Condom architecture

A team of Sydney-based designers are the pioneers behind an unusual proposal for encasing buildings with hi-tech sheaths. Jay Merrick unwraps 'condom architecture'

Picture, for a moment, the buildings you really loathe – the ones you think are such a brutish affront to humane urban life that they should be flattened. The NatWest tower in London, perhaps? Or, if you want to think mendaciously big, what about the whole of the centre of Croydon? Now re-imagine them, but this time encased in giant condoms. You needn't be too shocked, because that's exactly what a trio of Australian-based high-tech architects called LAVA are proposing – and they've said the Barbican in London is a suitable case for treatment.

The idea of sheathed buildings is not entirely trivial. And the forms that LAVA, or the Laboratory for Visionary Architecture, are proposing raise fresh ambiguities about architectural causes and effects. Will buildings with high- tech skins make architecture an increasingly superficial experience; or are we seeing the first strange expressions of a new kind of environmental design? These designers are not just theorists. Led by Chris Bosse, and working with engineers, Arup, LAVA created the visually and technically advanced bubble-wrap that formed the weirdly cellulitic facades of the Water Cube at the Beijing Olympics. This is very much can-do technology.

Buckminster Fuller would have approved. Fuller – aka Bucky, or Trimtab – was probably one of modern architecture's flawed geniuses; a mid-century genius who invented the geodesic dome and foresaw the threat of industrialisation to nature decades before most, yet proposed solutions that required mass-produced and impractical metal structures. In 1968, the fabled engineer and "spaceship earth" philosopher announced his grandest hallucination: to enclose most of New York city under a geodesic dome a mile high and two miles in diameter – a bizarre precedent for The Truman Show.

In the 21st century, the prospect of living under giant bell jars seems charmingly retro. But the lust for unusual architectural envelopes is stronger than ever. The boredom of architects caught in a reasons-to-be-uncheerful world, coupled with the availability of increasingly sophisticated facade materials, means that even the profession's greats often seem submerged in a deathly ennui of subjugation to corporate clients. This has led to a quite literal rash of unusual architectural surfaces – buildings whose textured or graphic facades are out-and-out 3D artworks.

Some reveal extraordinary architectural virtuosity. The bulging diamonds of glass enveloping Herzog & de Meuron's Prada Epicenter in Tokyo, for example; or the lush and subtly astigmatic coloured striping of Sauerbruch Hutton's Brandhorst Museum, Munich; and Toyo Ito's Tod's store in Tokyo, whose asymmetric criss-crosses of concrete are supposed to mimic the elm trees in the street.

Chris Bosse and his partners at LAVA, Tobias Wallisser and Alexander Rieck, are taking this superficial game to another level, and one of their first proposals is to sheath the conveniently plug-ugly 1960s Broadway Tower at Sydney's University of Technology with a kind of high-tech negligee that glows in the dark – "a transparent cocoon", as Bosse puts it, "that acts as a high-performance micro-climate, generates energy with photovoltaic cells, collects rain water, improves day lighting and uses available convective energy to power the tower's natural ventilation". Architecture meets Christo. Ugly becomes iconic. Hazily seen architectural carbuncles become potential Turner Prize entries.

It's all very techie, of course. Bosse says the Broadway Tower could be wrapped in a three-dimensional lightweight and high performance composite mesh textile. "The surface tension of this material allows the membrane to stretch around walls and roof elements," he explains. "This achieves maximum visual impact with minimal material effort. The re-skinning technology could be easily applied to other buildings in need of a facelift, such as the Barbican Centre in London, and abandoned post-industrial buildings across Hong Kong. We can quickly and cheaply enhance their performance and aesthetics through this minimal intervention."

The technology of these skins allows some amazing forms to take shape, not least because Bosse's visions are descended from the original and most dramatic single use of tensile fabric – the 2002 Marsyas installation, whose stretched PVC sheath in Tate Modern's turbine hall was conceived by Anish Kapoor and co-designed with Cecil Balmond. Bosse has produced something equally spectacular called the Green Void, whose gloopy suction-cupped form fills the atrium space in Sydney's Customs House building. This stretched fabric installation, designed entirely on a computer, encloses 3,000 cubic metres of space.

But it's not all about sheaths or turning condominiums into architectural condomaximums. The quest for increasingly sophisticated facades – that extra effect which might make a building more valuable in environmental or corporate terms – has triggered an interesting project in Stuttgart. LAVA's design study for the zero-carbon LBBW company headquarters building proposes an exterior screen of thousands of circular photovoltaic discs, tipped at an angle to catch the most sun while shading the south-facing offices.

And it surely can't be long before some of LAVA's blue-sky research projects migrate into building skins or other architectural applications. Their recent Digital Origami installation demonstrated how 3,500 molecular shapes could be compacted to form an interesting, reef-like surface. Bearing in mind that the British designer Thomas Heatherwick proposed putting a hairy carapace onto a London building facade 13 years ago, it may not be very long before we see something very like these Digital Origami textures on the outside of a building.

Ultimately, though, it's one architectural skin in particular that will probably create splash-headlines for LAVA. Their facade design for the proposed Snowflake Tower in Dubai promises to take building skins away from condom metaphors and ugly building wraps into a potentially more significant realm. Covered in an array of "intelligent" skins, the 240m high buildings – currently being designed for an international developer – the Snowflake Tower is unashamedly meant to be a brandmark; but, more significantly, the high-tech facade will react to external environmental influences.

The key idea is that the structural organisation of the tower – which would look quite at home in 1970s Yes album cover artwork by Roger Dean – would mimic efficiencies found in both natural organisms and architecture. Instead of an array of individual elements, it's claimed that the building will behave like an organism or ecosystem, and its systems and skin would react to external influences like air pressure, temperature, humidity, air pollution and solar radiation.

"The architecture of the future," argues Bosse, "is not about the shape, but about the intelligence of the system. No building skin today approaches the performance of the biological world. The traditional curtain wall facade is passive, lacking the power to adjust to the fluctuating external environment. It should be able to intervene actively in the building's struggle to maintain its internal stability. Architecture has to perform as an ecosystem within the organic tissue of the city. There should be a unity between structure, space and architectural expression, similar to cathedrals, and any natural system."

How Buckminster Fuller would have loved that. What, though, will buildings like this do to our experience of places? If the super-objectified surface of a building is everything, won't it kill our interest in the more subtle qualities of place? It's true that if we look back in time, we find vivid facadism in all periods of architecture. But in the best cases, it makes sense in terms of the architecture as a whole, and the way buildings strike an intelligible relationship with their surroundings.

Unless visionary designers such as LAVA can create building skins that deliver quantum-jumps in environmental performance, their brand of high-tech architecture is at risk of becoming just as brilliant a curiosity as a battered, 37-year-old copy of Yes's most legendary album, Tales of Topographic Oceans.



For further reading: Hybrid Space: New Forms in Digital Architecture by Peter Zellner (Thames & Hudson)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor