Fabric structures through history

Fabric Roof Structures that companies like spatialstructures build now in some form stretch back thousands of years, to the Ice Age and simple tent dwellings composed of poles and dried hides. The first truly successful fabric structure was used by the nomadic peoples of Arabia, in the form of the black tent of the 8th century, and it’s still in use to this day.

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The Black Tent to the toldos

The black tent was an elaborate structure of cloth and poles, capable of giving shelter to many, and it was from these structures that ‘velum’ or ‘velarium’ developed, to provide shade at popular events, particularly the theatre. By the 19th century, fabric structures based on pre-tensioned cables were popular in Catalonia, in Spain. These were the toldos, used for decorative shelter at large events.

From the military to royalty

In the 1st century BC, leather tents were popular with the Roman legion, starting the long historical association between tents and the military. Yet it wasn’t until 1858 that an English army captain by the name of Godfrey Rhodes designed the now familiar field hospital. It was the first real evolution from the tent as a nomadic structure to a more formalised use.

Elaborate tented structures had become popular with royalty as early as the 12th century, and continued to develop in architectural splendour into the 16th century. The tented structures of the famous ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ in 1520 were probably the apotheosis of this trend.

Circuses and architecture

Though the first proper circus tent had been erected in the 1770s in London, the ‘Big Top’ was an invention of the 1830s. However, it was the development of the Stromeyer company in 1872 that was to have a profound impact on modern fabric structures. Developments in rope technology and suspension bridge architecture also played their part, and when V.G. Shukhov exhibited his structural engineering pavilion in 1896, modern tensile structures were born. It was a German architect, Frei Otto, who would drive forward the future for tensioned structures that would culminate the fabric architecture, such as that of the O2 Arena, which has become such a landmark around the world.

Where Shukhov’s structure was tension stabilised, F W Lanchester’s 1918 ‘air tent’ was pneumatically supported and this led directly to the development of the radome, made famous by the Birdair company.

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