The Poetry, Pitfalls and Potential of Kinetic Facades | Part Two

Thursday, October 8, 2015
By Bill Millard

"The Poetry, Pitfalls and Potential of Kinetic Facades" is an ongoing series by the Advanced Technology Studio of Enclos examining kinetic components in building envelopes — often eye-catching, occasionally gimmicky, and almost always a technical and economic challenge. Part One is available here.

Proof of Concept, Flaws and All

“Our industry invests in research by building things,” Russell Fortmeyer, sustainable technology specialist at Arup's Los Angeles office and co-author of Kinetic Architecture: Designs for Active Envelopes (with Charles D. Linn, FAIA; Images Publishing, 2014), says. “They don't always work.” Discussions of the evolution of kinetic facades invariably cite Jean Nouvel's headquarters for the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (in anglophone countries, the Arab World Institute) as a pivotal project. Though it is not the first known kinetic facade, it illustrates both the contributions that imaginative kinetic elements can make to a building's aesthetics and the perils of offering innovative ideas ahead of their time. 

The south facade of Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe features 113 photosensitive panels with 16,000 moving parts and 30,000 light-sensitive diaphragms intended to control daylight. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr.

Begun in 1981 and opened in 1987, the building's south facade uses a brise-soleil device that is simultaneously a cultural signifier, a form of ornamentation, and a practical means of controlling daylight: an analogue of the geometric mashrabiya latticeworks that have appeared throughout the Arabian world since the Middle Ages. Nouvel updated this privacy-protecting element in the form of 240 motorized apertures, each resembling the iris of a camera, and controlled by photosensors; they comprise 113 photosensitive panels with 16,000 moving parts and 30,000 light-sensitive diaphragms. The apertures appear at various sizes to regulate and complicate the entry of sunlight, creating changing patterns of light and shadow within the building. This design, elegantly merging Middle Eastern tradition with Western technology, won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and dramatically advanced Nouvel's recognition worldwide. Unfortunately, the apertures required more maintenance than the Institut was able to provide, and within a few years the system had stopped working. While still visually striking today — appreciated by both informed specialists and lay visitors alike — the system no longer moves as intended.

Nouvel's core concept may not be at fault, commentators agree, so much as its execution, given 1980s technology. Stefan Behnisch, Hon. FAIA, founding partner of Behnisch Architekten and a longtime advocate of sustainable design and technology, views the Institut as “a very intelligent attempt to deal with sun shading,” but also “a very ornamental approach, after all. Today you would probably do it with a thermal metal, rather than engines.” By thermal metal, Behnisch is referreing to bimetal combinations that expand differently under temperature change, as in a thermostat.

Today's information technology or tomorrow's auto-adaptive materials, Ulrich Knaack, professor of design and construction at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands and founder of that institution's Facade Research Group, asserts, would be distinctly more viable than the mechanical methods of Nouvel's 1987 building — what he calls “a really nice building, but 20 years too early.” Ilaria Mazzoleni, founder of IM Studio based in Milan and Los Angeles, and a full-time faculty member at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), points out that the perception of the Institut’s facade “failure” has unfairly colored reactions to the whole concept of kinetic systems. “The main problem of a kinetic facade is maintenance,” she says. “People still point at the Institut and say 'It didn't work, so I don't want a building that moves.’ But the technology has evolved.” 

While experts continue to dispute if Nouvel’s mechanized sunshades at the Institut du Monde Arabe ever actually worked, they agree that it would be designed and maintained with far superior materials and technologies today. Photo by Serge Melki / Flickr.

“Building maintenance 30 or 40 years ago was not to the level of sophistication that you would consider it today,” Fortmeyer says. “Buildings today are basically computers, so you require a different skill set to maintain that. Whereas 40 years ago a control system that controlled all of the systems in the building was a pretty new thing, let alone how you would integrate operable components of the facade into that system. Architecture and engineering have really lagged [behind] the revolution in computing power. Our buildings are still fairly stupid compared to other technologies. Our phones are more sophisticated than buildings these days in terms of feedback, operability and flexibility. If you were designing the Arab Institute today, it would be a very different building. It may not look different, but it would be a very different building from a technology standpoint. It would work, and it would be much easier to maintain.”

In researching Kinetic Architecture and interviewing facade consultants and architects around the world, Fortmeyer and Linn asked them all for their thoughts on Nouvel's building. “Most architects or facade people have been to Paris,” Fortmeyer observes. “If you're in design you want to go to Paris at some stage in your life. And they've all visited that project, and so it was interesting. About half would say, 'It never worked,' and the other half would say 'It always worked. What do you mean, it doesn't work?' And so depending on when you visited, maybe it worked and maybe it didn't. But what I see as the legacy of that project is that it was one of the first that understood the potential for a dynamic facade to contribute to the performance of a building, but then to take that and not just make it a performance thing, but make it into a more poetic component of the architecture. So when it works, it's beautiful, and when it doesn't work, it's still beautiful. The ability to synthesize both sides of that into architecture is what makes that building significant in my mind. I don't see it as a failure at all.”

The Occidental Chemical Center’s eventual failure offers an object lesson in how not to operate a building with complex systems. © Charles D. Linn.

Another precedent, notes Linn, is the Occidental Chemical Center in Niagara Falls, New York, often overlooked by architectural historians but discussed in detail in Kinetic Architecture as one of the most troubling what-might-have-been stories in the history of green design. This nine-story building by Cannon Design in 1980 strikes him as “a much more poignant example” than the Institut, whose “owners aren't going to suffer overly if the building isn't working right. They will just turn up the thermostat.” In contrast, the corporate office building known as “Oxy” in upstate New York attempted a high-risk/high-reward sustainability strategy decades before the term entered mainstream architectural discourse. In the shadow of the 1970s OPEC energy crisis, Oxy based itself on a double skin, louver-shaded facade on all four elevations, the first double-skin facade constructed in North America. Its eventual failure offers an object lesson in how not to operate a building with complex systems.

Oxy is essentially a building within a building. An outboard green-tinted IGU skin is separated from the clear inboard single-glazed skin by a four foot cavity. The cavity acts as an air buffer and houses automated aluminum louvers and dampers to control direct light penetration and ventilation, respectively. The result is one of the nation's most advanced energy management systems, combining passive solar with dynamic environmental control strategies. It carried such promise that Progressive Architecture, among many magazines worldwide that published the building, conducted an independent energy analysis predicting that it would use only 2% of a conventional building's energy for winter heating and 19% annually for cooling. For its owner Occidental Petroleum, which had meant for the building to host its troubled subsidiary Hooker Chemicals (associated with the Love Canal toxic-waste scandals of the 1970s), the Oxy building was a public-relations goldmine — not just the winner of awards from the American Institute of Architects, Illuminating Engineering Society, Environmental Protection Agency's EnergyStar program, and others, but a tangible demonstration of environmental bona fides.

Once touted for its ambitious green design, the Occidental Chemical Center’s under maintained double-skin facade and motorized louver systems have fallen into disrepair. As a result, subsequent owners sold the aluminum sunshades for scrap metal, and approximately 25% of the insulated glass units have failed as of 2012. © Charles D. Linn.

Unfortunately, Occidental and subsequent owners never gave these systems the maintenance they required, and they have fallen into severe disrepair; as recently as 2012, the Oxy building was nearly empty. Program changes before construction was even complete called for longer occupancy that significantly increased cooling loads; the mechanized louvers, repainted with a less reflective matte white finish after the original highly reflective coating generated glare complaints from passing motorists, stopped working in the 1990s and were later sold for scrap; air-intake grilles at ground level were covered with plywood because nearby excavation has generated dirt and particulates that build up in the cavity, defeating the airflow strategy and causing upper floors to overheat, while low occupancy now undershoots the design cooling load, so that lower floors are too cold. About a quarter of the IGUs, also under maintained, have failed and clouded over. Facility managers after Occidental moved out have had little knowledge of the purpose or operation of the interrelated systems. Thermal management is such a challenge that one tenant replaced an interior glass panel with plywood and put a window air conditioner in it, venting heat to the cavity and perversely adding to the cooling burden. Progressive Architecture's efficiency predictions, one might say, were on the optimistic side.

“In order to save Oxy,” Linn suggests, “one is going to simply have to strip off that double wall and start over — the wall is just not salvageable, and having to alter the structure to get rid of it is an extra cost that makes saving this building difficult. It’s hard to imagine a use for this building because of its location in a tourist area.” Now called One Niagara Center and repurposed as a multifunctional (if scantily occupied) tourism center, Oxy is open to charges of corporate greenwashing. It has become a poster child for the fragility of sophisticated interrelated systems, the critical match between site and program, and the urgent need for maintenance. “The most important thing to maintain,” Linn adds, “is the client’s passion and commitment for keeping the building operating properly — that is, if it was designed right in the first place. If it wasn’t, then the most important thing is the designer’s commitment to making it operate properly. If you don’t have these, all bets are off.”

About the Author

Bill Millard writes about the built environment and its relations to culture, health, and the natural world. His writing has appeared in Oculus, eOculus, the Architect's Newspaper, Icon, the LEAF Review, Annals of Emergency Medicine, Architect, Architectural Record, the RIBA Journal, Content (OMA/R. Koolhaas et al., eds.; Köln: Taschen, 2004), Metals in Construction, Architectural Lighting, and Postmodern Culture. Millard has a doctorate in English and American literature from Rutgers University, and his undergraduate work was at Amherst College. He is the former editor of Columbia University's interdisciplinary research magazine 21stC. Millard is currently working on a book with research support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts titled The Vertical and Horizontal Americas: The Built Environment, Cultural Formations, and the Post-Automotive Era. He lives in New York's East Village.


Part Three of this ongoing series will discuss the potential of kinetic facades in the November issue of SkinTec.