Project 3 – Clouds and Pillars

Textiles in context – Some examples

  • Zaha Hadid – Serpentine Sackler Gallery extension

    • Art or design
    • Temporary or permanent
    • Large-scale or small-scale
    • Transforming and/or defining and/or forming
    • Immersive and/or distant
    • Pattern and/or colour and/or repetition and/or shape

The notion of textiles being used as material for a permanent architectural structure is new to me: if I’ve encountered textiles in architecture (other than big fancy tents at weddings and events), I was either unaware or have forgotten entirely.

The juxtaposition of classical architecture with a very contemporary, airy architectural extension reminds me of I.M. Pei’s glass and metal pyramids, which became the entrance to Paris’ Louvre museum. While juxtapositions such as this were less common (and perhaps less easily received) in 1989, nowadays it comes as no surprise that a historical space– in particular, one that is going to house a contemporary art collection– should look as thought its been drawn into modern times.

Original facade of Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Luke Hayes [accessed 20 April 2018]
Zaha Hadid, Serpentine Sackler Gallery extension (exterior). Photo: Luke Hayes [accessed 20 April 2018]
The glass-fibre textile used in this project is described by Zaha Hadid as the firm’s first permanent “tensile” (def: relating to tension; capable of being drawn out or stretched – English Oxford Living Dictionaries, accessed 20 April 2018]) structure). The project was inspired by domes and shell-like structures: Hadid was after a “lightweight” or “light-touch” impression/ overall feeling.

What I see when I look at photographs of this structure varies quite a bit from my experience of reading about it. First of all, as someone who reads very little about architecture, it’s very hard to make sense of terms like “fixed louver system”, “historic timber gantry crane”, “curvelinear structural surfaces” and “twisted ladder truss supported on three points”.

What I can glean from my own study of the photographs is that the extension was intended to (and does) look light, airy, dynamic, organic and even “ephemeral”. At the same time, to my eyes, it looks fixed in place, hard and plastic, and not at all “tensile” or even remotely “tent-like”. Insofar as architecture is almost inevitably designed as an “immersive” (though it can certainly make an impression at a distance, as is the case here) experience– meant to be occupied and moved through by living bodies and watchful eyes, I think my impressions reveal the limitations of the digital experience of (a) place.

More examples of architectural use of textiles

Researching this subject made me realize that– indeed!– I am familiar with architectural application of textiles and fabric. The FabricArchitect site’s drop-down “custom” drop-down menu alerted me to several common uses, including awnings, canopies, bandshells, tents, textile facades, shade and/or retractable structures, and so on.

I also found some examples of more artful/ experimental/ innovative applications of textiles in architecture via an article (“The Very Fabric of Architecture: textile use in construction“) in Architonic, an online architecture and design magazine. Some examples I found appealing are hyperlinked, alongside an image gallery, below:

The above are only a small sampling of the different applications of textiles in architecture that I came across in my research (I consulted Dezeen and Architonic primarily). It appears that it’s an area of architecture that is growing, reflective of more contemporary aesthetic tastes, interactive concerns, and what seems like an ever-increasing value placed on flexibility.

The following citation (at, accessed 23 April 2018) reminded me of the constant connection between the contemporary application of textile in architecture and the essential function of those earliest of textile-based dwellings looked at earlier in Project Three.

The primary purpose of textile constructions is and always has been to provide the best possible protection against the weather. The best products in this category provide this protection in the most economical and ecological way – at minimum use of material and maximized reduction of weight.

  • Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands 1980-83

    • Art or design
    • Temporary or permanent
    • Large-scale or small-scale
    • Transforming (my emphasis) and/or defining and/or forming
    • Immersive and/or Distant
    • Pattern and/or colour (my emphasis) and/or repetition and/or shape

My response to this work:

Reading the information on the website gave me a bit of context and some appreciation of this work, but I generally find it hard to really connect with the wrapping works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I know they say the “wrapping” isn’t the thing the works share, but it seem to me (along the same lines as Barthes’ “death of the author”) that it isn’t up to the artists to tell me how to define or regard or attempt to understand the works they put into the world, especially when the works are imposed on the (built or natural) environment. Of course, I’m not against public works of art (quite the contrary!) but I don’t like being told how to think about them; Christo and Jeanne-Claude are, to my mind, too bent on controlling how the public perceives their work (as evidenced by the somewhat hilarious/ somewhat obnoxious “common errors” section of their website).

