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Turning engineering into art: the heart of passionate design

Fabric Structures, Feature, Industry News, Management, Perspective | July 1, 2013 | By:

Nic Goldsmith uses his architectural vision to design innovative fabric structures.

“I think there are a lot of areas where fabric technology could be applied and it’s not,” says Nic Goldsmith, FAIA, LEED, AP, senior principal of FTL Design and Engineering Studio in New York, N.Y. “Part of my role as an innovator is to show the way—especially at this point, having done it for so many years. What are the next steps? Where can we go from here?”

Innovation is part of the DNA of FTL, which includes the first photovoltaic tent structure for the Smithsonian, the first steel cable net and wood structure in North America, the first integrated glass curtain wall system with fabric shading for the Phoenix library, the first deployable concert hall for the Metropolitan Opera and the first deployable airlock for NASA.

Goldsmith began innovating fabric structures while attending Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., when he and some classmates created E-Z Builders, a firm designing and building pavilions for festivals at the university’s quad. The group built the structures on the floor of the university’s gym after hours. “We did a concert pavilion for a summer concert series in 1972 for Deep Purple and ZZ Top,” Goldsmith says. “The series ended up being canceled because of riots, but we learned a lot about how to build these types of structures and how they related to performance.” Much of what Goldsmith learned, he and the FTL team have applied to current FTL-designed music pavilions, including the one used for PBS’s Memorial Day Concert and A Capital Fourth.

Alternative design

Influenced by the counter culture of the 1970s, as well as the work of several accomplished and innovative architects—including Buckminster Fuller, Félix Candela, Pier Luigi Nervi and Frei Otto—Goldsmith was inspired to look at space and structure in a different way than with more traditional rectangular spaces. “At that time the entire culture was in sort of an upheaval and transition about alternative lifestyles, alternative energy—alternative everything,” he says. “And I started thinking about alternative architecture and how you could build with a minimal footprint on the land.”

After graduating, Goldsmith traveled to Germany to work with and learn from architect and structural engineer Frei Otto. “The experience was a real eye-opener for me,” Goldsmith says. “Otto’s groundbreaking work in the 1960s took tents from being traditional circus tents to structures using fabric as three-dimensional structural elements under pre-stress.” Goldsmith worked at the Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart, founded by Otto, then at Otto’s private atelier.

In 1978 Goldsmith returned to the United States and joined his former classmate Todd Dalland to develop what is now FTL Studios (then called Future Tents Ltd.). The two began by designing rental tent systems, including a series of structures for Anchor Tents, Evansville, Ind. After coming up with about 30 different design options, they created the first tensile structure rental system in the U.S. (the Anchor Mod), which they later modified to become the Anchor Century® Tent System.

FTL soon expanded to include designing and building custom structures. “Now we’re a design engineering consulting firm,” Goldsmith says. “We do form finding, patterning, analysis and architectural design if that’s what’s wanted. We can take something from a blank piece of paper and develop a design from nothing, or we can work with architects or manufacturers from concept design and develop it through to construction drawings. What we bring to the table is a seamless mix of design and engineering.”

That idea of turning engineering into art is at the heart of Goldsmith’s passion for design, and as he approaches each project he asks himself: What can we create that’s unique, and what can we learn from the process? Among the lessons Goldsmith learned from Otto are two that are central to his design process—how to perceive the ways in which structural elements interact with each other, and the notion of form-finding through physical modeling.

Essence of a structure

Taking a step back to view a project first from its most stripped-down version before adding elements helps clarify the design as Goldsmith works through the process. “Let’s say we are doing something with tree structures,” he says. “[Otto] would step back and say to me: ‘How does one tree want to be?’ And we would look at that tree. Then we would ask how two trees would go together. And if we had three—or six or ten—what type of geometry would join them together? Starting from the kernel of nature and working your way out gives the design strength, and it helps you focus on what it is you’re trying to do. It also helps you see what parts of the design might not really be necessary.”

Form-finding through physical modeling is the other great lesson Goldsmith acquired from Otto. Much like the envisioning process, Goldsmith uses physical modeling to move from a crude design to a more refined version. “You don’t just come up with a design and make a model of it,” he says. “You start with a very crude structural model and when you start seeing its form, you develop finer and finer versions—and the design starts to coalesce. The physical models are wayfinding design tools to take you through the process.”

Collaborative input

The design process is collaborative, including clients (architects or manufacturers) and the FTL staff. “It’s important that everyone is involved with the design,” Goldsmith says. “There are a lot of things that each person knows and can add—and there is never just one right answer.”

As the group works through the design process, they typically come up with two options for the client—a far cry from the 30 options offered to Anchor for its tensile structure rental system when FTL was starting out. “Generally I don’t like to offer too many options,” Goldsmith says. “It’s been my experience that if you have two alternatives, people are able to make choices, but if you have more than that, it can be confusing. You need to prescreen options with the design team so you can narrow it down to two really different and viable options—either of which you’d be happy with. Then you explain the pros and cons of each and get input from the client and it changes once again.”

As Goldsmith works with his team on a project’s design, he never loses sight of the end product and what it can do. “The spaces underneath fabric structures are very different from conventional spaces,” he says. “Fabric structures can be very transformative.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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