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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)