What I often find myself wondering when I encounter Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s large-scale textile works is “Why?”: as in, “Why were they inspired to do this thing in this place at this time?” While I appreciate that a lot of thought, planning, work, engineering and (hu)manpower goes into their works, I find myself wondering about the inspiration. For example, the site offers a fair degree of information about the technical details of installing Surrounded Islands, but says only of its meaning/ significance that it “was a work of art underlining the various elements and ways in which the people of Miami live, between land and water.”

For me, this is too vague and elusive: while I do agree that the specific color of pink they chose fits harmoniously with the colors/ palette of the surrounding, tropical Miami beach landscape, I want to know more about how this pink fabric represents the Miami population’s relationship to their environment. Is it a comment about how they leave too much a mark on the environment, littering on and polluting the beach? Is the color (which to me could read as both sensual and sexual, resembling a mouth or a even a vulvar form) representative of some kind of social culture that takes place specifically around water? If either of these propositions is the case, why not “surround” the beachfront instead of these uninhabited islands?

Ultimately, my feelings about this work are fairly neutral. It carries a degree of visual interest, and I suppose it’s pretty (which of course isn’t the ultimate criteria for a successful work of art), but it doesn’t inspire much curiosity in me; quite simply, I don’t really care for it. As usual, I wonder why I don’t like it: I keep coming back to the this (almost guilty) idea I simply like more figural, traditional art. I want to know why a thing needed to be expressed. I want to see the humanity in the work. There seems to be nothing here for my mind or heart to really attach to, even briefly, or turn over.

Wrapped Trees (1997-98)

Source: [accessed 22 April 2018]

Thinking about this piece, we are asked to consider what Christo and Jeanne-Claude say of their work: “The ‘wrapping’ is NOT at all the common denominator of the works. What is really the common denominator is the use fabric, cloth, textile. Fragile, sensuous and temporary materials which translate the temporary character of the works of art.” We are asked to consider Wrapped Trees from the perspective of the textile rather than the trees. This to me is unnatural– trees are long-living, life-giving, breathing and evolving organisms, while textile, typically, is none of those things– but I can go along with it for the sake of bring a more open mind to this exercise.

It seems to me that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is difficult to fully experience via photos, although this is the nature of site-specific and temporary works of art. What I find as I read about the work and peruse the photos available on their site is that I resist and reject it when it appears that the fabric simply covers, conceals or– worst of all–stifles or suffocates them. Looking at the photos of folks walking in the park next to covered trees, I feel a kind of frustration; I would so annoyed to be out walking in “nature” only to have the trees covered up (even if the covering is protective; we can’t know if the walkers were aware of the wrappings’ dual purpose). Ironically, this covering does highlight the sense of well-being the presence and connotations trees (left to be themselves, naked) offer us.

I will add that in the photos where you see the (sun)light coming through the ballooned, silvery, transparent fabric, highlighting in a new way the graceful movement and forms of branches, it’s true that it calls attention to the unique form and growth of a tree.

Taking this one step further to consider the work of art from the perspective of the textile is interesting; the tree– particularly its trunk– does seem sturdy and solid in comparison. The textile conjures up some kind of delicate skin or membrane that could be poked or torn by the branches inside, and does seem fragile and sensuous. Again, something about it seems (stereotypically) sexually allusive to me: as though the trees represent the masculine, the physical, the concrete, and the fabric represents the feminine, elements of air and water, a kind of fragility and vulnerability.

  • Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room, 1998

    • Art or design
    • Temporary or permanent
    • Large-scale or small-scale
    • Transforming and/or defining and/or forming
    • Immersive and/or distant
    • Pattern and/or colour and/or repetition and/or shape

It isn’t clear to me that Kusama’s work is made of textiles as much as it draws its inspiration from them. As the course text indicates, Kusama “applies some of thelanguage of textiles to her infinity mirrored rooms”, of which there appear to be several.

Insofar as the artist wants to create (or replicate) the obsessive environment of her mind, also conveying a metaphorical/imaginary sense of the infinite, her works of art are immserive. Not only does a viewer need to inhabit the room physically, but we are also invited to engage by moving around shapes and protrusions, looking through peepholes or windows. The repetition of dots of the same color create an immersive environment, and make us feel small within it.

