Have all the problems of cladding been solved? Has the architect's role in developing curtain walling been entirely superseded? In our theme on page 15, Will Stevens explains his belief that there is still a lot happening and much to learn, but one architect who would disagree with him is Terry Farrell.
Speaking at the 2004 Richard Catt Environmental Debate at the end of September, Farrell said: 'With offices today, there is a vernacular that is really hard to improve on. It is like cars - they have been almost perfected, so they are all anonymous.' He looked back to his early days in practice and said: 'With Farrell and Grimshaw, and Foster and Rogers, we invented curtain walling.' In contrast, today there are sophisticated manufacturers who have enormous expertise. 'Today, you can buy the components and assemble them, 'Farrell said. 'Buildings have become the boxes and sheds that in the inventive days of High-Tech we believed they would be. [As a result] a lot of architects are struggling to create a personality when so much is concentrated at the manufacturers.' One answer is to create an unusual shape to the building, but this is rarely affordable on an office budget. Farrell's alternative is to work with artists, who can introduce a degree of individuality through their collaboration.
That is the approach he has taken on his building for the Home Office in London, now nearing completion (photograph above). His principal collaboration was with Turner-shortlisted artist Liam Gillick. And although the interventions are significant, in many cases the amount they add to the overall building cost is not. This is because in many cases Gillick's work replaces an existing building element. So although the total cost of the art on the building is ú2.5 million, a significant amount of this is offset by savings elsewhere. For example, he has created a multicoloured glazed canopy to the long front facade, but this replaces the concrete canopy in the original design. Since that, in itself, was significantly expensive, said Farrell, the glass 'didn't add a lot'.
Gillick has also made an impact on the facade itself. There is a brise soleil in front of the glazed curtain walling but, to give signifi cance to the entrance, above it this has been replaced by Gillick's custom-designed panels. They serve the same function, while looking vastly different. Again the art is a substitution rather than an addition, pulling down the total additional cost. And the same is true of another of Gillick's colourful interventions, this time at ground level, which doubles as a privacy screen for those occupying the lowest level of offices.
Nor is this the first building on which Farrell has worked with an artist on the facade. On an office in Edinburgh this collaboration resulted in an unusual use of colour - on one facade on the glazing and on the other on the spandrel panels.
Farrell believes that artists may extend their involvement. 'I think it will not be long until artists realise that they can buy the building from the catalogue. They will buy the Schmidlin cladding themselves.' Here, of course, he is being deliberately disingenuous - and with the Home Office building he can afford to be. The building sits on the site of the infamous Marsham Street towers that were occupied by the Department of the Environment. This is a site that Farrell had been thinking about for years, long before the decision was taken to replace the towers.
Behind the facades are the results of considerable analysis - not only of how the offices work but also of how they fit with the streetscape. Farrell can toy with the idea of ceding control of the facades precisely because proper architecture has so much more depth.
But even the sophistication of manufacturing is unlikely to end the development of facades. We know some of the factors that are likely to affect development - increasingly stringent thermal regulations, concern about sustainability of materials - but the history of technology suggests that the big developments come from stimuli that are almost entirely unexpected. Greater involvement by artists in our buildings is a good thing, but it is not time for architects to turn their backs on cladding yet.