In 1993, a Commentary in this journal described how a simple mechanical model of cell structure based on tensegrity architecture can help to explain how cell shape, movement and cytoskeletal mechanics are controlled, as well as how cells sense and respond to mechanical forces (J. Cell Sci. 104, 613-627). The cellular tensegrity model can now be revisited and placed in context of new advances in our understanding of cell structure, biological networks and mechanoregulation that have been made over the past decade. Recent work provides strong evidence to support the use of tensegrity by cells, and mathematical formulations of the model predict many aspects of cell behavior. In addition, development of the tensegrity theory and its translation into mathematical terms are beginning to allow us to define the relationship between mechanics and biochemistry at the molecular level and to attack the larger problem of biological complexity. Part I of this two-part article covers the evidence for cellular tensegrity at the molecular level and describes how this building system may provide a structural basis for the hierarchical organization of living systems--from molecule to organism. Part II, which focuses on how these structural networks influence information processing networks, appears in the next issue.