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The Free Facade

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The Free Plan featured in an earlier post and Pilotis will feature in a future one. Roof Gardens have been mentioned and not much can be said about Horizontal Windows. The Free Facade always seems to come last.

At the time, it meant nothing more than external walls having the potential to be arbitrarily penetrated by openings preferably sideways but, of the Famous Five, it’s The Free Facade that’s still with us and, more so than ever, free to be the carrier of arbitrary design statements. Despite the additional freedom to make it out of any material that happens to be available and does the job well, all that’s really been explored are the glass curtain walling of Modernism


and the variegated curtain wall hijinks of Post Modernism.

Different facades still dress up the same structure for no greater purpose than to tell us how free they are. In residential architecture, the expedient regularity of internal structure and planning is disguised by facade openings offset in contrived randomness. The ability to invest marketable contrivance with apparent meaning is part of the education of architects and a useful yardstick by which to measure fame.

The free facade has become a carrier of architectural pretensions or at least come to indicate a modicum of design effort. It wasn’t always that way. Kazunari Sakamoto, former student of Shinohara, used the position of windows to articulate architectural pretensions at zero extra cost. Sakamoto’s House in Soshigaya juxtaposes different volumes but the result isn’t a Shinoharan balance but something with a hint of the ad-hoc extensions of vernacular buildings.


Rather than actually breaking free however, it’s an architect’s attempt to represent breaking free. That ‘difficult whole’ may be denied but it’s still there.


Images like this remind me of Colin Rowe amazing himself by discovering Corbusian villas to be riddled with Golden Rectangles. The unsettling thing about Sakamoto’s houses of the seventies is how he positioned windows as if they were merely arbitrary openings with no one position inherently preferable – how dare he?! With small budgets and small houses, what Sakamoto was doing was making the position of the window into ornament, positioning these necessary yet ordinary things in unordinary ways to draw our attention to them in the same way that poetry twists language to make it seem new. These misbehaving windows had their beginnings in this next house from 1970. The apparently off-balance middle ones light two storerooms. It’s a safe bet they indicate the centreline dividing the facade into two.


Here’s Togo Murano’s Naniwa Tokyo Branch from 1966, a little bit earlier. Typically Murano, no rationalisation is possible for the placement of these windows.


A tad earlier still, we have Ignazio Gardella’s offset windows on his 1958 Casa delle Zattere.

Casa delle Zattere, Ignazio Gardella, Venice, 1958.jpg

These windows are not today’s ornamental randomness or Murano’s unfathomable design. Gardella is using the offset windows on the facade rationally to knit the building into the canalscape, something his many studies show was important to him. This is the only example I know of where the free placement of window openings has been used for a purpose greater than the building itself.

Casa Delle Zattere study, Venice, Ignazio Gardella .jpg

A big jump back in time, we have Philadelphia’s PSFS Building (by William Lescaze and George Howe) said to have been designed in 1930, constructed from 1931 and opened in 1932 which is nifty fast-tracking if true. It doesn’t have offset windows but the two types of facade imply an impending conceptual independence. It may be an early example of that famous architectural principle “break it up”, the eternal complement to “bring it together”.


Around that time, Le Corbusier outlined his famous Five Points but it wasn’t in Vers Une Architecture published 1927 for it contains no mention. Yet, his 1927-1932 Villa Savoye is claimed to be their definitive encapsulation despite its windows having the freedom to be either a window or void.


LC was soon to clarify how his free facade could be designed without regard for structural columns. This may have been an attempt to outsmart Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for drawing two buildings in 1917 and 1921 having facades conceptually free of any link with structure or the kind of design input Corbusier was promoting.

I say that because Corbusier then began to claim his 1914 Domino House was the conceptual prototype for Villa Savoye and not some structural study he never saw the potential for at the time.

Going back still farther, and back across the Atlantic, were the increasingly glassy office buildings and department stores of the Chicago School. The facades of buildings such as the 1874 Fair Store in Chicago were conceptually free of the structures supporting them even though a window obviously can’t be in the same place as a column.

This oppressive tyranny of structure has its advantages. Were Mies’ glass skyscrapers to have ever been built, its owners would have soon discovered clients weren’t willing to pay for the space between the columns and the facade as they can’t fit desks and filing cabinets in there. Renters of office space like their columns as close as possible to the walls, and the the area between the column and the facade deducted from the rentable area along with that of the columns themselves.


An office building with an all-glass facade is a spatially and financially inefficient office building. Ideally, the columns should be part of the wall, which makes it difficult if you want to have a glass facade showing your office space conforms to a century-old image of modernity.


Making the columns part of the wall again, and occupying a smaller percentage of the rentable area means greater profits as hinted at by the following gif. On the outside, this building will look like a Chicago School office building albeit taller and without the operable windows. This is the end of the line.


Stepping over that line however, is O14 in Dubai by New York practice Reiser+Umemoto. The building has a glass facade and no internal columns. R+U have solved the problem of how to connect floor slabs to a load bearing wall external to the space it supports. A curious animal, it’s what happens when structure breaks free from the tyranny of the facade. And what does it do? It becomes a facade, and not very good structure. There’s a lesson to be learned there somewhere. Don’t look for it in this ctbuh case study.

O14 structure.jpg

Office space in O14 currently rents at AED75.00 – 130.00/sq.ft which is high for Dubai’s business boonies. Entire floors are currently on sale so it doesn’t look like future rent increases are anticipated.

For comparison, AED112/sq.ft will rent you space in this conveniently located and conventionally columned SOM building.

Free facades of the glass curtain wall International Style type have staying power. Visible ones are still being done by SOM and less visible ones are still defining space behind layers of allusions to local climatic and cultural context that play so well in press releases.


These new meanings aren’t the self-referential stuff of the old Post Modernism but New Post Modernist ones we’ve invented to make buildings seem modern and exciting and, above all, different, shady.


Solving the problem of tiresome fabrication is the powerful combination of biomimicking patternry and 3D printing that can churn out meaning-laden screens and shading devices doing whatever it was PoMo did but cheaper and with more awareness of their inherent irrelevance and impermanence.


When these new biometric organic fractal parametric shade-giving free facades can purify air, help out with the water cycle, reduce heat island effect, add to biodiversity and habitat, change with the seasons and also make a pleasant sound when the wind blows, we’ll finally be able to get rid of those stupid green things that obscure our view of them.




  • This type of cross-referencing is joyous to encounter: the ability to time-travel and real-time design decisions in thoughtful riffing is sorely missed everywhere else: DO NOT STOP DOING THIS. I will return to it often, it raises more questions than provides answers: and that is a very, very good thing…