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Why the universal curse of cladding must be overcome

The SARS mask means that you do not know what the wearer is thinking. It gives new meaning to Chinese inscrutability. I expect some people look better with it on. I am between Hong Kong and Shanghai, where thoughts about cladding come easily - there is a lot of it about, covering a multitude of sins.

I have never been fond of the word spandrel panel and have even banned the use of it in my studio because it is one of those terms that tends to imply there will always be one on any project. In Hong Kong there are thousands of spandrel panels.

The separation of structure from enclosure has allowed architecture to be reduced to an exercise in external pattern-making, with a lobby and a funny top. In recent years, the High-Tech style tried to overcome this by expressing the structure. The cladding became secondary, or even perfunctory, in some built examples.

As I drive into Chinese cities I am aware of an all-pervading greyness to the buildings.

There is a complete absence of colour during the day, which, combined with the layer of pollution that often lingers overhead, begins to create a sensation of depression. However, at night these same places come to life, with lights, signs and movements often related to advertising. Some buildings in Shanghai are heavily decorated with light, which occasionally redefines the form of the structure, thereby creating an optical illusion.

Poor old London, which was denied a simple illuminated number on Tower 52, is the reverse of China in its dismal colour variations. The daytime greyness is largely due to the non-availability of colours for the cladding panel. I am very uncertain about panel systems, but if we do have them, why can't they be in decent colours, as opposed to the insipid range that looks as though it was created so as not to offend anyone but in the process manages to please nobody?

We want a greater choice, which I know is at odds with the Egan philosophy, but we can see the results of less choice in the buildings erected in the US and China. I am often reminded of Moscow, with its limited palette of materials, and Toronto, where I experienced the same mundane range of choice. Egan must be stopped in his attempts to streamline our choice. If his ideas catch on, he will be responsible for dumbing-down our lives as much as the invention of reality TV.

Lack of colour prevails because some of the profession's more eminent practitioners deem it stylish to limit the palette to whites and greys - even black is a little too strong. It seems that, just as art galleries and museums are destined to remain forever white, a similar attitude is breaking out in our streets.

The early Modernists considered white a background colour that would be neutral, thereby allowing the users to be highlighted and celebrated. This works well in Mediterranean climates. Those early Modernists tended not to have cladding systems, so their buildings had a rendered finish, which was painted. Paint is a very useful substance, which can be changed easily. It has the advantage of requiring redecoration every five to seven years, which results in a freshening of the environment.

Cladding panels (with their inbuilt permanent colour) lose their initial polish very quickly and are never replaced.

The cladding panel has not contributed greatly to our architectural heritage and should, by and large, not be used.

My bit of facial cladding is replaced as we make our final approach into Shanghai.

WA, from seat 13K, Dragon Air flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai

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