Once, Salvador Dalí, talking with Le Corbusier, said that “Architecture should be soft and hairy.”
I want to go beyond the era of concrete. What people want is soft, warm, and humane architecture.
Hardness and softness are contrasting elements that coexist and cooperate in architecture. Architecture, by its nature, has a hard consistency. When we think of a building, the first image that comes to our minds is bricks, concrete, wood, or even stones. For example, ancient peoples – Greek, Romans, Egyptians – put all their efforts into creating solid and eternal constructions, made to last for ages. Many of those structures are still surviving nowadays, after thousands of years. Vitruvius called “firmness” this quality necessary to protect us from the elements.
Nevertheless, architecture can also be soft. Softness in architecture is a topic that is rarely discussed but can potentially change our society and the way we live radically. Softness can bring architecture closer to humans because it is more similar to us than hard architecture.
But what exactly means “soft architecture”? Once, Salvador Dalí, talking with Le Corbusier, said that “Architecture should be soft and hairy.” Softness is generally a feature of living organisms, in opposition to the hardness of inert materials such as rocks. For example, the organic and free-flowing architecture proposed by Antoni Gaudí, for example, was an attempt to soften the architectural structure - by its very nature rigid - with soft and curved shapes.
In his book “Soft Architecture Machine,” published in 1970, Nicholas Negroponte explored how architecture might become softer with the support of computers. In the same year - during Expo Osaka ’70 - Arata Isozaki introduced the concept of “soft architecture.” He intended to propose a new aesthetic - in opposition to the monumentality of the past - emphasizing the role of technology and the possibility of incorporating software in architecture.
“In 1970, solemnity and grandeur are already becoming things of the past. If anything is inspiring a new quality of wonder, it’s things that are subtle, precise, and complicated—things that are organized, uniformized and supported by macromolecules and electronic technologies. This is probably why the various facilities of Expo ‘70 are kinetic, mobile, mechanized, and integrated. In light of this, contemporary monuments ought not to be designed as things that emphasize physical objects, but as places that generate enormous events. (…) If devices that make full use of modern technology are effectively deployed, they unite people and machines in time and space. These dynamic wholes can reasonably be referred to as invisible monuments.”
According to Isozaki, technology has the power to turn in softness the hardness of architecture. Indefiniteness and ephemerality offered by the software take the place of the traditional firmitas of architecture.
Half a century later, the World Expo 2020 in Dubai became the occasion to talk again about soft architecture. Softness was at the center of two events organized at the Italian Pavilion and focused on i-Mesh. This innovative Italian material covered almost three kilometers of Expo’s routes.
A conference ("Soft Architecture. An adaptive process for urban regeneration in times of pandemic"), and the documentary film "Softness. I-Mesh, designing the city", focused on soft architecture as an “intelligent” strategy to face the future challenges of urban spaces.
The docu-film - created by Cristiana Colli and Francesca Molteni – includes contributions from renowned philosophers, sociologists, architects, and artists such as Kengo Kuma, Gabriele Mastrigli, Ico Migliore, Werner Sobek, Benedetta Tagliabue, Edoardo Tresoldi, and others. The film traces the history of i-Mesh, starting from its experience with sails, and showcases stimulating interviews and case studies related to thread and texture. The message conveyed is that "soft" materials are the perfect answer to a changing society needing adaptive, flexible, and transformable spaces.
Alberto Fiorenzi - founder of I-Mesh - has a broad experience in nautical design and believes in the power of curiosity: “Sea has always been a curiosity, a discovery, the thought of what is beyond the sea. I think that's what moves all sailors”.
Due to his closeness with the sea, he believes in a soft, recyclable, ventilated architecture. His friendship and professional collaboration with Cristiano Toraldo di Francia – co-founder of the radical and design firm Superstudio in the 1960s– brought him to develop deep research on softness.
Toraldo has always been interested in the softness of architecture rather than the hardness of technology. In 2017 he collaborated with Fiorenzi, creating an impressive tapestry to stimulate the debate on soft architecture.
In a recent interview, Fiorenzi explained his vision of softness and the role of i-Mesh. Versatility, beauty, comfort, elegance, and sustainability are the keywords to achieve a genuinely soft design. The shelters realized with this innovative material at the Expo Dubai, designed by Werner Sobek, are an intelligent example embracing this approach.
Dajla Riera – architect and Research Fellow of the University of Camerino – is one of the leading Italian scholars on this subject. In 2021 she edited the book entitled “Architettura Morbida”, containing extensive research and several case studies related to softness in architecture and urbanism.
According to Riera, “the term soft describes a process that starts from the quality of the materials, evokes new character traits, defines social strategies and systemic thinking models. It aims to trigger a new transdisciplinary and multi-scalar design approach, suitable for addressing contemporary urban complexities
and their continuous transformations.” The book is a precious manual to understand the meaning of softness in architecture. That is the adoption of materials and technologies to reconfigure our environment, centering on humans and their wellbeing.
This vision is not too far from traditional architecture in Asia. In his book “Kyokai”, Kuma mentioned the importance of transitional spaces in traditional Japanese architecture. Here, the layering created by soft and permeable partitions mediated between architecture and its natural context. This stratification of soft intermediate areas was flexible and reactive, thus supporting human life similar to a dress on a body.
Softness is a quality that comes from nature. It is the key to designing organic and sustainable cities, contributing to reconnecting people with the natural environment. “Softer, more feminine design is the future,” says Kengo Kuma.