A group of select architects – and one engineer – gathered at Islington’s Business Design Centre last night to debate whether architecture is ‘more than skin deep’.
The event, organised by the NLA as part of the Surface Design Show, pitched Mae Architects’ Alex Ely against Roz Barr of Roz Barr Architects, Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates Architects, AKTII’s Hanif Kara, Lynch Architects’ Patrick Lynch and Claire Wright of Wright & Wright.
Each contributor was asked to justify or expand on selected words and phrases chosen their own websites. Ely chose to turn the main thesis on its head and speculate on what an architecture which was only skin deep might look like. Ely referred to what he branded as the ‘risible’ Starter Home Design Guide, with its ‘banal’ elevations that reveal how short government’s vision is of good architecture, or how it can add value. Successful architecture by contrast included elements like good levels of light, flexibility, robustness, environmental efficiency and private amenity. It was ‘architecture that was easy to live in’, and which enhances culture and society’ – much more than skin deep.
Roz Barr said her practice’s role was more than just architectural designers, doing more than just facades, but acting as ‘detectives’ in exploring and digging back into the history of sites in a bid to ‘start the narrative’.
For Rab Bennetts his ‘light bulb moment’ occurred when the practice realised it could design to achieve good natural light, with high thermal mass, natural ventilation, solar control and so on but with the realisation that mechanical services were not needed at all. The structure of the envelope was doing the job, with the pursuit of sustainability about design excellence. But he warned against a growth in ‘globalised buildings’ that look the same all across the world, rather than those designed to respond to their contexts.
Hanif Kara reacted to the quote chosen: ‘a nebulous yet visible centre, but edges which constantly expand, contract and adapt: we swarm around change’, saying it resonated with what the engineer does. Patrick Lynch showed images from the practice’s Victoria Street residential project, whose stone ‘skin’ acts as a clothes-like moderation to the physical environment and ‘psychological buffer’. ‘The skin of a building isn’t just a surface, said Lynch. ‘It’s a territory in its own right.’ But one problem is a split between architects who can do facades, and those who can do what lies behind them; make a plan work. Kara added that ‘thin slicing’ had left many architects simply as image directors, to which the industry must respond, while Bennetts said the split was between the stylists and those who can deliver.
Claire Wright said her buildings are ‘skin deep’, but that the DNA of a building is in the skin and that is on both the inside and the outside. ‘We like the idea that it is like an old coat’, she said. ‘When it’s 20 years old it feels right and smells right and we just love it to bits. We make buildings in a way we hope will pass down from generation to generation. We get real joy out of that tactile quality, which is about the skin and defines everything else about the building, including the structure’.
By David Taylor, Editor, New London Architecture