Recent British architecture is notable for its finesse in detailed design, writes Felix Mara
Note: click on drawings below to see them at a larger scale.
To the casual observer, it might seem that architects concentrated on the bigger picture in their design work over the past decade. Intoxicated by ambitious briefs and liberated by advances in parametric computer modelling, practices perhaps paid more attention to massing and large-scale facade compositions than to detailed design.
In reality, the details played vital supporting roles and, in many cases, elevated some schemes, such as Grimshaw’s Eden Project in Cornwall, to the level of architecture of the highest quality.
Changes in technology, performance objectives, legislation and the organisation of the construction industry had a big impact on detailed design. So did ecology: architects tackled cold bridging more effectively and specified higher thermal insulation values, lower infiltration rates and renewable materials. Manufacturers improved existing technology, developed new materials and introduced higher standards of quality control.
Changes in building procurement also influenced detailing. Architects spent a lot of time discussing buildability and safety and joked about using ‘sky hooks’ as a substitute for stable construction.We’ve moved on.
As the projects on the following pages illustrate, some practices emphasised craftsmanship, skillful workmanship and sound construction, whereas others pursued finesse, refinement and delicacy. For others, ecology was paramount. Many designers combined these three approaches or explored each of them in turn.
Some architects took the challenging route of prototyping – exploring the potential of materials that were new or, as in the case of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), had yet to be used to their full potential.Grimshaw’s Eden Project (2001) in St Austell, Cornwall takes advantage of the low weight of ETFE foil cushions to provide large areas of transparent envelope. This maximises the amount of daylight entering the building to encourage the plants inside to grow.
The structure of Grimshaw’s geodesic domes is integrated with its envelope: although its connections and bracing members are articulated, they become part of the overall pattern because they are so slender. There is a high level of craftsmanship, particularly in the prefabricated components.
The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London’s Hyde Park (2002), by Toyo Ito & Associates and Arup, also integrates its envelope with a delicate structural framework, which is lost in the pattern of alternating panels and voids. Structural engineer Cecil Balmond’s interest in fractals, irregular patterns that are beyond the realm of Euclidean geometry, is manifest in the configuration of the panels, generated by computer processed algorithms. Although temporary, the pavilion was built to exacting tolerances, with precise, narrow joints between panels and structure.
Ecology has influenced detailed design on many levels, from the specification of materials with a low carbon rating to the widespread use of renewable products, in particular timber.
Glenn Howells Architects’ Savill Building, the entrance pavilion to Windsor Great Park (2006), for the Crown Estate, is one of the many recent projects with a timber gridshell roof. The continuous soffits of the larch structure form contour lines, which express the undulating form of the roof but, at the detailed level, the intersections of the structural members are visually unresolved.
In a decade that paid so much attention to external appearances, the screen was a widespread device. Heatherwick Studio’s facade for the old boiler room at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London (2007), known as the Boiler Suit,comprises frames assembled from s-shaped sections, with woven stainless steel mesh infill.
Some practices have continued, and, in the case of Caruso St John Architects, transcended, traditions in architectural craftsmanship. The new entrance pavilion (2006) for the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London, demonstrates the practice’s interest in assembling materials to create patterns. Inside, for the bespoke balustrade, deep steel flats form a screen that can only be seen through at certain angles.
This unique design, the opposite of a minimal structure, is incredibly rigid and provides a level of safety that is appropriate to the building’s use.
There was a wealth of brise soleils, usually comprising horizontal aluminium or timber members. Some provided significant improvements to environmental performance.
Allies and Morrison Architect’s Charles Street multi-storey car park (2008) in Sheffield, for CTP St James, uses folded aluminium panels to conceal precast concrete columns and floor slabs. The panels, cut to an angle on two sides and hung in four different directions, to form a homogeneous surface, provide natural ventilation.
Curved glass panel
Standards of workmanship in factory production have improved dramatically and, especially where large budgets have been available, the results have been astonishing.
Foster + Partners’ 4 More London Riverside (2007), for More London Development,features every quantity surveyor’s worst nightmare - curved glass panels, bent to a 250mm radius, forming an acute corner in the building envelope. With precise junctions to framing members, they provide visual continuity in the massing of the building’s envelope, with extraordinary finesse.
Rain screen cladding
Rain screen cladding liberated the design of facades. Cladding panels could be slid into place, with no need for wide construction joints with fixings grinning through. Similarly, the structures behind these surfaces were freed from the tyranny of visual scrutiny and vapour barriers could form continuous vertical planes.
Architects could choose from a wide variety of finishes. Timber, with its ecological credentials, was a popular choice. Rural Design’s private house (2009) at Fiskavaig on the Isle of Skye,
clad in untreated larch, with an internal finish of OSB (oriented strand board), has a refreshing sobriety.
The emphasis on finesse over the past decade goes hand in hand with the profession’s preoccupation with the macrocosm. We see fewer 20mm-wide shadow gaps between metal cladding panels- now they are often replaced by snap-in metal strips. We are less tolerant of wide joints gobbed up with mastic. Even in the case of projects that some regard as excessively flamboyant, for example Zaha Hadid Architects’ MAXXI museum in Rome (AJ 19.11.09), the detailed language - because it is intended to reinforce the principal forms and not to detract from them - is understated.
Details that, as we used to say, ‘celebrate the joint’, can now seem overwrought, as in the case of the diagrid roof of Hopkins’ Portcullis House (2000) in Westminster, London (left). But tastes change. Perhaps a more gutsy language will emerge in the next decade, inspired by, for example, the precast concrete panels of Caruso St John Architects’ Nottingham Contemporary (AJ 12.11.09). Practices considering whether to dust down their stainless steel fixings catalogues may wish to dwell on the advice of Alexander Pope: ‘Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.’