The same has happened with architecture. Less than a century ago an architect would not be able to design a building without adding texture to the exterior because both the market and the clients expected it. Building texture comes from its form and how that form is expressed using shadows and patterns that not only give relief to the building but also allowing the building form to subtly change during the day.
Ho Chi Minh City is full of buildings that are fine examples of this. The texture of these older buildings took the form of balconies and sunshading (often self-shading devices) designed to keep the sun off the facade of the building. This provided a rich texture and delivered an attractive cityscape. Most of these buildings had load bearing walls — the weight of the building was taken through the facade.
From the middle of the 19th century attempts were made to reduce that weight and thus the cost of the outside of a building. In the 1920s the German Bauhaus design school promoted buildings with lightweight facades, however Hitler found their modernist design philosophy offensive — calling it communist intellectualism — and shut them down, expelling their leaders to the US where — ironically — they flourished. After World War II, technological advances in the manufacture of glass and fixing systems allowed these new buildings to be built quicker and cheaper.
Mies Van Der Rohe, an original Bauhaus teacher, demonstrated in New York (along with an architect called Gordon Bunshaft), that buildings could be built quickly and effectively with a few millimetres of glass separating the inside from the outside, saving costs and allowing facades to become a series of patterns applied over a structural frame. It was a building’s Starbucks moment as it was a way to reduce costs without affecting the coffee.
Look around the new buildings of Ho Chi Minh City and you can see examples of these curtain-wall exteriors of buildings. Some of these buildings have added mirror glass to their exterior — like giant mirrored sunglasses reflecting themselves — making it impossible to see what is inside except at night. Unfortunately these buildings have a tendency to reflect the sun’s rays and heat up surrounding buildings. Who would know what uses lie behind these facades?
The net result is building blandness, as the texture is removed and only the rectangular building form remains. An example of this is the Times Square building on Nguyen Hue that is only interesting once the LED lightshow is turned on at night. An additional drawback to these buildings — even those equipped with high-tech heat reducing glass — is that they cannot prevent glare and people inside must deal with it by closing the blinds, removing the view.
Think of any international city, think of the buildings in it and think of the memorable ones. The ones that you retain in your memory are those that are textured or unique in their shaping or form.
The older buildings dealt with Ho Chi Minh City’s sun problem by stopping the sun from getting past the facade. In doing so they created buildings that were interesting as well as practical.
Can we develop an architecture that understands and solves these problems in a modern way?
More next month…