Recently at the riba, Charles Jencks referred to Ecstatic Architecture as being 'concerned with expressing something about itself and inherently individualistic'. He quoted Bilbao's Guggenheim as 'a classic example of a building which performs nature - the hills, the water, the grey shifting sky - whose purpose is to induce euphoria'.
For whatever reason, I certainly notice from my students at Oxford Brookes and from my more well-informed colleagues a tendency to move away from the stiff, smooth skins of high-tech Modernism to a more tactile language. They use materials such as wire mesh and composites which can be moulded to shape for forming the building envelope. The gkd Catalogue (of metal mesh - see references) remains essential reading on most students' desks.
Similarly, the influence of Peter Zumptor cannot be denied. Images of the stacked-slate walls at the Vals Thermal Baths, the rainscreen glass walls at Bregenz and the strong timber boarding knitted into the old log Gugalun house at Versam, remind us that cladding materials can possess sensuous quality. In Zumptor's own words: 'If we succeed in this, materials in architecture can be made to shine and vibrate.'
In his Residential Home for the Elderly at Masam, the combination of exposed concrete, tufa and larchwood is intended to reflect the materials which would be recognised by the inhabitants from their own lives in the surrounding villages. The open pores of the tufa walls are strangely reminiscent of Smithson's stone specification at the Economist Building - still seen by many as one of the finest buildings in London, with its beautifully detailed, self-draining stone-clad frame which prevents the facade from staining and weathering.
This recognition of the need for a building's walls to respond to its orientation, to the effects of wind-driven rain, and for solar control, now makes the design of climatic facades a more complicated business and the use of cladding consultants ever-more important.
At its best, this new approach to facade engineering can lead to spectacular results, such as the facades of the International School at Lyons by Jourda and Perraudin, or the Singapore Arts Centre now under construction (architects mwp/dpa, consultant Atelier One). Here, two free-shaped, dome-like, space- frame shells with triangular-glazed panels form the two theatre halls. The individual and gradually changing orientation of the aluminium sunshades creates an organic image for the domes' surface, using 18 different typical shapes with varying angles of fold. All this would be impossible without computers to handle the geometry.
An even more complicated facade is proposed for the Melbourne Federation Square Arts Centre (architect Bates & Smart, consultant Atelier One) where the whole facade of stone, zinc and glass is composed around the principle of fractal geometry, which also reflects the plan of the building. When built, the facade will shimmer and glow with the sensuous and poetic quality that Zumptor suggests. Its construction draws inspiration from the Bercy Charenton Shopping Centre in Paris by Renzo Piano, where the convex facade follows the route to the Peripherique and where the complexity of form is cunningly solved: overlapping, stainless steel tiles act as an over cladding to the continuous weather surface below.
Such buildings show the potential of these new forms in architecture, which can be economical by using the minimum number of panel variants. But achieving this level of sophistication requires commitment - from designers, manufacturers, contractors and project managers. They have to believe such things are possible and worth the time in design-development and testing, which are always necessary for innovation.
With the necessary commitment by manufacturers, cladding development can also take place within conventional construction. After years of poor image, precast concrete cladding is now being rediscovered by architects like Sir Norman Foster & Partners for the J C Decaux warehouse, where insulated sandwich panels by Trent Concrete are claimed as the first major uk-use of what is called in the us 'hardwall' cladding.
In a recent newspaper article Sarah Wigglesworth was predicting the wider use of straw bales as a building material. Feilden Clegg Architects and Atelier One have investigated the use of reinforced mud walls for The Earth Centre. There is incredible interest by architects in terracotta rainscreen cladding, initially promoted by Renzo Piano for the ircam building in Paris, and now widely available as systems by Moding Argeton, Bardeau and Lockclad.
We are entering a new age of design and engineering of the building envelope. Phillip Ball, in his book Made to Measure (see below), describes prototypes of aeroplane fuselages which change their thickness according to the plane speed, to reduce vibration and thus noise during flight.
Architects and engineers with vision are available within our industry, the use of computers allows more accessible prediction techniques; new materials such as carbon fibre composites are being developed; new methods of treatment for fire resistance and durability are being explored; clients are increasingly supportive of innovation in building form. What remain are the limits to our imagination and our ability to creatively translate this through the manufacturing and construction process, which should be our continued aim.
Alan Brookes is a professor at Oxford Brookes school of architecture and an architectural consultant.