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Architecture as new geography

Grafton Architects discuss the importance of place within architecture

Last week Footprint attended a presentation by Shelly McNamara of Grafton Architects, held at the Architectural Association. McNamara was guest critic for the final year Sustainable Environmental Design [SED] unit, A small selection of the practice’s projects showcasing the importance of place were discussed. The focus was on reading cities and integrating within context.

McNamara says architects must know their own city so that they understand and appreciate the particulars of place when they design elsewhere. ‘Rediscovering your own city helps you read and translate others both physically and in abstract scientific manners. We believe in the local, the particular and the difference of place.’

This inquisitive nature and conscientious approach to context is displayed in Department of finance, 7 9 Merrion Row, Dublin The project incorporated The Billets, a 1912 protected structure. The concept of the building is rooted in its immediate urban context, relating to the 18th century Georgian streetscape where facades consist of a 50 per cent glass to 50 per cent solid ratio, generating a distinct architectural rhythm. McNamara explains that even with a large percentage of solid, with the aid of wide window reveals, you still get rooms filled with light.

Department of finance, 7 9 Merrion Row, Dublin

Department of finance, 7 9 Merrion Row, Dublin

This sensitivity to contextual language is also seen in Universita Luigi Bocconi, Milan, which was rewarded the Mies van der Rohe Prize. The 65,000sqm new build includes 1000 Professor offices which hang from a solid roof structure, acting as light filter periscopes’ that allow light into lower levels such as the 10,000 seat auditorium cantilevered over a public foyer 5m below street level.

From cracks of light achieved via double height windows expressed into the facade, to glass shingles in courtyards that deal with glare and privacy issues, natural light is encouraged, reflected and creates bright interiors.

White marble in the basement reflects light. Exterior local stone is fixed directly to the concrete structure creating joints of 1-3mm thick via dowels and fixative, giving a feeling of mass rather than separate cladding. The same type of stone is used on the ground and elevation.

Universita Luigi Bocconi, Milan

Foyer, Universita Luigi Bocconi, Milan

The use of local hard surfaces not only connects with the existing area but allows users to seamlessly weave between interior and exterior. A labyrinth-like space of light wells and offices creates a mix of comfortable microclimates that have been calculated via scientific computer analysis. Exposure, orientations, shade, glare, solar gain and cross ventilation are all balanced to create environmental protection and control of natural light.

Climate and materiality are key elements in the Toulouse School of Economics, France. The practice put into place a ventilation strategy to reduce number of air conditioned space through a series of facade layers. The staircases have perforated brick walls made from locally crafted bricks, creating a dappled light and natural ventilation.

Inspiration from surrounding brick buttresses and medieval wall informs the architecture of 6 large columns containing fire escapes that double as circulation space, which echo the previous project.

The process of Grafton Architects work evolves from precise analysis and intuition to create buildings that stitch into the existing context. The new Campus UTEC University, Lima, Peru creates a dynamic relationship with a coastal cliff site that disappears into the clouds during occasional fog. ‘Fog catchers’, woven in traditional patterns and colours, capture some moisture for plant life. Sunlight is ‘threaded’ through the section. Working with site restrictions determinescareful orientation of spaces. Awareness is heightened of the manmade and the organic which McNamara says ‘architects must see and respond, stop and observe’.

Campus UTEC University, Peru

Campus UTEC University, Peru

Although energy values, post occupancy and embodied energy of materials was not covered in technical depth; all the projects presented engage with their urban and climatic vernacular. The sensitivity to knitting into the existing surroundings demonstrates intrinsic long term sustainability, reflecting a careful attention to culture, place and environment. It is encouraging to see this calibre of design being shared with students.

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