“You can also make an architectural revolution!” Le Corbusier wrote in 1929 in “Statements.” With the slogan “Form follows function”, functionalism became the most important attribute of the new architectural movement of the thirties and at the same time a new aesthetic was proclaimed.
The focus was almost exclusively on the engineers’ mobile technical industrial products: aircrafts, ships or cars meant the maxim of aesthetics, function and quality for Le Corbusier, the “master of modernity”, based on the “strict demands of an inevitable program” which the engineers obey using the “shape-generating and shape-indicating elements” and thereby create “clear and impressive facts of design.”
Here, according to Le Corbusier, the “law of economy imperatively steering the doing and thinking” of architects and engineers. In a period of renewal, he saw it as the first duty of architecture to create the solution to the “problem house” on which “the balance of the social order” depends. “The revision of the valid values, the revision of the essential elements of a house” was proclaimed for the solution of the problem.
Otl Aicher, one of the most influential German designers and co-founder of the HFG in Ulm, sees modernist architecture as based on a social reform program: “It wanted, as it was called, to bring light, air and sun into the apartments. It was opposed to dark street canyons, backyard architecture and bourgeois windows which were padded by multi-row curtains creating semi-dark rooms. The opposing position was clearly documented by Le Corbusier’s Pavillon Suisse in Paris from 1930 / 32. Its entire south side consists of a glass front, large windows that extend from the floor to the ceiling and occupy the entire width of the rooms behind. My first visit, shortly after the war, was this building, resting on a few central pillars. I felt this architecture as the announcement of a new era.”
In addition to the many positive effects of modernism on architecture and urban planning, the architect and journalist Bernd Faskel sees the mistake that the modernists made in an “architectural alignment, the one essentially unchanged program for all people, in all situations, regardless of habits, behaviours or climatic conditions “.
Architect Konrad Wachsmann would probably comment this: “Stop. I know what you are going to say now: The inventors of the international style have uniformed the world, and industrialized architecture has left the rest of architecture behind. But that’s not true. The epigones took care of the uniforms, those unimaginative architects who had not thought of anything, for them architecture is only a problem of style and form. […] “
“Today – in the time of international traffic, the international economy and technology – I recommend a single construction model for all countries, all climates: The house with proper breathing ability. […] I set up a factory for precise air […] The Russian house, the house in Paris, Suez or Buenos Aires, the luxury steamer that passes over the equator: all of them will be hermetically sealed. In the winter it will be warm, in the summer it will be cool – that means inside there will always be pure and good air of 18° C.”
Otl Aicher writes about the air quality of air conditioning systems, the “factories for precise air”: “Basically, a room without opening windows is a physiological cage. The air from the air conditioning system is one of cans. Air is a high-grade stimulation factor. The air conditioning never gets the fresh, tingling air of a rainstorm or the dry working air of a summer morning or the soft air of an August evening.”
Worldwide, people became aware of the problem of “air from cans” as the sick building syndrome.
A fundamental architectural error of modernity which causes the need for the air conditioning and the related problems, describes Aicher disillusioned after his expectant visit to the Pavillon Suisse: “ […] what stayed was a disappointment. In the rooms behind the windows was an air that had been overheated by the sun and was stuffy. It was too bright to work in the sun. Everything was light and shadow, there were no transitions.
Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer later mounted the brise-soleil on the buildings – prominent sun visors made of concrete or metal which should let light, but no longer direct sun into the interiors. Le Corbusier often used these elements for formal as well as functional reasons. At the Unités and buildings in Chandigarh, the location and orientation of the “Sunbreakers,” as Le Corbusier calls them in his German writings, does not always correspond to the compass, e.g. with brise-soleil to the north. The same can be observed with Oscar Niemeyer’s ministries in Brasilia, which line up with the long façade-sides in east-west direction along the “Monumental-Axis”, the slope down to the National Congress: Presumably in order to leave an uninterrupted view towards the Congress only on the east sides of the ministries vertical brise-soleil made of aluminum where provided, while the Congress -oriented west sides consist of steel-glass facades with internal sun protection.
One might think that the traditional Arabic architecture with its Maschrabyyas has provided the modernists with the decisive impulses for the invention of the brise-soleil.
