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
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?