Yayoi Kusama – Dots obsession, Infinity mirrored Room – 1998 – Les Abattoirs, Tolosa – photo Jean-Luc Auriol. Source: [accessed 22 April 2018]
  • Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Clouds

    • Art or design
    • Temporary or permanent
    • Large-scale or small-scale
    • Transforming and/or defining and/or forming
    • Immersive and/or distant
    • Pattern and/or color and/or repetition and/or shape

As I think about this product, I’m struck by its versatility (it seems to fulfill most of the qualities identified above, at once a functional design and customization art piece). Watching the video on the Kvadrat product page (, accessed 23 April 2018) makes piecing the clouds together makes me think of adults playing Lego. As with other textile pieces we’ve explored in this section, I’m constantly struck by how broad the category is: I tend to think of textiles specifically as fabrics, but this is another example of how durable they can be, what architectural shapes they can take, what kind of space they can occupy.

The Byriel quotation cited in the course text brings up an important function of textiles in domestic or public spaces: in addition to “softening” the hard angles and/or physical experience of how our bodies come in contact with furniture– or simply offering, sometimes, a place to rest our eyes within a space– textile absorbs sound, which of course hugely impacts our sensory experience of (a) place/space. What’s interesting here is that the cloud pieces can be configured and/or expanded to suit a full range of needs and considerations.

  • Marianne Straub, moquette textile (1970)

    • Art or design
    • Temporary or permanent (relatively)
    • Large-scale or small-scale (large-scale application, individual pieces are small-scale)
    • Tranforming and/or defining and/or forming
    • Immersive and/or distant
    • Pattern and/or colour and/or repetition and/or shape

As a Canadian with only very limited experience of London’s public transportation system, I was neither familiar with Marianne Straub [biographical information accessed 26 April 2018] nor the functional textiles she designed for use in the city’s buses and tubes. The link provided in the text to view the textiles no longer works, however, I benefited from the blogs of other OCA students to find resources about where I might get more information about how Straub’s textiles were used in London specifically.

Following a lead from the student blog Moved By Breath [accessed 26 April 2018] I went to the London Transport Museum [accessed 26 April 2018] website to track down some evidence and examples of the Straub moquette. My first glimpse of it was out of context, as the moquette has now (perhaps nostalgically?) been applied to a throw cushion, for sale via the museum’s online shop.

Screenshot 2018-04-26 11.02.06.png
From the London Transport Museum’s online shop: [accessed 26 April 2018]

‘Straub’ moquette textile in Piccadilly carriage opened by Her Majesty the Queen Photographed by London Transport, 16 December 1977. Image found at [accessed 26 April 2018].

Moved By Breath also offered a look at Straub’s moquette in context, shown at right. The text defines “moquette” as a durable “woven textile […] comprised of loop and pile which makes it […] particularly suitable for public transport.” The text also notes how the rough texture and thick fibre of the textile, combined with its busy and bright design, effectively resist stains and otherwise conceal the accumulation of dirt and grime that necessarily occurs over  years of public use.

Exercise 1

The text asks us to think back to Part Three of this course, where we thought about the various contexts and functions of visual communications. We are asked to consider what function Straub’s textile is serving beyond providing something durable to sit on for users of public transit.

Looking back on this section of the course brought me to what it takes to read visual communications, which was accompanied by a brief introduction to the basics of semiotic theory and, subsequently, experimentation with semiotic analysis. In particular, we looked at denotation (what can literally be seen and its literal interpretation) and connotation (what is, more subjectively, suggested by literal elements within the “text”, its (many) possible meanings).


In Straub’s moquette– designed in the late 60s, used for several decades in public transport and seemingly still generating capital for the London Transport Museum– the literal components of the textile comprise vertical rows of different-sized rectangles and squares, all arranged in a repetitive grid-like sequence (reminiscent of a plaid), in three shades of blues highlighted by a single shade of deep green. The pattern is quite dense (the shapes are small and the colours vibrant) and the textile weave is dense and slightly rough (not smooth or particularly soft) to the touch.

This moquette was designed for the purpose of covering the backs and seats of otherwise metal benches that line the passenger vehicles of London’s public transportation system.The dominant colours within the carriage, apart from the moquette, are cool grays and the silver of some stainless steel fixtures. In the photo above, where the moquette is seen in context, the floor’s material appears to be wood, which softens the overall appearance of the carriage and offering a “natural” material element.


The obvious purpose for Straub’s moquette was to enhance London public transportation vehicles with a more physically and visually comfortable interior textile that simultaneously offered affordability, durability, and was more or less aesthetically neutral or inoffensive.

Straub had to imagine an abstract textile that would be a welcoming/ relatively agreeable background to the daily commute of millions of people with diverse backgrounds, and one largely bereft of any one symbolic interpretation.

Cleverly, I think, she designed a pattern that generates an illusion of larger shapes when viewed/ taken in at a (slight) distance, and one that seems to scale itself appropriately (the individual shapes, mostly rectangles, are smaller) up close. While the pattern is busy and the colors (mostly blue with a bit of dark green) highly absorbent, it doesn’t feel visually aggressive, and in fact, may offer some calm or respite to tired folks on their way to or from work. I think we can all identify with that feeling of being exhausted on public transit at the end of a long day; before we had personal distraction gadgets and mini-computers with us at all times– and even now that we do– you may find your eyes glazing over and resting, disengaged, on that one unoccupied patch of fabric between the two people sitting across from you (if you’re lucky enough to be seated).

Symbolically, at least in Western culture, blue has many connotations (including sadness and depression) but– recalling such vast open spaces as the sky and the ocean– blue tends to be seen as a calming, soothing, even cooling colour. It also symbolizes “trust, security, and authority” (What Colors Mean in Other Cultures, accessed 26 April 2018), which would have been desirable from the point of view of an ever-growing transportation company, on which millions of people depend every day to get to the source of their livelihood. Green is another color that tends to offer calm and respite, particularly in an urban environment, as it typically recalls nature, things that grow and breather.

Research point

  • Christian Boltanski’s Personnes, 2010 (Grand Palais, Paris)

    • Art or design – Christian Boltanski “(born 1944) is a French sculptor, photographer, painter and film maker, most well known for his photography installations and contemporary French Conceptual style” (Tate,, accessed April 30, 2018). We also know/experience it as art because of context: the Grand Palais is one of Paris’ best-known art museums, with an especially large, sky-lit space capable of housing large-scale works/installations.
    • Temporary or permanent – Personnes was on display at the Grand Palais in 2010, between 13 January and 21 February. 
    • Large-scale or small-scale – The piece is meant to be immersive; something you’re not standing in front of, but specifically inside. He deliberately sought out to explore the notions of destiny (for those who believe in God) and/or chance (for those who don’t), and the “finger of God” which acts upon our lives in ways we often can’t explain or understand. He wanted to create an experience that visitors inhabit temporarily: a cold place, “a place to die,” as he says in Vernissage TV’s “Interview with Christian Boltanski” (, accessed 30 April 2018).
    • Transforming and/or defining and/or forming – While the space is fully formed and architecturally beautiful on its own, it is transformed every time a (“monumental”, in this case, and so meant to fill the large interior space) work of art or exhibition is shown there. In the case of Personnes, the space is visually, tonally and experimentally transformed by the placement, on the floor, of rows of square-shaped piles of discarded/unworn clothing. People walk along aisles between these piles toward an immense mountain of the same, whereby a giant mechanical claw– attached to some kind of crane– reaches down into the pile and scoops up a “handful” of empty clothes, raising them toward the sky and then releasing them to fall back down. The fullness of the visitor’s experience (the deliberate cold, the inspiration of a mosque, the play between destiny and chance, the audible recording of 400 heartbeats) is defining, too: it’s all part of the work and artist’s intention, as he explains in the video below.
    • Immersive (especially) and/or distant – This experience is intentionally immersive: one can only experience it fully by going inside it. At the same time, it is possible to get a (visual and tonal) sense of it from a distance, as I am now, via my prior knowledge of the space, online images, videos and interviews with the artist.
    • Pattern and/or colour and/or repetition and/or shape  – While the material comprising this piece is (loads of unworn, presumably discarded/used) clothing, of many colours (based on the images and videos), colour doesn’t cast a very strong impression in this piece, as it is tonally quite somber and the individual garments are so small compared to the scale of the work/shapes they collectively form. The repetition of large “squares”, formed by pieces of clothing and organized to form a kind of grid, in addition to the repetitive, rhythmic nature of the audible environment (recordings of some 400 human heartbeats), is a part of the experience, I think, perhaps recalling the repetitive way we carry on in our day to day until the “finger of God” chooses you, acts upon you inexplicably, defines your fate in one way or another. Shape, here, is also significant, as the above-mentioned textile squares are meant to be suggestive of prayer carpets laid out in a mosque, leading “worshippers” along the rows toward the work’s “culmination”: a great mountain of clothing upon which the “finger (more like claws, in this work) of God” is operating, lifting high and then dropping great, seemingly random swathes of clothes.

