Condom architecture

Model, UTS Tower re-skin, LAVA, 2009-2010. Powerhouse Museum collection.

Re-skinning of buildings takes several forms, not all of them particularly reputable. During the 60s and 70s salesmen prowled the suburbs, seeking out fibro and weatherboard cottages that could be re-clad with aluminium or vinyl. The hard sell would then begin, with promises of capital gains, improved appearance and insulation. I’m not sure that many houses were actually improved, especially as the new cladding was usually screwed on over the existing one.

This business was immortalized in a popular US movie of the 1980s: Tin Men was both satirical and nostalgic about two competing aluminium cladding (‘siding’ in US lingo) salesmen, played by Danny De Vito and Richard Dreyfus.

Danny De Vito, Richard Dreyfus and Cadillacs in Tin Men, 1987. Copyright Allmovies.com

Danny De Vito, Richard Dreyfus and Cadillacs in Tin Men, 1987. Copyright Allmovies.com

Re-skinning has a more sophisticated image today. The Powerhouse Museum is acquiring a model of LAVA’s proposal to re-skin the UTS Tower. Chris Bosse of LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture) developed the tower skin concept: ‘The speculative project, ‘Tower Skin’, offers a unique opportunity to transform the identity, sustainability and interior comfort of the once state-of-the-art building…A re-skinned UTS Tower could be an example of sustainability, innovation, cutting edge design and creative education, without demolishing and rebuilding the 1960s icon’.

UTS Tower. Photography by Jim Bar

UTS Tower. Photography by Jim Bar

Instead of creating a new façade for the UTS Tower, LAVA’s proposal would wrap the tower in a translucent mesh tower skin designed to act as a high performance micro climate, generating energy with photo-voltaic cells, collecting rain water and using convective energy to power the tower’s ventilation requirements. As well as creating a more efficient and sustainable building the skin would transform the appearance of the tower in daylight as well as using LED inserts to become a changing media surface at night.

Because of the high profile – both literally and culturally – of the UTS Tower the proposal attracted a lot of attention in both the general and design media. It also won a prize for speculative design at the World Urban Forum in Rio. London’s Independent newspaper described the LAVA proposal as ‘condom architecture‘ for creating the potential to humanise old office towers with expressive sheaves.

Image copyright LAVA.

Image copyright LAVA.

Buildings are one of the major consumers of energy and building facades are an important determinant of their energy efficiency. The post-War generation of office towers were frequently clad with glass curtain walls with poor environmental performance. This was recognised by Michael Dysart, project architect of the UTS Tower, who was also aware of failures among first-generation curtain walls. The tower’s shadowing concrete façade bands and narrow windows help make it more efficient than most towers from that period. According to Michael, the high, narrow windows happened mainly because the building was intended for night students. The tower was designed for UTS predecessor the Institute of Technology; most of its students were to be part-time electrical engineering students who needed wall-mounted equipment so the windows could not be at eye level.

Hi-tech building skins are perhaps the major architectural innovation of the past decade. Probably the best-known example is the Beijing Aquatic Centre or Water Cube, with its plastic ‘bubble’ skin clothing a steel space frame (LAVA’s Chris Bosse was one of the architects for this project).  Similar projects include the Prada Epicentre in Tokyo and the UTS Tower’s new neighbour, currently under construction.  Designed by Melbourne’s Denton Corker Marshall the Broadway Building will sit inside a pierced aluminium skin providing natural light and air to the atrium and pedestrian spaces which will run through the building. The façade of this new home for the engineering and IT schools will also feature embedded LED lights to create a night time presence on Broadway.

UTS Broadway Building. Copyright UTS.

UTS Broadway Building. Copyright UTS.

A lot of office towers from the 60s, 70s and 80s are being refurbed – many converted from office to apartment use – and this often involves new facades.

But building wraps like the LAVA proposal are a different matter. Certainly it’s not about to happen at UTS according to vice-chancellor Professor Ross Milbourne: ‘[the tower] works too well on the inside to knock it down, so a new skin is the right option…But UTS is planning to spend $1 billion over the next five years on four new buildings and refurbishments to three more, so this isn’t on our agenda for the immediate future.’

I phoned Michael Dysart while writing this piece. Not surprisingly he isn’t impressed by a proposal to disguise the building he designed, pointing out that despite many changes in use from the 1960s brief the tower had worked well and continued to do so. He was also sceptical as to the durability and efficiency of the proposed new skin.

Although the appearance of the UTS Tower is not universally loved, Chris Bosse argued for the re-skin primarily on sustainability grounds: ’I wouldn’t agree with calling any building ugly … but I do think the buildings from that period in the ’60s deserve to be brought up to the 21st century in terms of building technology and environmental technology’.

Its possible that the moment for this refurb has already passed, given the renewed appreciation  (in design circles at least) of Brutalism. The UTS decision to refurbish only the tower podium suggests that the university has finally recognised that the tower is its landmark.

 

This article was originally published in Inside the Collection blog for the Powerhouse Museum.