30 September 2008

Skin or Veneer

One of the threads Rem Koolhaas weaves into Delirious New York is how the classic sky-scraping office building was an agent in the divorce between surface and interior, between the building's skin and its program. Stepping into a building ceased to be entering the building, and instead became passing through a gate into a program not revealed until you were standing in its midst. This, of course, was a given in the multi-use nature of such large structures.

What happened then, was that architecture was split into two components, program and skin. The interior of the building was designed to address a certain need. The exterior was designed to address another. These two needs did not necessarility have anything to do with each other.

This split has led to some very interesting pieces of architecture, by allowing much more room to play with the architectural skin. For instance, we currently have a spate of water-themed structures whose programs relate to wter in some way from people like Zheng Fang (the Beijing Water Cube) and Zaha Hadid (Ebro River Bridge Pavillion, 2012 Olympic Aquatic Center). These push the envelope of what architecture can be in very interesting ways. But what makes then interesting is that the divorce of program and skin has allowed them to find new ways to reestablish that connection, ways that might not have been thought of had that divorce not taken place.

But this split has also led to problems.

There is a great deal of architecture where the skin does not talk to the program of the interior. And as much architecture where the skin does not talk to the program of the surrounding urban landscape.

Thus a building may look beautiful (or at least masterful) on its own, but fail both its occupants and its context.

Nor does this divorce end at the skin. The past decade saw a spate of buildings with glorious atria, simply because the people handing out the awards had a thing about atriums. As a result, some buildings lost a third or more of their space to the skin of the building thrusting its was into the interior. For all the raves about the aesthetic quality, getting a third less building than you bargained for is not a win.

I won't name names, but I know of a college that built a new library so they could close down and renovate their old library. Unfortunately, and against the wishes of the library staff, the administration opted to build what was in effect an atrium with some office space around it. The librarians now have nicer offices, but the old library is still open and still in need of renovation because there is no place to move the books. Interestingly, in reading a retrospective of new architecture on the campus recently, the new library was not mentioned.

A huge atrium is just an attempt to expand the skin of a building into the building, usually at the cost of the program. Not all buildings are reception halls. One of the few places I have seen huge atria put to good use is in hotels where a complex and ornate entrace space houses reception areas, restaurants, bars, and services, all in a dynamic multilayered structure that can even find the time to feel initimate in places not in need of a sweeping vista.

So enough ramble. Points.

When designing a skin for a building, we don't want a veneer, we want a skin. It needs to breathe, interacting with its environment, and letting bits of it in as well as bits of what is inside out. It needs to appropriate house what is contained with in. Architectural design starts with the program. It is okay for the program to evolve in coordination with a skin that fits it, but it should not be forced to conform to a skin that does not. The skin can be echoed inside the building, but it should not dominate it.

Design for the next context up can perhaps be misinterpreted here. It is too easy to see the skin as the building and thus the context for the program, but it goes the other way. The skin, as is the building itself, is defined by the program. The program is designed by the social and economic forces that drive it. But the program, and the building, are also defined by the program of the physical structure (urban or not) around it.

Perhaps prt of the problem is that it is not a question of "context", but of "contexts". What are the next contexts up in the ladder? Are the commensurable.

For instance, the building can have multiple programs that may have conflicting needs that have to be resolved. A paper recycling plant using green architectural methods and sustainable resources. To the extent possible, the perfect pairing, but the recycling plant is still going to need heavy machinery and produce large (albeit both treatable and recyclable) waste flows.

The Hearst Tower in Manhattan takes such conflicts literally. While building a new building to meet their own needs, they also did not present another faceless glass tower to the street, instead letting it grow out of the original stone and steel building on the site. The atrium in the structure, though perhaps excessive, creates an intentional divide between the two programs, and, in effect, puts the tower on top of the old building instead of inside it. This gives the space of the old building a life it would not have if it were just a facade standing as the base of a new tower.

The idea of there being a single program, or a single solution, takes us back to the magick bullet. Things are much more complicated than that. But before this posting becomes a book, let's close with the following oversimplified diagram. I'm sure I'll find other reasons to harp on this topic later.

[Update: Wow, this essay is so totally a mishmash of thinly thought out threads poorly strung together. Oh well, what I get for using this as a journal of ideas ... I should go back to scrawling on paper first). It did, however, give me some good ideas that may show up in more focused commentary later.]

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