The Feminine in Special Structures

Architects Dated:  Aug. 13, 2015
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Structural Engineering, Design by Prof. Charanjit S Shah

For the purpose of this paper, ‘‘special structure’’ refers to innovative long-span structural systems, primarily roofs and enclosures to house human activities. Interestingly, special structures are highly inspired from nature, and the feminine aspect in their design is significant. It is in this context that the author looks at the inherent role of the feminine in special structures, whether it is coming from women or men.

In the current scenario of the Indian construction industry, it is challenging to build special structures, though also very creative and interesting. In this scenario, it is pertinent for women architects to take this opportunity to turn it into professional success.

The author is an architect, project manager and a tensile consultant from Germany. Though she is an established professional today, especially in the field of light weight and special structures, the journey has been long, at the same time full of challenges as well as opportunities. This paper looks at the significance of the feminine, and the opportunities open to women professionals in the field of special structures, and derives highly from her own experience.

Special structures:-

Special structures are landmarks and testimonials to the achievements of the structural engineering profession in combination with highly creative architecture. It is not easy to qualify the term special structure, and for the purpose of this paper, ‘‘special structure’’ refers to innovative long-span structural systems, primarily roofs and enclosures to house human activities. More specifically, they include many types of structures, such as: space frames or grids; cable-and-strut and tensegrity; air-supported or air-inflated; self-erecting and deployable; cable net; tension membrane; geodesic domes; folded plates; and thin shells. (Bradshaw, D., Gargari, Mirmiran, & Patrick, June, 2002). Most of these structures tend to be light-weight and come under the category of ‘form active surface systems’ or more commonly called ‘surface systems’. This  is a very relevant technology today as it enables large free spans to be covered in addition to creating aesthetically pleasing environs. Some of the famous special/ light-weight structures are shown in figures 1 to 4.

structures designFigure 1: Olympic stadium, Munich; Figure 2: ILEK, Stuttgart; Figure 3: Venezuela expo, Hannover; Figure 4: Eden garden, Cornwall

These are all spaces which have long free spans that are covered by light-weight roofs. The light-weight roofs (mostly tensile and tensegrity systems) not only achieve the main requirement of large free span, but also create highly aesthetic forms as well as visually exciting volumes.

The feminine nature:-

The curvilinear forms, the lightweight and the delicate aesthetics of special structures immediately give a feminine feeling to them.  This feminine quality is what gives this special sense of aesthetics and spatial quality to them.

Lightweight structures are highly inspired from nature, animate and inanimate. These structures are inspired from nature, not only in terms of form, but also the structural system, which is lightweight and extremely efficient. “To achieve more with less- that is the maxim of development in nature and in technology. To be stronger and at the same time lighter characterizes the common principle of lightweight structures”. (Frei Otto). Nature, or the feminine, is the very basis of special structures. We can find direct and indirect analogies in nature to lightweight structures. Some of the examples can be seen in figures 5 to 9.

Lightweight structuresFig. 5: Spider web; Figure 6: shell in nature; Figure 7: soap bubbles as formed in nature; Figure 8: complex webs; Fig. 9:tensile structure

Nature uses “Self-formation Processes” to create and to form everything. When objects form of their own accord, humans too can make direct use of the natural process.  (Otto & Rasch, 1995).  We use tools like “soap-films” or “hanging models” to emulate self-formation process of nature. In fact, to correctly and efficiently create lightweight structures, the form can be envisaged but cannot be decided by the designer, rather has to be determined through a process of form-finding. This methodology brings in the intuitive and the inherently efficient character of nature into the form and the structure.

Special structures have been much in use since more than 50 years in the western world, especially Germany. In the field of special structures, though it is quite limited, women too are making significant contribution. The author was fortunate enough to receive a job offer in 1990 from SL Rasch in Germany, who design and build Special and Lightweight Structures. At that time this was possible only in an advanced country like Germany, and only a huge amount of effort and persistence made this possible.  Some examples of special structures worked upon at that time are shown in figures 10 and 11.

special structuresFigure 10: Sliding Domes at the Prophet’s holy mosque; Figure 11: Folding umbrellas at the Prophet’s holy mosque, Medinah (Buero SL Rasch)

As is visible in these projects, the feminine aspects, which were contributed by both women and men architects, were an important aspect of the final design.  Unfortunately, the Indian construction industry was not ready for such high technology at that time.  At that period in time, the consultancy for special structures had not much scope in our country. However, that is not the case anymore as the awareness is fast spreading especially as a result of globalization and increasing foreign travel.

