration. Made in Haiti privileges a fair trade model for Haitian garment workers, investing in long-term relationships with Haitian workers, paying fair wages, and engaging in ethical modes of production.

The first iteration of Made in Haiti took place during the first Ghetto Biennale, held in Port-au-Prince in 2009. Lung collaborated with local tailors who used repurposed “pepe” or second hand clothing imported from the USA to create a small collection of garments and accessories, sold locally in Port-au-Prince and later, the USA. The Haitian tailors were paid a fair wage for their labor, and their creations sell on Etsy, at galleries and pop up shops in the USA, and at a dedicated shop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. MIH was exhibited at the second Ghetto Biennale in 2011 as a pop up shop in Port-au-Prince. Currently, MIH works with a lead tailor, Jonas La Base (who brings in other workers to help him as needed), a translator, Junior Casseus, and two to three t-shirt embellishers. It recently completed a large order for artist Theaster Gates, and regularly exhibits at pop up shops around Los Angeles. MIH is in the process of recruiting investors and developing a larger product launch.

Made in Haiti promotes sustainable, local manufacturing as a viable alternative to free trade zones and the low-waged, precarious, and fleeting employment opportunities they offer workers in developing countries. As Collins (2003) notes, when garment workers enter into production, they bring along their own ideas of what is fair. Unlike the free trade model explored earlier, Made in Haiti supports local economic development and job creation in Haiti by tailoring its modes of production to local imperatives, rather than the other way around. MIH provides Haitian workers with a fair wage for their labor, together with agency in the production process. MIH invests in the local Haitian economy by ensuring that profits are channeled back to the workers who produced the garments in the first place. Fair labor practices provide the foundation for successful fair trade relations. As the Made in Haiti label proudly states: “100% Good for Garment Workers”.

Made in Haiti is one of a growing number of art projects that mobilize craft techniques — here, sewing — to resist late capitalist, post-Fordist modes of production. Antonio Gramsci, writing about the process of industrialization in the USA between the two world wars, notes a struggle that pitted “craft rights” against “industrial liberties”, as industrialists attempted to curb the labor unions that represented “the rights of qualified crafts” (1971, p.286). Gramsci’s notion of “craft rights”, continues to be relevant in the context of economic globalization and deregulation in the garment industry today, for it implies an understanding of “craft” and “rights” as implicitly linked to workers’ well being. The right to a fair wage and an adequate standard of living have yet to be achieved in the context of the industrial piecework system that dominates the global apparel industry. Made in Haiti provides an example of how “craft rights” — skilled and well-remunerated forms of labor — can replace the abuses of piecework. MIH also demonstrates that fair trade, not free trade, will spur true economic development in Haiti.

Works cited

  • Collins, Jane L., Threads: Gender, Labor and Power in the Global Garment Industry. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Erkert Depp, Alexis, “Made in Haiti: A Good Thing?” Washington Memo, November 2, 2010
  • Gramsci, Antonio, and Hoare, Quintin and Nowell Smith, Geoffrey, Eds., Selections From the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers Company, 1971
  • Rogoff, Irit, “Free”, e-flux journal #14 March 2010

Garment Work: unpicking the global garment industry

Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Garment Work unpicks the denim trade

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Garment Work, 2010, photo: Elizabeth White

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Garment Work, 2010, photo: Elizabeth White

The current resurgence of craft and hand making — especially among a new and often self-taught generation of makers — is often theorized as a contemporary reaction to (indeed as an act of resistance against) the forces of economic globalization, mass-production, and consumption. But as Julia Bryan-Wilson astutely observes, the relationship between craft and mass-production is much more complicated, for craft ‘is also a thriving enterprise that exists within a larger geopolitical context of mass production’ (2011 p.73). While craft is an artistic practice, it is also ‘dominated by women making consumer objects in factories in China and elsewhere’ (ibid). Bryan-Wilson’s points help shed light on the complexities of hand crafting in the larger context of economic globalization. Consider for example, that all of Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and iPods are assembled exclusively by hand in Chinese factories, raising compelling questions about the distinctions between the hand crafted object and the mass-produced one, and about the value of hand work itself. Do we truly appreciate the toll this method of assembly takes? The hands that craft these objects belong to a person — to a factory worker — thousands of whom suffer serious, debilitating, and preventable injuries sustained performing the endless repetitive gestures required to produce them.