Reading: “Christian Boltanski: Personnes” [accessed 1 May 2018]


  1. In addition to the garments, the noise of heartbeats permeates the exhibition. Why might this be? Boltanski is a collector of (recordings of) human heartbeats, and seems interested in how “proof” of human life can be conserved while life itself is finite. I think he’s interested in exposing the logical irony of our attachments to things and people. And I think he wants to transform our experience of the garments. Obviously, clothes are designed to be worn by (living) people. We are accustomed to seeing “uninhabited” clothing in a limited number of contexts: neatly hung on hangers or folded on shelves in a retail shop; perhaps blowing in the wind on a clothesline; in a closet, strewn across a chair in your bedroom, cast onto the floor at the end of a long day. All of these contexts suggest potential or current use by the living. Boltanski’s piece, composed of uninhabited clothing totally de- or re-contextualized, suggests former use by the now-deceased. The audible heartbeats in the face of these at-once orderly and chaotic, mass quantities of discarded, well-worn but uninhabited womens’, mens’ and childrens’ clothing connote a memory of life/lives that is/are no longer. The audible heartbeats in a curated space that is otherwise empty of vital energy direct the viewer’s experience of the clothing as something emptied of human experience. As if we’re in a room surrounded by ghosts.
  2. To what extent are the textiles transformed into something other than fabric? Insofar as the textiles become a metaphor for (the fragility/brevity/chance aspect of expired) human life, the textiles become stand-ins for both (collective) memory and the trace/mark left by individuals.
  3. What’s the significance of the installation title– and of the mechanical grabber? The word “personne” in French has dual meaning. It can at once refer to any person or people (la personne or les personnes) but is more often used alone to indicate nobody (personne). I think Boltanski is making a reference to the fact that we begin our lives on specific individual terms: we’re born to specific people, we’re given a specific name, we live within a specific set of circumstances. Ultimately, though, time– in particular, the certainty of eventual death– has a generalizing effect on our movement through the world. Though specific people may love, remember or honour us after we die, we ultimately fall into a category of “forgotten”, or at least less specific, identity. On a large scale, an individual’s “footprint” (with a few exceptions, of course) becomes blurred by the fact that s/he is one of millions more. The mechanical grabber heightens this sense of ultimate anonymity; although Boltanski says the grabber represents for him the “finger of God,” its representation suggests that, for Boltanski, God is perhaps not particularly benevolent, acting inexplicably or randomly upon (grabbing at, with no sense of consequence) our lives. Indeed, Boltanski owns that he believes not in God (or destiny) but in “chance” (which is French for luck, and it’s not clear here if the English or French sense of the word is more apt), and which suggests not that the “fingers of God” act willingly, but totally without thought or concern.
  4. What associations does this work conjure up in your mind? I find this work extremely moving and powerful, but sad and not very hopeful. It seems to suggest that we’re all cogs in a great machine; that God, if S/He exists, is detached or unfair or unkind, or at least acts in a way that is beyond human comprehension; that we move through our very finite lives experiencing all kinds of feelings and love and attachment for other people, only to be confronted by great loss and cruelty, only to find that our individuality is ultimately absorbed by the collective. This could be seen as good or bad, if those terms have any relevance in the greater scheme of things, which is certainly what this work addresses. In the same way that the work’s scope is monumental, so, too, is the message it conveys and the themes it plays off. I guess one can choose to find beauty and/or hope in this; I think its a work that must also be deeply informed by subjective experience. Today, I experience it as sad: as a reminder that nothing is lasting, that ultimately we control very little of our lives. It’s not that I disagree with either of these statements, but that this work seems to present them in a way that is particularly dark.








2 thoughts on “Project 3 – Clouds and Pillars”

  1. […] to my entries on Zoe Pawlak, Project 3 (see my post on textile shelters and the one exploring how different artists and makers use textiles in design and art), and my (neutral, but thoroughly examined) feelings about the work of Christo and […]


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