Big Facade Theory Part 2

As outlined in Part 1 of the Big Façade Theory, the general field of a super-sized façade is established by manipulating the relative relationship between window, wall panels, and spandrel panels.  The identity of an individual window cannot be sustained in high-rise buildings; as a result, the question is whether to integrate the window into a horizontal or vertical band or within an all-over compositional strategy that pulls the window into a larger pattern at a variety of scales. When the windows remained aligned, a checkerboard pattern results; and when the windows are staggered in a seemingly casual arrangement, a pixelated effect is created.

Less aggressive visual strategies are also possible. The balanced weave of the Seagrams Building results from the honest expression of spandrel glass and vision glass read behind the continuous I-beams that run up the façade at the mullion lines.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Hancock Building in Boston, denies the difference between spandrel glass and vision glass by accommodating both components in a single rectangular grid. The use of reflective glass means that the intended effect is successful during the day.



UN Plaza, New York, Roche Dinkeloo, 1969-75

But once the field is established, there are several strategies for shaping the building. The first, as exemplified by the Hancock Building in Boston, the UN Plaza Hotel by Roche Dinkeloo, and Penzoil Place in House, by Johnson Burgee, is to configure the overall building into an engaging sculptural mass.  These cuts and folds can reinforce the overall scale of the building, like the Hancock Building, or can introduce smaller scale inflections like UN Plaza. The Seattle Library by OMA/Rem Koolhaas deploys this strategy; but in this case, the floor trays inside the skin seem to have pushed back and forth to create the dramatic sculptural form.



Atlantis, Miami, Arquitectonica, 1980


International Village, Northeastern University, Boston, Kyu Sung Woo, 2009


Mass College of Art dormitory, Boston, Kyu Sung Woo, 2008

Another strategy is to subtract multi-floor chunks out of the building to  create an intermediate scale between individual cladding components and the overall mass. The I-J Tower in Amsterdam by Neutelings and Reidijk, included in my last post, is an example of this strategy.  Perhaps the first use of this approach in a high-rise residential building is The Atlantis in Miami by Arquitectonica (1980). Medium scale sculptural operations include the subtractive hole through the building framing a red spiral stair and a palm tree, and a grouping of four additive yellow balconies.

Kyu Sung Woo’s International Village at Northeastern University in Boston is a local example.  At both University Village and his nearby dormintory for the Mass College of Art, Woo uses both subtractive volumes and mega-bays to create an intermediate scale. At Mass College of Art, a subtractive volume turns the corner and becomes a bay, suggesting a glass cube caught within the mass of the brick building. In both buildings, the façade-field is treated as a simple grid of punched openings, with only a subtle reveals in the cladding that is suggestive of the wall panel logic.




Atlantis, Miami, Arquitectonica, 1980


101 Avenue of the Americas, Fox & Fowle, 1992

A third strategy for imposing an intermediate scale is to superimpose a larger-scale grid over the inherent grid of window, spandrels, and mullion spacing.  The south-facing façade of the Atlantis uses this strategy. Fox and Fowles’ 101 Avenue of the Americas is an example where the larger scale grid is only expressed graphically through the use of different colors of granite cladding.


Celosia, MVRDV, 2009

The Celosia Residences in Madrid by MVRDV also orders more than one floor within a grid, in this case, expressed horizontal slabs every two floors. Staggered outdoor spaces, carved out of the larger mass, reinforce this two-floor ordering logic.

For more discussion about the way that windows are accommodated within the facades of high-rises, see the excellent four part Windowflage on the blog ArchiTakes. I ran across the posts while searching for images for the Big Façade Theory.


2 thoughts on “Big Facade Theory Part 2

  1. You forgot an important category/sub-category: balconies-as-organizing-element!I know your analysis focuses mainly – though not exclusively – on the corporate office tower, but the hi-rise residential tower – though not as prevalent in cities in the Northeast US – still dominate skylines in the great coastal cities of the world…cities like Mumbai, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, and Sydney.I was reminded of this by a project in Sydney by the great Harry Seidler (graduate of the GSD, and the father of Australian modernism!) whose Horizon Apartments prefigures Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Towers in Chicago, albeit at a different scale. Check it out!

  2. I agree that my post was maybe too much function-blind and that balconies are an important element for residential high-rises, especially in cities where the climate encourages balcony use. The facades in Boston/Cambridge that best leverage the balcony as an instrumental design element are the three towers of Peabody Terrace in Cambridge – designed by Josep Lluis Sert (1962-64). Required operable windows are another building component that distinguishes residential high-rises and hotels from office buildings. Even when closed, the double frame around operable windows can make them stand out against the field of fixed glass in a curtain wall building. The alternating location of operable windows from floor to floor in Polshek and Partners’ Standard Hotel in New York gives the facade its snap, crackle, and pop.

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