There is a growing enthusiasm in both the profession and the academy (which rarely has a confluence of interest) in FACADES. Variably called building skins or envelopes, but often as in the ongoing AIA / Arch Newspaper conferences, ‘facades.’ Perhaps there is an intended irony using such an old-fashioned term for such new-fangled technological experimentation, but over all I suspect the earnestness of the endeavor reflects the earnestness of the use of the term.
As exciting as this field of facade studies is to the profession and academy, I feel there are two problematic issues with this rediscovery and emphasis on the facade that need to be discussed. Both of these issues reveal the utter lack of urban emphasis in the architectural profession.
For the most part, these contemporary facade studies are technological experiments with sustainability, with the ability of new curtainwall systems to maintain solar control over a building, to allow passive cooling or heating through new technologies of materials or automatic adjustments through computer sensors or inherent smart material properties. The field (if it can be called that) of facade tectonics is devoted to how these curtain walls are constructed, attached to the building, and most importantly, ‘perform.’ The performance of a facade relates to the particular goals of sustainability set up by the designers. The work on facades can be, not surprisingly, fetishistic, and often complex algorithms of parametric data create fanciful geometries of faceted building skin.
1. The first problematic issue is the misuse of the term itself, the misappropriation of the architecturally historical concept of ‘facade.’
Prior to modernism, for hundreds of years, facades were simply the “face” of a building. This face was a separately designed architectural feature. Its primary role was helping the building “face” the street, or the city. For this reason, it was the most urban part of a building, and, together with the facades of other buildings, created the identity of the street and public spaces. The faces “spoke” to each other in a virtual dialogue. I would argue that facades were therefore the intermediary between buildings and the traditional city, between private and public space. The facade occupied a space shared by both the building and the city. This sliver of architectural space, maybe a few feet wide, was an architecture unto itself, and many treatises and explorations of this space were created as part of larger architectural discourses.
Architects strove to find harmony, balance, proportion, and rhythm in not just the elements of their building facades, but in each facade’s contribution to overall street composition. Buildings were part of a larger ensemble of public space. Together the buildings formed an urban street facade in an analogous way that the pieces of the building frontage formed the composition of an architectural facade. Often this facade “spoke” to the city as to the program within. A bank facade and a market facade were often, conventionally, different, each conveying meaning.
None of this emphasis on the “face” of the building, or a semiotic reading of buildings as conveyers of cultural meaning, are present in the new use of the word ‘facade.’ Obviously modernism moved us beyond a point where historical styles could be meaningfully appropriated, and the shallow pretense of historical style in Post-Modernism showed the futility of such attempts. But modernism also focused on ‘elevations’ instead of facades. Buildings exteriors were seen as the result of internal forces of spatial design and programatic needs. Buildings were considered more as sculptures in the round with little regard to the need to reflect site, street or urban conditions, much less any notion of frontality. One particular side of a building was rarely emphasized over another. This history is well known and need not be repeated here.
2. The second problem for architecture reflected in the current emphasis on facades is that it can’t help but be understood as an architectural retreat. It is well lamented by architects that they feel further and further removed from a meaningful role in creating today’s built environment. Whole new communities (of mostly sprawl) are designed by builders and civil engineers without input from architects. When architects do design buildings, the general parameters of size and disposition are often dictated by zoning and parking requirements as well as owner demands. Contractually, the architect’s role is increasingly defined as a manager of information rather than as an author of design. In many ways architects have brought on this growing irrelevance themselves, particularly since the hubris of much late modernism and urban renewal.
So if architects certainly no longer build cities or even places within cities (as many did of course- see Berlage, Wagner, Stein, Saarinen, and countless others), and infrequently design buildings themselves, what is left? Why, facades of course! The focus on building skins, while certainly interesting and necessary, has become a sliver of fetishized architectural space defended by architects as their last bastion of relevance. Hence the websites, consultancies, courses, books, blogs, and conferences dedicated to this shallow space of architectural topicality.