chris wise engineer

Egg Zeppelin

John Prescott recently said he likes the “bulge factor” in architecture, a statement which ought to consign the old flat “roof” and “wall” to history. But in the world of bulgy things we haven’t really moved on since Brunel’s curvaceous iron ships of the 1850’s.  Prescott likes Future Systems’ Selfridges, which he calls a “biowhatd’youcallit” building.

The fabulous look-at-me Selfridges might be his role model, but should it be ours? Its roof smerges into a melted marshmallow which hops past the wisdom of medieval vaults, dodges the elegant mathematics of Nervi, and shimmies past the hard-won rationality of the Sydney Opera House.  Outside it has Prescott’s “wow factor”, but arguably a hit-and-miss interior.

Behind Selfridges and every other eggy zeppelin, you can hear the cry: “We can draw it, we can make it out of plasticine, so let it exist!” After the euphoria, it’s traditional for architects to phone an engineering friend to transfuse it with reason. This is known as the arse about face design method. Compare this with a real shell, a true monocoque, a rarified, gifted design which is a pure response to its physical environment, perfectly engineered for its squidgy occupant. The beauty of such a “roof” comes straight from the engineering.

How I yearn for purity like that instead of the feeble stylistic justification behind many of today’s “landmarks”. There are elegant exceptions: the Gherkin has a great aerodynamic structure, but one discipline at a time is comparative kids stuff. I want a melting pot of the old building disciplines: so roof becomes structure becomes wall becomes skin…. then the whole caboodle can bustle into life as a truly reactive, responsive building.

In place of static blobbery, I want adaptive buildings which learn to change second by second to balance the absolutely precise engineering response to John Ketley’s weather forecast with the ebb and flow of the emotions of the occupants…that would give us real elegance instead of wilful arty whim. Let the roof (and the wall and the skin too) blush, let it carry the load, shade us when it’s sunny and warm us when it’s cold, and why not morph with the seasons too. Let our roofs bulge seamlessly into walls with a purpose. Let the art of making them catch up with design.

And if anyone tells me that such bulges are expensive, I’m going to refer them to the biowhatd’youcallit Mr Prescott.

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