Is Architecture Actually a Form of Weaving?

Is architecture actually a form of weaving?
In Washington, D.C., at the corner of 15th Street N.W. and Constitution Avenue, the 380,000-square-foot new National Museum of African American History and Culture is designed to convey a weaving of culture and history.

David Adjaye is known for his innovative architectural designs. He integrates a wide array of influences into his own kind of modernism in projects as diverse as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—perhaps his most ambitious project to date—expected to be opened next year in Washington, D.C. So it may seem strange that a man celebrated for his buildings would also be curating an exhibition about fabric.

Adjaye is overseeing the newest installment of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s “Selects” series, which spotlights the little-known West African textiles in the museum’s permanent collection. The show spotlights 14 colorful cloths, caps and wraps from communities throughout Africa. It also offers the celebrated architect a chance to explore the surprising connections between textile making and building design.

“What’s interesting to me is this idea of fabric and weaving as a kind of abstraction of making places that people come together in,” he says.

Adjaye says that the overlap of these two disciplines has always fascinated him. He sees it as a way to understand architecture that was first explored by thinkers like 19th-century German architect Gottfried Semper in his influential work The Four Elements of Architecture. The book made the case that building one of the elements, enclosure, actually originated as textiles—first as interwoven grasses and branches, which gave way to woven screens and tapestries, before more solid walls served as dividers of space. []

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