Spatiality in Tensile Structures


S.L.M.C. Titotto, Arq.

School of Architecture and Town Planning, University of Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil.





The installations presented aim a recognized dialogue between landscape and the body.  This work outlines results of an ongoing investigation on aesthetics, using tensile structures as physical support and point of departure spatial reflections. Practical results transit on the borderline between fine arts, architecture and structural engineering.


In this context, several artistic installations have been performed in Sao Paulo museums and galleries, in order to explore the intrinsic relationships between the technology of the membrane structural systems and the aesthetic possibilities open by their characteristic forms, interacting with light, color, textures, movement and environment.


Some contemporary art concepts are embodied in the installations produced within the research, such as environmental questioning as part of the design repertoire, adequateness to contemporary culture and full sensorial interaction between oeuvre and observers, besides balanced and harmonic broadening of sensitive knowledge.

1. Questions for Installations Analysis

“Installation art has always been for me that kind of vivid experience; part physical poetry, part intellectual conundrum, something that transforms empty space into a vigorous place of encounter and thought.” Suvan Geer [1]

A theoretical basis has already been presented in [2], where Gestalt, semiotics and other analytical concepts of visual expression have been applied to membrane morphology and structural behavior, and how that can bring out symbolisms and interpretations. Now, the research proceeds to evaluate how the spatial and aesthetic properties of experimental membrane installations are able to provoke sensations, feelings and poetic experience on observers and bystanders.


The installations, performances and sculptures discussed in this paper work along biological identities, creating aesthetic constructions that, at first sight, seek seducing with their organic character. The creations intend to involve viewer’s senses: sight, touch, and on occasion, smell and hearing.


The installations experimented are aimed not just to occupy their sites but also to use them to generate meaning [3]. It is proposed a continued exercise of perception [4], creating corporeal formations that work as puzzles, that our perception will put together to find various references, restating the notion that, in abstract art works, the artist uses media to play with “association tendencies” in the observer’ s mind.

In the discussed works, a fundamental role is played by the anticlastic membrane or cables  surfaces, creating relationships and oppositions—weight v. lightness; inside v. outside; transparency v. opacity. Besides this, the body reference appears in those works as a challenge; working with the corporeal nature of emotional states, of psychological processes and sensations.


It is also found a Gestalt meaning related to fundamental structures in the corporeal character of the conceived shapes [5], especially when the overall design means more than the addition of all the separate parts of the structure. The best shape in a visual perception context was aimed as well.


Yet there is another significant element to be understood in relation to philosophical and scientific interests concerning membrane installations, according to the art critic Lisbeth Rebollo. It is the element of time.


The historian Arnold Hauser noted that in art, time is also the way for us to get in touch with our own memories, with our spiritual life. A work of art exists in time and is caused by time, as much from the point of view of the artist who creates it as from that of the viewer who watches and experiences it.


As things happen in time, time is mobility. For Bergson, time is new at every point; it is a continued process, but also the conservation of accumulated experiences.


All the works discussed in this paper had a short limited time to be performed or exhibited. Even when they stay longer in a site, as time goes on, the fabric tends to acquire another spatial configuration, due to internal forces and visitors interaction, which occasionally ends up destroying the installations. In all installations, the materials (Lycra tulle, Supple, Spandex, among others) were clearly more in danger of being harmed by the viewer than the reverse.


The central concern of these works has been the exploration of the weight and resistance of materials, their elastic capacity stretched to the limit. All the sculptures produced served as bodies in a constant flow of transformation.


Therefore, the only captions of the exhibition moments are in photography or video. In short, time in the presented works is transitory, in-process time; it is an accumulative kind of time, which remains in permanent transformation and substantive re-signification.

2. Installation Art, Performances and Sculptures

2.1 Le Corbusier



Figure 1. Performances in urban spaces, by Silvia Titotto and Rafael Suriani, 2002


The idea came out from a proposal to translate city planning concepts of the famous architect Le Corbusier. It was decided to criticize him by showing that when people are inside his proposed Cartesian urban plans, they do not work, they fail, because humans deform them, they cannot be adjusted to simple regular geometric plans.


Lycra fabric was used to build an abstract reticular plan to be deformed and it was first performed at “Museu da America Latina” (Latin American Art Museum), a building conceived by Oscar Niemeyer where many of Le Corbusier ideas are followed.


The same worries in limits, contours, and borders, and the same interest in the malleability and permeability of materials, spaces, and bodies, are reflected in the artists’ decision to exhibit this oeuvre in other urban spaces, such as the University of Sao Paulo and degraded downtown areas.


