Architecture

A lot of front

Ornamental façades are now giving homes individual expression. Dominic Bradbury reports.

May 27 2010
Dominic Bradbury

Slowly but surely, we are learning to express ourselves through the outsides as well as the insides of our homes. Interest in pattern, ornament and decoration has been growing for years within the realm of interior design, partly as a reaction to the minimalist approach that prevailed in the years leading up to the turn of the new century. Now the focus is shifting to architecture, where a growing number of designers are looking beyond the crisp contemporary building box and experimenting with increasingly ornate and elaborately detailed façades.

At best, the exteriors of the new ornamental home have a sophisticated, crafted approach rather than loud, “look at me” showmanship. They recall another golden era of craft and experimentation at the turn of the 20th century, when both Arts & Crafts disciples and pioneering early Modernists were taking a carefully considered and restrained approach to pattern and decoration. Many of today’s architectural innovators share the same kind of interests, while being happy to look back as well as forward in the search for inspiration. As a result, they’re inventing houses and apartment buildings with a real sense of character and individuality, and they are increasingly teaming up with clients and developers who are after the very same things.

“There is this global trend in architecture towards greater experimentation with ornament and pattern,” concurs Meredith Bowles, founder of Mole Architects. “There has been a sort of puritanism that has afflicted architectural style, which is very restrained and worthy – and not much fun. Some decorative architecture has rejected the puritanical ethos and responded with buildings that are not far off Disneyland – the effects writ so large that people get it. But somewhere in the middle there is a real interest in materials, pattern and texture applied to form.”

Bowles recently completed a new house in Cambridge for financier Hugo Macey and his wife Hajni Elias, deputy director of Chinese art at Sotheby’s, and their two children. Sitting on a quiet residential street, this new family home is practical and eco-friendly but also eye-catching. Its main façade is made up of sheets of milky glass with a subtle striped pattern that react to the changing light of the day, becoming at times more reflective or translucent. The glass contrasts with the wood coating of a music room positioned right at the front. It has the look of a sculpted timber hut or an oast house, faced with warm cedar shingles.

“We always knew that the façade would be important,” says Macey. “I wanted the house to be quite open so that it’s part of the community of the street and we’d seen some modern buildings and enjoyed them, so we wanted to go for something that was a bit different. We were looking to have a design that worked for us as a family without referencing a lot of traditional aspects of English architecture, as many new buildings seem to do in this country.”

While Macey and Elias did not set out to make a grand statement, they did want a something unique. Visually, the façade lifts the house well beyond the ordinary and distinguishes it as something both modern and characterful, while still showing respect for the genteel surroundings. Naturally, the shingles and glass become a key part of the outward identity of the home, grabbing the interest of any passers-by.

In London, architects Squire and Partners are also experimenting with a highly unusual façade for a family home in Mayfair, on which construction starts this summer. Here, a former 18th-century pub is being reinvented and extended with a new-built structure that will be clad, elaborately, in anodised aluminium shingles of different shades of bronze and brown.

“The building opposite is covered in Virginia creeper, which was the inspiration for the new façade,” says the associate architect on the project, Marcie Larizadeh. “Each individual shingle is conceived as a leaf covering the building fabric. It adds a further level of detail to an otherwise more traditional Mayfair town house and draws in an element of ‘garden’ within a constrained urban site. There is more room now for this kind of experimentation, making buildings bespoke to their contexts and more responsive to their settings.”

This push towards more individual houses, energised by fresh and more imaginative thinking about the coats and skins that envelop them, spreads far beyond Britain. The new ornamental home is very much an international phenomenon, suggesting that the thrust towards more expressive and crafted façades is one of the most important architectural themes of the age.

In Holland, not far from the city of Utrecht, architect Jaco D de Visser recently rebuilt the Huis de Wiers – a mid-17th-century manor house that had fallen into dereliction after the second world war – in contemporary style, reusing the foundations and the lower ground floor of the original building. The new manor house is a seductive, striking form covered in sheets of copper, which coat the sides and roof of the building forming one clearly defined object. It stands like a sculpture in the landscape, while the horizontal seams between the copper sheets create long bands reminiscent of great wooden timbers.

“The Huis de Wiers was built in the middle of an area with lots of shipping activity, and to my mind it was important to have a material that would reference this world, a material in a roasted-brown colour like aged timber,” says de Visser, who has made his home at the manor with wife Odette Ex and their two children, sharing the building with their offices and also a restaurant on the lower levels. “Oxidised copper is the most wonderful material and lasts around 400 years. It has a wonderful colour difference under the influence of different types of light and different seasons.”

In Noosa Sound, on Australia’s Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane, architect Frank Macchia used a lattice of Cor-Ten steel to create an extraordinary façade for the holiday home of music producer Giorgio Serra and his family. The metallic “cage” that wraps much of the building doubles as a sun screen, helping to protect the interiors of the house and keep them cool at the height of the day. Just as importantly, the Cor-Ten coating creates a powerful visual identity for the house, turning it into something distinctive and dramatic.

“Both Frank and I wanted to create something unique,” says Serra, who divides his time between Italy and Australia. “Frank is very much an artist – he creates sculptures for people to live in. We both loved the Cor-Ten. My brother Paolo is an artist in Italy and he has used Cor-Ten for the way it rusts in his art for the past 20 years. We love the way that it ages and the colour of the material.”

Within many cities, new apartment buildings in particular are bidding to entice and seduce buyers with distinctive use of unusual materials and layers of texture and pattern. In New York, Herzog & de Meuron’s recent 40 Bond apartment building developed by Ian Schrager used a highly ornamental façade that mixes a chunky, crafted lattice of bottle-green glass to frame the windows along with extraordinarily elaborate aluminium gates at ground level, which blend references to graffiti tags with a sinuous art-nouveau quality.

Such imaginative detailing gives character to the building, but also sets it apart and gives it a particular identity and branding that helps make the place not only more interesting but desirable. These are energetic statement structures that are certainly meant to stand out from the crowd rather than sinking into the obscurity of the street line.

Ben van Berkel, co-founder and principal architect of UNStudio, is another high-profile architect working on the international stage who has been at the very forefront of this new spirit of experimentalism, through the dynamic form of his buildings and the use of ornamental and innovative façades. UNStudio has designed the Five Franklin apartment building, also in New York, which it aims to complete in late 2012.

Situated in Tribeca, the 20-storey building will undoubtedly become another landmark, wrapped in a series of horizontal twisted metal ribbons that function as balconies, screens and frames for views across downtown Manhattan. These powerful ribbons dress Five Franklin like a carefully tailored garment, partly inspired by the design of late-19th-century Tribeca buildings, partly by the way the pattern of the city’s street-grid system becomes warped and distorted as it hits lower Manhattan.

“The bands are key to the design and help link the building to its surroundings, such as the cast-iron buildings of Tribeca,” says van Berkel. “But as they do also turn into balconies and sun screens, they have many different qualities. You cannot see the difference between the utilitarian and the aesthetic aspects of the bands – it’s a highly ambiguous façade.

“It’s like good art that you come back to, rereading it and analysing it again. We are aiming for a similar effect with our buildings – to draw people back to the project again and again. I do believe in the strong communicative effect that architecture can have.”

It’s the ability of such buildings to communicate with all of us on a more sensual and artistic level, without resorting to shouting out at us, that makes them so powerful, although van Berkel argues that a sense of discipline and restraint is vital to avoid the dangers of architectural excess. This communicative power can also help architecture become more contextual and tied to a sense of place by inviting a more crafted and imaginative response to a particular place and set of conditions.

New ornamental façades also offer an increasingly attractive way for architects and developers to reinvent and remarket existing buildings that have become tired or unfashionable. Instead of rebuilding from scratch, a new façade offers a more affordable and eco-conscious way of recycling and re-energising apartment buildings and other structures.

In London, Make Architects have just brought new life to a 1960s apartment building in Marylebone. While creating additional floor space, the rear elevation of the building – looking onto a quiet mews – has been totally reinvigorated with a new brass cladding that incorporates cantilevered balconies, which are partially sheltered by punctured and patterned brass screens. Something that was ordinary and non-descript has become something unique.

“Our scheme has completely changed the building and made the mews side its best face,” says Make partner Simon Bowden. “There is an enormous amount of building stock in the UK that can be given new life by recycling the good bits and adding new elements where required to create a new identity.”

Above all, the new ornamental home – whether an individual house or an apartment building – creates a fresh kind of excitement about design and architecture. The importance of craft and artistry allied with imagination and technology allows for a new level of expression. As architect Sean Griffiths, director and co-founder of London-based practice FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) argues, we have been frightened of different and unusual façades on our homes for far too long, and now they are finally being given the attention they deserve.

“We argue that a façade is one of the most important parts of a building because it forms part of the urban scene and it is generally what is most communicative about a building in telling you what it is,” says Griffiths. His work has long explored ideas of ornament and decoration on exterior walls, often echoing rococo and baroque themes in an abstracted use of cutout patterns. “Façades are the interface between public and private space – people know buildings by their façades.”

Griffiths designed the three-storey Blue House in East London using a layered façade suggestive of an almost cartoon-like, cardboard cutout home, topped by a miniature office block with a sequence of small windows. And FAT has recently completed the Grote Koppel restaurant and hotel building in the Dutch city of Amersfoort, using an intricate façade made of pre-cast concrete sandwich panels carved into exotic patterns inspired by historic Dutch window surrounds.

FAT’s buildings are both playful and captivating but still serious pieces of architecture. Above all, like the best of the new ornamental architecture, they offer an enticing alternative to the crisp, puritanical carbon-copy homes and soulless buildings that seem to have invaded so many streets. And the move towards a fresh ornamental style has only just begun.

“Our buildings are not meant to be a joke but they can raise a wry smile,” says Griffiths. “We are trying to offer something that is more idiosyncratic and communicative with a wider audience than other architects. There’s lots of characterless buildings out there and people do get bored with one dominant architectural style. Things change and generations move on. Architects are always in denial about the importance of fashion to architecture, but people tire of endless bland boxes and want to move on. They are looking for something different, and variety is the spice of life.”

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