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  • Catherine Holliss

Building Skin : What's In A Face?

Updated: Apr 26

Much like plants, people, or other living things, the skin of a building is that surface which interacts with the world at large. The skin has a responsibility to protect the contents, much like our skin protects us. It also makes a statement to the greater world about the building, a statement that connects the form and function of the building: it might conceal and camouflage, it might flaunt, strut, pose and parade.

Given these complex duties, skin is no simple matter for the architect or designer of a building.

In a mammal, skin might fulfill the important function of insulating against cold to conserve body heat. It might equally insulate against heat and keep a creature from overheating. Differing colors and patterns might provide camouflage or generate recognition and attraction between members of a particular species.

It is no coincidence that a well-designed skin in a building can mimic and/or emulate all of these attributes.

At Sander Architects we are passionate in our approach to skin. Here are two case studies that allow architect Whitney Sander to reveal some of his thinking about this important aspect of building design. Out of a list of architects in Los Angeles not many others have this level of obsession.

The metaphor for this project involves a dense exterior skin to protect the interior of the house from the local extremes of heat and cold. To this end, the house is wrapped in a thick layer of insulation, much like the carapace of an armadillo protects the creature from the desert sun.

The look of the skin came from a pattern in the sand of a winter beach. We used 3”-thick, custom concrete tiles help to protect the house from the desert. The result feels like an abstraction of wind blown sand. In this case, the skin comes out of a combination of pragmatics and aesthetics produced by the desert context.

The architect provided the concrete company with the image of the sand and they, in turn produced this graphic of the custom tile so that the client, and architects, could visualize the product in the actual project.

In the mountains of Idyllwild, CA, Sander Architects was tasked with providing a Concert Hall for the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Our designs were subject to Campus Master Plan restrictions that required the project to match the coloring of the existing campus buildings, almost all of which have been constructed with brown T-111 wood siding. We took this into consideration, along with a request for minimal maintenance. We also explored the context of rocky outcrops and mountains that surround the campus. Simultaneously, of course, the building interior was being developed for performances, student recitals, and professional classical music concerts.

The breakthrough in extensive explorations came when Whitney Sander took a line of music, “Xtal” by Richard James (Aphex Twin), and used it to generate a line of folds in CorTen steel. The result? A building skin that works with the required brown, will never need maintenance, and which feels like the rocky outcrops of the surrounding landscape. That all of this came from a line of music was a perfect metaphor for a concert hall.

As designers, we delight in the process of developing “the face” of our projects. Each one is unique; each comes from a specific set of requirements and from very different contexts. This fusion allows every project to have its own personality. Whether considering the pragmatics, the context or the potential metaphor, developing and designing a building skin is one of the best parts of our job. We hope it shows.

What is in a face, indeed? It turns out there is plenty to think about.

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