The fact that this resulted in a misinterpretation in terms of execution of shading elements in traditional Arabic architecture, states the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy: “The modern European architect who has built glass walls, so you get a better view of the outside, ignores the temperature factor. A 3×3 meter glass wall lets the outside heat into the room, especially in direct sunlight. To solve this problem the architects have installed concrete solar shading. But this protection also absorbs heat that is radiated back into the room. This protection prevents the view from the glass window and the contrast between the wide sloping protection and the light in between damages the eyes. All photos of these sunscreens are always taken from the outside, so you do not see this contrast. The architect who builds his building like an oven, and then uses air conditioners to live in, sees the architectural problems as inferior. This results in a planning that is below the level of architectural art. “
Le Corbusier wrote in 1929 about the building envelope: “Since architecture is the artful, correct and magnificent play of the buildings that gather under the light, the architect has the task of bringing life to the outer skin that encases those structures without this being a parasite that consumes or absorbs the building: but that is the sad story of the present.”
With the “parasite that consumes or absorbs the building,” of course, he meant the ornament – in the form of the role of the parasite in the antique comedy, which appears on the stage as a hungry, gluttonous and fawning parasites figure that disturbs the scene.
The sad story of the present is that symptomatic to modernism which has not been adopted to a “genius loci” a – ok, let`s call it parasite – can be observed almost everywhere in Southern Europe in the form of condensation-dripping air-conditioning units as a result of uncontrolled solar energy input into glazed facades. And elsewhere it sits hidden on the roof.
It can be said that the buildings that suffer from “climate machine infestation” are primarily those that were created in the style of international modernism and have a lack of solar -input balance through the window panes. They serve the paradigm of “Form following function” only for a serving function of architecture in a sense that it can be used for certain necessities.
Otl Aicher’s opinion of 1991 is still assessable today: “Glass and frame grids are hip, the latest thing. How to control the climate is not the theme of architecture any more. There is the lighting technician, the air conditioning technician, the heating technician. The architect retreats into the realm of beauty.”
Shading-mechanisms in traditional methods of construction
Traditional construction methods have brought forth various location-based mechanisms of shading. These include primarily basics, such as building orientation; structural elements such as self-shading by ledges or back jumps in the facade in respect to the building openings or the setting back of the window openings into the façade; seasonal shading such as green pergolas, which reduce the solar radiation during hot seasons and lose the foliage in the cold season so that the entry of solar energy is roughly regulated during the course of the year. Moreover, there are additional elements such as canopies, awnings or mechanically controllable elements – here is primarily the folding shutter mentioned, by which the penetration of solar energy can be regulated depending on weather conditions, seasonally and in the daily routine.
The traditional exterior shutter, when properly operated, is one of the most effective ways to control the input of solar energy into the window openings of a building.
Shading the Niemeyer Sphere: “The invisible window shutter” – LCW technology from Merck
During our work on the Niemeyer-Sphere, that is an extension of the restaurant for Kirow-company in Leipzig, designed by Oscar Niemeyer in 2011, we repeatedly came across the problem of shading because in a “glass ball” – the geodesic steel-glass parts of the sphere – the solar input, due to the always right-angled arrival of solar radiation onto the building skin, is still far higher than in a classic vertically arranged glass façade.
Additional shading elements would have interfered too much with the given architecture. “Static” insulating glazing with low g-values inevitably lead to a constant and considerable darkening of the interior so that artificial interior lighting would have been necessary even during the day – one would have had the feeling of having the outer space only to be able to experience through permanent sunglasses.
The attempt to work with conventional, electrochromatic insulating glazing led to a not really convincing result as well: a variety of the given glass geometries would not have been able to be produced and the reaction time of the glasses for darkening and brightening is very long. In addition, one is bound to the rather unattractive bluish-brownish window colouring which is absorbed unattractively on the human skin and also the inside-environment. And the food – in the Niemeyer Sphere is a gastronomic operation – would not look exactly appetizing by the given colour.
After further research, we came across the Liquid Chrystal Window – (LCW-) technology, which is just now entering the market for façades and seemed to largely exclude the negative features of electro-chromatic glazing, whereby the positive features remain.
In various model experiments, a pleasant and neutral, almost transparent starting grey tone was found which turns into a neutral black when fully shaded. Thus, the g-value of between 0.17 and 0.36 can be controlled automatically or manually in an eye strike with a light transmission of between 0.02 and 0.43. And almost all of the given glass geometries can be produced.
These characteristics led to the decision to use LCW glazing as “invisible shutters” for the Niemeyer Sphere in order to control glare, heat and light transmission when needed and so reducing the demand for airconditioning without interfering with Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture.
LCW glazing might give also an encouraging tool for the problematic heritage of shading in modernism in the sense of a reflective modern that can renew out of itself.
This article first appeared in IGS Magazine’s Winter 2018 Issue – Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: Harald Kern, founder of KERN Architektur UG