Indian scenario:-

Light weight or special structures are in its nascent stages in India. Considering the emerging requirements of flexible spaces for large congregations that would necessarily grow with rising public aspirations and social equity, it is only a matter of time before the world of special structures finds firm feet in the Indian architectural and urban landscape, and we may see large scale deployment of such structures in and around our cities, of which many could be expected to be of world standard. The technology is undoubtedly the relevant technology of today because of several reasons: the structures are light weight thus allowing for large free spans that are comparatively quick and easy to erect and may be collapsible/foldable besides being eco-friendly by saving material, causing minimal disruption to sites and surroundings during construction processes and most materials also being recyclable.  (Gupta, 2013)

In the current scenario of the construction industry, it is challenging to build special structures, though it is also very creative and interesting. The clients lack awareness about hi-tech structures.  They do not have trust in the capability of the Indian professional especially pertaining to technical know-how. This results in a tendency towards employment of foreign consultants when any superior technology is required, which is not yet commonly used in India.

To overcome these challenges, the professionals and consultants are required to go for specialised higher studies and qualifications which are not only expensive but also time consuming. International exposure which is an integral part for acquiring such knowledge requires long and expensive travels. Specialized and expensive software and staff are required, whereas the work is limited. The sum and substance of it is that the investment required in terms of time, effort, energy and finances is high, though the professional satisfaction thereof makes it worthwhile.

Generally it is seen that it is difficult for women to get an ingress into the traditionally male dominated field of building construction. Perhaps, it was historically so because of being a labour-intensive industry. However, the field of special structures, being hi-tech in nature, doesn’t have much of a tradition or history, and it provides the opportunity to all professionals to do research and get qualifications in the same. Also, as illustrated in this paper, lightweight structures are inherently feminine in nature, and more women architects are needed to come into this field. It seems like a perfect opportunity and timing for women to take up and establish their place in this domain.

The building of Tensile Structures has grown considerably in India in the last 10 years. It is a matter of pride that although there are only a handful of qualified people with sufficient technological know-how in India, a few of them, including the author, are indeed women. Some of the lightweight structures designed by the author are shown in figures 12 to 15.

Tensile StructuresFigure 12: weather shelter, Malta; Figure 13: café, outdoor seating; Figure 14: Flower show, Sikkim; Figure 15: School courtyard, Gurgaon

Final remarks:-

Special structures have an inherently feminine aesthetic with their curvilinear and free flowing forms. Women, with their intuitive and gentle approach to life, bring that aspect to the structures. But unfortunately, instead of becoming a plus point, that is often seen as negative. Masculine and feminine traits are inherently different. Men and women both have masculine and feminine qualities. Unfortunately, to be taken seriously in the profession and to be successful architects, women are expected to have strong masculine traits. What is needed instead is an acceptance and appreciation of the feminine traits, which have much to offer, adding softness, sensitivity and aesthetics to the otherwise highly technical architecture of special structures.

The professional achievements in the field of special structures, of a “woman architect”, who - despite many successes and even more failures - constantly attempts to take on situations, handle pressures, be it family or society,– are to be commended. This comes with a high level of knowledge, a great deal of resolve, passion and commitment towards the profession, and the ability to be firm, not to mention the multi-tasking abilities attributed particularly to women.

The anticipated emergence of this field presents new horizons for all specialists including the author. The focus now remains to encourage gender inclusivity in building construction. It is time that women professionals participate equally in the hi-tech building of our nation’s building infrastructure.  The author too looks forward to doing more works and enriching her experience further in the world of light-weight architecture both in research as well as the profession.


  • Bechthold, M. (2008). Innovative Surface Structures - Technologies and Applications. Abingdon: taylor and Francis.
  • Bradshaw, R., D., C., Gargari, M., Mirmiran, A., & Patrick, T. (June, 2002). Special Structures: Past, Present, and Future. Journal of Structural Engineering, 691- 709.
  • Gupta, D. (2013). A woman's tryst with tensile architecture. WIA Mahacon. Pune.
  • Masculine and Feminine qualities. (n.d.). Retrieved may 2015, from
  • Otto, F., & Rasch, B. (1995). Finding Form - towards an architecture of the minimal. Stuttgart: Axel Menges.
  • SL Rasch Special and Lightweight Structures GmbH, (n.d.). Engineering. Retrieved from SL Rasch Special and Lightweight Structures:

This paper is part of the WIA publication brought out at the Women in Architecture Conference organized jointly by the IIA Northern Chapter, SPA and SPA Alumni on June 06, 2015.

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