Eight years after its first appearance at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s theory of facades is given its due

More Than Skin-Deep

Eight years after its first appearance at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s theory of facades is given its due

The CaixaForum in Madrid, with its prominent living wall (Tom Fahy/Flickr/Accessed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ecologies of the Building Envelope: A Material History and Theory of Architectural Surfaces
By Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Jeffrey S. Anderson | Actar | $40

Contradicting Le Corbusier, many architectural thinkers have argued that the most important part of a building is not its plan but, rather, its facade. This surface is the key to gauging a structure’s meaning, attitude, and performance—so says Spanish architect and theorist Alejandro Zaera-Polo (AZP). By his count, theories about the building envelope precede Le Corbusier by generations, going as far back as the early 19th century. It’s a busy space of ideas that requires some structural organizing, so it’s precisely here where AZP has set up shop.

Beginning with a series of innovative and novel projects by Foreign Office Architects (FOA), the office he cofounded in 1993 with Farshid Moussavi, and continuing to his pivotal essay “The Politics of the Envelope,” published in two parts in Log between 2008 and 2009, the exigencies of facade design have long preoccupied AZP. Now they’re the subject of his new book, Ecologies of the Building Envelope, written with Jeffrey S. Anderson and published by Actar.

book cover for ecologies of the building envelope
(Courtesy Actar)

FOA disbanded in 2011. The following year, AZP became dean of Princeton School of Architecture, and soon after he produced the facade section of Rem Koolhaas’s Elements of Architecture exhibition at the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture. (AZP previously worked at OMA from 1991 to 1993 prior to founding FOA.) This exhibition-within-the-exhibition, which included timelines and factoids, along with a handful of full-scale mock-ups from selected projects, somewhat parted with AZP’s core interests; the mock-ups in particular functioned as sculptural objects of contemplation rather than as objects within a technological continuum.

Citations were notably absent in the Venice installation or its subsequent manifestation in the Elements of Architecture catalogue. Princeton University took umbrage with the project’s lack of academic rigor, accusing AZP of lax academic standards and, eventually, plagiarism. Responding to concerns about the integrity of the research, AZP and his team pledged to produce a more meticulous study, to be published later. But the incident proved to be a negative catalyst: AZP was impelled to step down as dean, setting off a process of disillusionment with The Academy, broadly construed, that culminated in his dismissal as professor from Princeton last summer. (Subsequent to this, AZP uploaded a multi-part online video series alleging maltreatment he’d received from the school faculty and administration, covered previously by AN.)

Ecologies of the Building Envelope retains some of the basic structure of the original project but adds indexes, visuals, and foot- notes. At 491 pages, the book covers a wider range of case studies, historical scenarios, and performance metrics beyond those in the exhibition, including sections on performance, componentry, and assembly logics such as prefabrication and panelization. The arguments from “The Politics of the Envelope” reappear in new forms. Crucially, facades here are rendered as complex ecological networks rather than cultural objects invested with representational or symbolic meaning. Each chapter explores a handful of case studies and historical moments for different types of envelopes, including media facades, living facades, and double-glazed curtain walls. The volume is richly filled with details, illustrations both historical and contemporary, and probing thoughts on the evolution and ecology of each type of envelope.

archival photo of the equitable building in portland
Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building (1948) in Portland, Oregon. (Ezra Stoller/Courtesy Esto)

Still, I wonder if critics will resist posing the crude question: Who cares? Do we need a comprehensive theory of the facade? Do we really lack one? AZP’s ambitions feel a little like those that animated Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project; both explore the evolution of a body of aesthetic and material ideas, but are ultimately incomplete, though for different reasons. Rather than the coherent display of a totalizing theory, this book’s collection of beautiful fragments serves as the start of a conversation.

The theoretical scaffolding assembled here doesn’t move us any closer to a better understanding of the envelope. Can a product catalogue (manufacturer wares eat up a sizable portion of the book’s real estate) be converted into theory? If the facade is the place where value—architectural, cultural, political—is communicated to various publics, then what important values are being offered by buildings today?

AZP’s ecology arrives at a time of enormous interest in the study and production of facades. In the past decade, the construction industry has started to address issues such as embodied and operational carbon through life-cycle analysis (LCA) and other accounting tools that aim to capture supply chains. Building scientists can now document, in minute detail, the actual ecological footprint of a building in real time. New energy laws and standards require holistic approaches to building. And academics such as Kiel Moe have outlined theories to support these dynamic ecological approaches. The building envelope is the site of so many innovations that have serious energy impacts, ranging from materials and maintenance to evolving performance standards for new and existing buildings.

Does the complex material assemblage of a facade itself contain a politics? Absolutely, as the materials we build with have real-world implications for labor, and its expressions establish how an architecture meets its context. After last year’s high-profile antics, this handsome, maniacally documented book goes some way toward restoring AZP’s credibility. Its arguments establish a theory of the envelope; now it’s up to others to respond to and expand upon his achievement.