With this gesture, the contact surface between the museum and other institutions is expanded, between performance and ritual, between the imaginary and the real, stretching to its limits the membrane that separates the work of art from daily life.


2.2 Invasion












Figure 2. Invasion at Casa Z (House Z). Bathroom installation, by Silvia Titotto, 2003


This installation is part of an event occurred at Casa Z (House Z) with artists chosen by the curator Carlos Zibel. Each of them was supposed to “invade” a room of the arts centre. 

To enter it (which is Zibel’s home as well), one crawls through a small aperture, due to a rip on a blue spandex fabric. The visitors are supposed to walk through this narrow passage, using hands to open up the space in order to advance. This narrow passage leads us to a point where there is only a toilet flush/bowl, from where people can be partially seen in an intimate moment.

It intended to be a true interactive oeuvre, because nobody knew for sure what the visitors’ reaction would be. There was no other toilet on ground floor, which was the “public area” of the house. They might look for another toilet upstairs, invading the house “private/intimate area” or they might use the room normally and be able to be observed.


Thus, what might be akin to exploring a cave, assumes the sensation of being observed and invaded by curious eyes from outside. This adds to the potential discomfort of the experience.

It is a space where the body of a standing/sit person could fit.


There might be an erotic charge in this installation, but the role of desire and sexuality should be highlighted as forces that drive the artist’s creative gesture. What played a major role in this work, though, was discussing how far artists might interfere in visitors’ intimacy in an art exhibition, provoking bystanders’ unexpected reactions.


2.3 Ghosts in Sherwood













Figure 3. ‘Ghosts in Sharewood’ by Silvia Titotto, 2003


Three sculptural works which flow together as one complete installation that transforms the space as a whole. It was aimed to be established as an environmental sculpture made of Lycra tulle.

This installation extends the notion of reality to bodies and sensations intermingling, which invites the observers to the interactivity, facing the possibility that visitors enter the oeuvre and explore its passageways.


2.4 Monument to the Futile Form II

The membrane fills the tensegrity simplex structure, nevertheless a distinct structure, with perceivable, finite dimensions. It is spatially engaging but plays on the sense of confinement. This sculpture is an example of attempting to sculpt organic forms, but to establish a process that possesses organic relationship.



Figure 4. ‘Monument to the Futile Form II’, by R.Pauletti, S.Titotto and T. Deifeld, 2003


The colours were not chosen by chance either. For the architect Rietveld, the primary colours contribute, as signs, evidently to the communication of stability of the structure. All the colours of this sculpture obey the dogma of DE STIJL, as dictated by its founder, Theo van Doesburg and members like Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck and others, that is the exclusive colours to be used should be red, blue, yellow or black, grey and white.


In abstract real painting primary colours, imply colour in its most basic aspect, as it was for the painter Mondrian. Primary color thus appears relative - the principal thing is for colour to be free of individuality and individual sensations, and to give expression only to the serene emotion of the universal.


According to semiotic principles, colours also have meanings. In this sculpture, the three sticks are yellow, indicating the truncation of their virtual extension on the three space axes into endlessness. The membrane inside it is red, a colour indicating verticality, aggressiveness and the masculine and the missing primary colour is blue, a colour associated with horizontally, passivity and the feminine.


According to curator Moacir dos Anjos, instead of looking for the establishment of compositive relationships among different materials –obtaining from them an “order” or rigid “constructive principle”, membrane sculptures deny the interior of the shape or the existence of a unique vector, which organize them. Decentralizing their surfaces and volumes, they reach each other, through the minimalism concepts of sculptural composition without hierarchies.


2.5 Intervention


Intervention was intended to be seen an organic continuation of the body. The work’s aesthetic discourse seeks to generate a full body-and-soul experience in its receptor. It is intended that visitors feel sensuality of its form, the fragility and delicate nature of the membrane that envelops the space-organism, its biomorphism, leading to ponder human nature.



Figure 5. Intervention at Casa Z (House Z) by Silvia Titotto, 2003


There is also the connotation of attempting to re-enter the womb, a physical impossibility for which we create substitutes like homes. It might have a link with the image of an underground cave, a uterus, an organ filled with life’s pulses.


Intervention proposes a space that is both internal and external, not only because of its permeability and because of transparency. Both spatial realities intertwine in the curves that bring intimations of the external space to the structure’s center, as parentheses allowing the insertion of the outside into the inside. An invisible film seems to define and limit this habitat as a membrane.


