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'Sustainability can reintroduce integrity into architecture'

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In Docomomo’s annual lecture, Rab Bennetts argued that sustainability could reintroduce integrity into architecture. Here we present an edited version of his talk

One of the principles of modernism that appears especially vulnerable today is the notion of architectural integrity, an idea that has been the focus of much creative energy within Bennetts Associates. Definitions of integrity vary, but its origins stem from the modernists’ search for ‘truth’ and what might now be called authenticity.

At Bennetts, we view integrity as threefold: the interior and exterior form of a building should be seamlessly interconnected; construction methods should reflect the nature of their materials; and engineering systems and architecture should be mutually supportive. Despite our own persistence, the erosion of these combined definitions of integrity in architectural practice is acute. It derives as much from the technical complexity of modern construction as the cultural position of architects.

While the stylistic aberrations of post-modernism have been superseded by a more reflective kind of contextualism, the current preoccupation with external surface treatments among  many architects is another form of legacy. In the past 20 years or so, architects have seemed far less willing or able to search for the integration of exterior and interior, or for a meaningful relationship between structure and volumes.

The tendency towards superficiality has been aggravated by the use of young, image-conscious firms for relatively large commercial projects, and by a construction and property industry that increasingly separates the design of a building’s external fabric from the procurement of the project as a whole. The marriage of a concept designer with an executive architect is now commonplace, which is shocking to those of us who are reluctant to separate strategy from detail.

The technical complexity of large buildings has increased to such an extent that it is rare to find a facade that is integrated with the load-bearing structure.

It is far easier (and probably cheaper) to separate the skin from the frame and, in consequence, the interior from the exterior. Transparency, once one of the essential modernist props to this relationship, is all but outlawed by energy-efficiency regulations that greatly limit the extent of glazing.

This combination of technical complexity and stylistic preference corresponds with the de-skilling of a generation of architects at a time when the balance of power has swung towards contractors. Although elite architectural projects still dominate headlines, most practices must fight for anything other than a subservient position.

Should architects wish to recapture the central, leadership role, an alternative direction is available. The sustainability debate can restore architectural integrity to a central position, an approach that should be of interest to both modernists and climate scientists.

Significant reductions in CO2 emissions cannot be achieved without conceptual rigour in building design. We have been asking for some years ‘how much does the building have to weigh?’ in order to avoid the need for excessive energy. The answer is that buildings need to be relatively heavy, not light. For a typical commercial building, a concrete structure exposed to the interior is now a more-or-less automatic choice for environmental reasons, probably vaulted or profiled to increase the surface area exposed to the air stream. If the structure is cooled on warm summer nights by natural cross-ventilation, it can provide the equivalent of up to 5° of free cooling the following day – more than enough to counter the effects of a hot English summer.

The architectural significance is of course that the structure must be exposed; the system won’t work if the structure is concealed behind suspended ceilings or layers of plasterboard. The internal spaces must also be protected from various heat sources, such as solar gain or large concentrations of IT equipment.

A building’s form, its envelope, structure and services are now so intrinsically linked that it is impossible to consider them as separate assemblies.
At its simplest and most elegant, structure helps fulfil the role normally performed by major mechanical services. The extent of glazing or shading, the thermal mass of the exposed structure, patterns of ventilation and the natural buoyancy of air in major volumes must all be considered at the outset. If we as architects fail to address these concerns, environmental consultants will shape buildings for us. As contractors increasingly dominate the design process, if we relinquish the sustainability debate to the engineers, our role will be reduced to that of a mere stylist.

Sustainability represents a Trojan horse for the architect to redefine a leadership role in the construction process. It also reinvigorates the formal and intellectual link between outside and inside, between appearance and performance and between construction and form. Far from being an endangered species whose time has come, integrity has the potential to engender an architecture of substance and depth and simultaneously reverse the process of marginalisation that has characterised architectural practice for far too long.
Rab Bennetts is director of Bennetts Associates

To read the full transcript of Rab Bennetts’ December 2009 lecture visitajfootprint.com

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