Why has construction gone all ‘Touchy Feely’?

19th Apr 2023
Opinion
Pura Facades

Modern British architecture is all about touch, feel and texture, says James Butler of Pura Facades.

Back in the 80s and 90s, the leading lights of building design were all about steel and glass. Monolithic structures that reached into the clouds, making bold statements about the power and longevity of their patrons – usually bankers, financiers, insurers or law firms. Think the Gherkin the Walkie Talkie, 20 Fenchurch Street and more recently the Shard.

Fast forward a few decades and attitudes towards building styles have changed markedly. We no longer see the testosterone-fuelled corporate structures listed above being applauded by the likes of RIBA. Instead, the annual Stirling Prize has made a decisive shift toward more tactile materials in the last few years, celebrating projects such as Goldsmith Street in Norwich (2019) and the New Library at Magdalene College (2020) as designs for our times.

It’s interesting to look back at the recipients of RIBA’s Stirling Prize over the last 25 years. While projects using glass and other hard materials dominated the awards back then (think Duxford’s Museum for American aircraft in 1998 and Peckham Library in 2000), we’ve seen a radical shift in recent times to much more varied, warmer materials. These days, it’s much more about texture.

Using reclaimed materials – mostly wood – the Pier at Hastings won the award in 2017. Two years later Goldsmith Street celebrated the use of brick on a human scale, while the most recent winner in 2022 (the new Library at Magdalene College Oxford) harnesses the creativity of natural materials. Here, Níall McLaughlin Architects combine load-bearing brick, gabled pitched roofs, windows with tracery and brick chimneys to create a building that will stir the soul and stand the test of time.

So, what is going on here? In a word, it’s all about biophilia. 

Biophilia explained

There’s something called the biophilia hypothesis, which is the idea that we all have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. The term biophilia was first coined by German-born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness in 1973. In his book, he described biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” Since then, this concept has been embraced by architects, who have taken these principles into the world of building design.

In the 1980s, the work of Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson built on the foundation of this new way of thinking. Author of Biophilia, Wilson, who was a biologist and passionate conservationist, said, “nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”, Mother nature, it seems, has always been a comforting and inspiring force in our lives. Re-connecting people with the world that surrounds us soon became the driving force behind Wilson’s ground-breaking work.

Today, we see these ideas reflected in the healthy building movement, which makes a much stronger connection between building materials and their impact on people’s productivity, creativity and wellbeing. The biophilic movement is now well established among architects and designers, with magazines such as Dezeen devoting whole sections of its website to celebrate nature-inspired buildings.

Natural materials

While classic biophilic design tends to focus on the interior design of a building, using wood, plants and flowing patterns to create calming, nurturing spaces, this concept has now started to influence external designs, most notably building facades.

Wooden exteriors are an obvious choice, providing warmth and a highly tactile surface, however we are now seeing many more buildings employing a mix of timber and façade materials such as terracotta. Look at the New Library at Magdalene College, which fuses timber with brick on both the inside and outside of the building.

Alternatively, consider a new children’s home in the Austrian city of Fussach, which employs wood and Tonality terracotta tiles to create a warm, welcoming yet clean exterior.

Another notable example of terracotta being used as a natural, biophilic material is at a kindergarten in Copenhagen, Denmark, which uses lamella and baguettes of terracotta to create an inviting, protective space for young children. This creative approach by local architect COBE, shows the stunning effects that can be achieved using natural materials that will last for decades, requiring minimal maintenance.

The use of biophilic principles in building design is being seen increasingly in social housing projects in the UK. Peabody Estates approved a highly impact resistant and A1 fire class GRC cladding panel product manufactured by Rieder for its Amersham Vale development in Lewisham, London. Completed in 2022, this attractive scheme uses textured concrete finish in a matt white colour to add brightness and contrast to the adjacent brickwork. The panels frame the walkways and add a grid structure to the external facade. The U-shaped panels will weather naturally and evenly over time like the brick, giving a traditional stone look and feel.

I am in no doubt that the use of natural materials in modern architecture is a major trend that has been fueled by the ideas of Edward O. Wilson back in the 1980s. Today’s designers are much more in touch with the emotional connections between people and buildings – and how the use of certain materials can affect mood, health and performance.

Certainly, from Pura Facades’ perspective, we continue to see demand for products such as terracotta, glass reinforced concrete facades and brick slip all continuing to grow, despite the cool economic headwinds.

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19
Apr
2023
Why has construction gone all ‘Touchy Feely’?
Modern British architecture is all about touch, feel and texture, says James Butler of Pura Facades. Back in the 80s and 90s, the leading lights of building design were all about steel and glass. Monolithic structures that reached into the clouds, making bold statements about the power and longevity of their patrons – usually bankers, […]
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