According to Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido, president of Chicago-based JAHN, contemporary facade design neglects one of the building envelope’s foremost responsibilities: storytelling. “There is a focus now on using the building massing to convey the key message,” he said. “However, I think it’s through the facade that we can bring a more compelling narrative about how the building functions.” As an example, Gonzalez-Pulido pointed to Mies van der Rohe’s One IBM Plaza, which he can see from his office. “When you look at the mechanical floors, they’re treated differently,” he said. “In the lobby, the glass is different. This is actually the responsibility of the facade—it’s more than a piece of glass and metal to cover the building.”
Gonzalez-Pulido, who will deliver the afternoon keynote at facades+ Chicago later this month, framed the problem in terms of lightness. “Lightness is not only a physical property but a metaphysical property,” he said. “There’s been a tendency of loading skins with unnecessary elements for the sake of aesthetics. The facade is regulating so many important things that we have to be more conscious of it. If we are, the impact of buildings on the urban environment will be much more positive than it has been.” Architects should take their cue from the automobile and aircraft industries, he said, and discard homogeneity in favor of innovative materials and assemblies.
The tendency toward standardization, Gonzalez-Pulido said, does not just have aesthetic consequences. It also sacrifices environmental performance. “It bothers me that buildings are so passive when the environment is changing constantly,” he said. “By facades being so mundane, as they are in a lot of buildings right now, we’re relying more on internal systems as opposed to the skin itself to really improve performance.” In the best-case scenario, the building envelope should facilitate “invisible acclimatization,” explained Gonzalez-Pulido, “creating ideal conditions of comfort and energy consumption without you being an active regulator or manipulator.”
One key to correcting the imbalance between form and function, Gonzalez-Pulido argued, is convincing clients that high-performance facades are worth the initial cost. “That’s part of the reason why we’re creating this very boring look to buildings, because clients are so aware of what it takes to make a building inexpensive,” he said. “They’re pushing architects to the cookie cutter. This is dangerous—we’re not inventing things, we’re trying with aesthetics to make a difference.” Luckily, some clients can be talked out of a preference for glass boxes. This is what happened at the Veer Towers in Las Vegas (2010), where JAHN convinced an initially skeptical MGM that external shades were essential in a desert environment. “This is a remarkable story of how we were able to turn around the destiny of a building in its context, through collaborative effort, integrated design, and a committed client,” Gonzalez-Pulido said.
Ultimately, it is up to architects to realize the building envelope’s full potential, Gonzalez-Pulido said. “Only if we push our boundaries, remove our preconceptions, and respond to the different context where we’re actually influencing through our design will we be able to make real progress,” he said. “It’s not just a technical question, but a moral question.”