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Book review: Kinetic Architecture by Russell Fortmeyer & Charles D Linn

Energy is the driver behind innovative dynamic facades across the world, says Alan Dunlop

The front cover of Kinetic Architecture: Designs for Active Envelopes is intriguing. Is the image part of an alien spacecraft, an insect carapace or giant origami? Actually, it is a close-up of a sophisticated shading system for the Abu Dhabi Investment Council Headquarters by Aedas. The cover, like most other images in the book, is striking. Apparently, inspiration for the shading system was drawn from traditional shading screens, called mashrabiyas. These mashrabiyas open and close independently to minimise solar heat gain as the sun moves across the building. In summer, Abu Dhabi is beyond hot with temperatures of 45°C; in winter they drop to 12°C.

I tell students to be wary of buildings that shapeshift, for such sleight of hand often masks an absence of deep thinking about design. So just how important are active building envelopes in architecture today? Well, in his foreword, renowned architect Christoph Ingenhoven sees the building envelope as a third skin, having to be as protective as our own skin (our first skin) and as adaptable as our clothing (our second skin). ‘The skin is the most versatile organ of the human organism,’ he writes. ‘I want my facades to be just as adaptable and active.’

Be wary of buildings that shapeshift

Just what he means is explained inside by 1 Bligh Street, Sydney. The developers wanted the building by Architectus and Ingenhoven Architects to be the first  sustainable high-rise in Australia and to use the most advanced  environmental systems. The passive, double-wall façade of insulating inner glass and single-glazed outer glass with aerodynamic louvres is set out in detail, with diagrams and plans.

For the authors Russell Fortmeyer and Charles D Linn however, this book is not about buildings that move or clever façade design. It is about energy. They declare their motivation openly: ‘we are interested in the envelope and innovative ways it can be used to modulate energy in its primary forms.’ In this, they succeed. The book explores in a comprehensive and rigorous manner how contemporary architects have reacted to escalating international concern over the use of natural resources and climate change by modulating their designs to consume less energy, perform better and respond to site context.

The book has two sections, the first is a well-written essay by Linn, which considers the history and development of the glass facade in architecture, using the precedents of a few important projects like the 16th-century Hardwick Hall by Robert Smythson, Joseph Paxton’s greenhouse at Chatsworth and the Steiff toy factory in Germany, all supported by expert analysis. Linn is an architect and was, until recently, a senior editor at Architectural Record. His writing is accessible, jargon free and a pleasure to read.

His co-author, journalist and engineer Russell Fortmeyer, also writes well. His essay Tugendhat House: Passive Mies to Active Mies is included as ‘one of the earliest examples of a dynamic facade used to mediate environmental conditions.’ The coverage is enlightening, comprehensive and the photography excellent. Yet, as Linn points out, the book is not about history or theory: ‘We have written case studies of projects with active facades that react to exterior conditions for both energy savings and maintaining human comfort. These are from all over the world; many have not been documented outside their respective countries.’

These exemplar projects are set out clearly in the second section.The best offer stunning photography of environmentally exceptional buildings and clear details of how the buildings perform to reduce energy. The California Academy of Sciences by Renzo Piano is, for example, visually striking; its sustainable credentials are explained and supported by working drawings, sections and diagrams. So too is Unilever Haus in Hamburg by Behnisch Architekten. This uses an outer layer of synthetic polymer as a low-cost method of achieving a double-skin system to improve energy performance and create a building that has ‘re-energised the city’s waterfront’.

Moving to the other side of the world, the most interesting project from Australia is the Surry Hills Library and Community Centre by Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp. A small public building, it has exceptional detail and environmental credentials, with two very diff erent facades in response to site context and orientation. One has vertical timber louvres, which react to the position of the sun and minimise solar gain inside; away from direct sunlight, a doubleskinned glass facade over four storeys encloses an ‘environmental atrium’, which pulls air in from the roof, fi lters it through bamboo plants then into a gabion wall in the basement, which cools the air.

Kinetic Architecture is, as intended, a valuable resource for architects, engineers and students. This accessible, entertaining and pleasurable book with vexceptional photography, is cleverly aimed at both professionals and those with a general interest in architecture and the environment.

Alan Dunlop, director, Alan Dunlop Architects, professor, Scott Sutherland School of Architecture

‘Kinetic Architecture: Designs for Active Envelopes’, Russell Fortmeyer, Charles D_Linn, published by Images Group, 2013, 224 pages, £50

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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