2.6 Selenitas




Figure 6. Selenitas 01/02, by Silvia Titotto and Jung Y. Chi, 2004


This installation shows a departure from his earlier exploration of intricately interwoven, soft organic forms, culminating in large lamp shapes. Passing through the room one notices the ways its surface cast various tonal shadows on the neutral material; illumination from the lamplights calls attention to the translucency of the material. The initial experience is as if passing through a cavernous space complete with stalactite formations.


There are two openings in each lamp; each one essentially leads to another part of the installation, it means a very subtle line between “above and below”. This double opening makes for an unavoidable fallopian experience: to pass through the gate is more than moving through a tunnel.


This installation offers experiences that are similar, yet inverted. It may be installed up side down, creating very different effects. This question appears as mysterious spaces; unveiling their meaning was a major concern due to its meditation requirement.

In this installation, a variety of situations was aimed to be created for visitors to experience, as they move through it in many suggested directions, for instance, playing with their perception of time when get into the sculpture space.


While “Selenitas”, for instance, permit the visitor permanence in the work and the simultaneous sensitive contact between interior and exterior through the transparent tulle fabric, in other works, as “Monument to Futile Form II” the visitor is isolated from what is inside the sculpture.


In each of these pieces, sculpture-installations to be seen and be also physically occupied and inhabited, when produced with wide dimensions, it is reaffirmed the interest in interstices, contact zones, deformations that result from the encounter of two bodies or two surfaces.

2.7 Webs

a b c

Figure 7.a Structure death, Silvia Titotto, 2004. 7.b, 7.c Web, Silvia Titotto and Jung Chi, 2004.


These works are results of an ongoing investigation on aesthetics in the artificial nature, using spider webs as physical support and point of departure for spatial reflections.


The visitors who aim to go through the artwork passages made of flexible threads might have the possibility of feeling of being integrated to the oeuvre, while they are exploring it.

The structural threads running from the outside of the web to the centre provide great firmness, while the catching threads running around the structural threads ensure the necessary flexibility. All natural structures must resist the physical forces of tension and compression. To adapt and increase efficiency, natural forms prefer tension members because compression members have a propensity to buckle.


The material translucency aggregates subtleness values to the web, which is more or less intense all along the porches, depending on the thread quantity.


3. Discussion


The works presented aim a recognized dialogue between landscape and the body.  While each of exhibitions has changed sufficiently to keep momentum of an ongoing evolution in technique and ambition (in the beginning there were only academic aims in the experiments) there has been a thematic and visual logic throughout artistic permutations, in a concise repertoire.


The shapes are conceived with the purpose to immediately surround and affect the observers. Slowly, after an approximation to the shape’s corporeal character, one should be able to identify a new situation and at the same time familiar. A careful exploration of each piece might awake various memories as moving through the piece’s interior and engaging senses.


The visualization of shapes drives us to a labour of Gestalt structuring. The effect of the material used, of its translucency, is to activate our sense of touch. All of this might bring forth memories, influencing our physical and mental state.


Instead of adopting a prospective method of creation, as other sculptors do, in which the work passes from the sketch to the models as a routine, an undissociable element of the creative process is assumed, the lack of knowledge of the exact result surging in the space or standing on the ground. Even when the oeuvre is drawed before its construction, it is more due to have a clear intention than a projection to be exactly followed.


Those sculptures are a result of a negotiated construction, step-by-step, site specific, with each of the successive steps of building up and of observers’ expectations. It is assumed the permission of a gradual lost of the rigid control of the constructive aims, letting the materials negotiate among them to occupy the sight and accommodate to space, just like the artist Ernesto Neto does [NET00]. This way, the artist is less in a position of creator of definite shapes and more as an agent of different forces in conflict, from where hollows and shapes result.


3. Acknowledgments

Thanks to FAPESP for supporting this research.


4. References

[1] GEER, Suvan. Art Scene article n. 0104: Articles2004/Articles0104/SGeer0104.html

[2] TITOTTO, S.L.M.C. ; et al. “Tensile Structures: Form and function relationships”. Textile Composites and Inflatable Structures. E. Oñate and B. Kröpling (Eds). Barcelona: CIMNE, p.386-391, 2003.


[3] Pareyson, Luigi. Problemas da estética. São Paulo: Editora Bisordi, 1983.


[4] Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.


[5] Arnheim, Rudolf. The Dynamics of Architectural Form. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.


[6] NETO, Ernesto. Ernesto Neto. Santa Fé: SITE Santa Fé, 2000.