The ongoing project Garment Work by artist and writer Anne Elizabeth Moore considers these questions in the context of the global garment industry. In Garment Work, Moore methodically takes a pair of mass-manufactured jeans apart by hand, and in the process exposes the harsh labor conditions under which textile workers toil to produce the garments we purchase.

It is estimated that during the manufacturing process, each individual pair of jeans can be touched by as many as 60 pairs of hands that guide it through the various production stages: cutting cloth, sewing seams and hems, adding pockets, belt loops, buttonholes, labels and grommets. Moore deconstructs this process, taking the jeans apart until nothing is left of them but neatly organized piles of threads. Using one’s hands to tear apart industrial-machine stitched seams is a strenuous job, and in so doing, Moore calls attention to the labor required to produce the jeans, and by extension, to the appalling labor practices that dominate the global garment manufacturing industry: relentlessly long hours, low pay, risk of injury, exposure to toxic chemicals, lack of benefits and healthcare, precarity, harassment, and the absence of collective bargaining rights. Garment Work — with its emphasis on the artist’s labor — examines the abusive working conditions in the factories that produce the majority of the world’s garments, and connects them back to the American retail outlets that sell them.

Moore first performed Garment Work in 2010 during an artist residency at the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei in Leipzig, Germany, formerly one of the largest textile mills in the world. East German textile manufacturing shifted overseas following German reunification in 1989, when the state subsidies upon which the industry was dependent were cut — leaving it vulnerable to global economic forces — and abetted by international trade agreements designed to facilitate the entry of Third World countries into the garment industry. Moore’s taking a pair of jeans apart served as a metaphor for the destruction of East Germany’s textile industry but also, to embody current working conditions in the global textile industry — conditions once endured by workers at the Baumwollspinnerei.

More recently, Garment Work exposed working conditions for women garment workers in Cambodia, where Moore spent time as a Fulbright scholar, artist and writer. Her ongoing collaborations with Cambodian garment workers — Cambodia is home to over 350 000 of them — provided the raw material, so to speak, for the performance of Garment Work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2011. This iteration of the project examined working conditions at H&M — the second largest clothing retailer in the world — by taking apart a pair of H&M jeans, manufactured in Cambodia and purchased by Moore at H&M’s flagship Chicago store, located around the corner from the MCA. Garment Work exposed the links between difficult working conditions in the Cambodian factories that manufacture clothing for H&M, and those endured by workers in its retail stores here in the USA.

Garment Work at the MCA was participatory, with members of the public invited to join Moore in taking the jeans apart. Viewers would sit around a table as they picked the cloth apart, all the while discussing abusive labor practices in the garment industry and at H&M in particular. Many visitors to the MCA often shop along Michigan avenue before or after their museum visits, and Garment Work brought people together to reflect upon the working conditions in the garment industry both here at home and abroad. Poignantly, a group of former H&M workers discovered and subsequently participated in Garment Work on a visit to the MCA. They had resigned en-masse to protest abusive working conditions at the nearby H&M store: understaffing, low pay, long hours, and lack of benefits.

Garment Work is performed — whether individually by the artist, or collectively with viewer participation — by hand. The hand is central to the garment’s manufacturing process, as well as to that of taking the jeans apart. While mass-manufacturing and artistic crafting (considered here in the form of unraveling and unpicking) are vastly different processes that unfold in dramatically different contexts, Garment Work reveals the overlap between them. Through the act of unmaking, Moore draws our attention complexities of production and consumption; in so doing, she asks us to value the labor of the workers who make and sell the garments we buy, and to make informed decisions about the products we consume.

Citation: Julia Bryan-Wilson, Sewing Notions, Artforum vol.49, no.6, February 2011, pp.73-74.

A 10 minute edited version of Garment Work can be seen here.