The art of facades

Simon Gregory of Proteus Facades looks at how advances in facade materials and finishes are allowing architects to ‘sell the dream’ to clients of integrating art and design in our cityscapes, as demonstrated on a new research unit in London.

Over the last few years there has been much discussion about how building design is being influenced by art. As a result, art, design and architecture are becoming more closely integrated and the introduction of new facade materials and finishes is helping with this. Extending the options available to designers with finishes such as patinated brass and weathered steel gives them an ability to engage the observer and make them look beyond the basic ‘four walls and a roof’.

If we pause and examine the facade of any building we pass by, inhabit, work or live in we might see that architecture can often be a form of visual art. An example of this is Imperial College’s new Molecular Sciences Research Hub in London. The striking perforated panels in were manufactured in TECU Brass with a Capisco patinated finish, helping the designers create a dynamic aesthetic.

Molecular facade

Perforated brass cladding with patination applied by Capisco was chosen for the Hub because the designers Aukett Swanke felt it reflected the molecular science that takes place inside. Alongside this, the designers chose a combination of other materials for the facade including concrete and glass curtain walling. They specified Capisco’s CAP 55 finish for the Proteus SC perforated panels early in the design process because they were looking to complement the flat bare concrete facade and glazed elements.

The CAP 55 effect was hand-applied, giving the perforated panels an enhanced flow, feel and texture. The appearance of the panels changes depending on the level of sunlight and the angle at which they are viewed from. The end result is a strikingly beautifully building that appears to move and shimmer across the visually flat facade beneath. In that respect, it achieves what the designers set out to do – integrating art, design and architecture to create a building that inspires the viewer.

This design theme flows to internal areas, too, with the perforated panels seamlessly transitioning through the entrance glazing to form a striking feature within the atrium. This creates an impressive solar composition, accentuated by spotlights, when visitors cast their eyes upwards.

Commenting on the development, Elias Niazi, design principal at Aukett Swanke, said:

“The contrast between the concrete, glass and patinated brass couldn’t be more complementary and, with it, aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The visual outcomes on this project have exceeded expectations. The perforated patterns on the brass panels with artistic patinations add a sense of mystery and mirror the innovative research works carried out inside the building.”

The project also included the manufacturing of the window flashings, again in a matching patinated finish. Initially conceived as a simple window flashing, a real technical challenge had to be overcome – the profile of the window reveal is a narrow box that tapers across the width to make it appear as though the window blends into the concrete. An ability to overcome this challenge is an indication of just how adaptable metal facades really are. For example, the maximum depth of the window reveal was too large for traditional manufacturing processes and so a multi piece flashing that could be stud-welded and bolted together was designed. This avoided any distortions that would have resulted from traditional welding processes, while creating a bespoke element that could be easily installed on site.

The perforated panels were developed in conjunction with the supporting composite panel behind. These had a maximum capacity to support the perforated panels, with the required cavity zone, at 750 mm centres. A perforated hook-on panel system was used, set off from the 125 x 50 mm mullions. The panels encompass a PPC black stainless steel bird mesh, carefully integrated into the back to ensure there was no visual impact to the panel face.

The Molecular Sciences Research Hub incorporates technical and laboratory areas clustered around a full height atrium, and the striking new hub forms the centrepiece of the Imperial West campus. Laing

O’Rourke commenced construction works at the end of 2014 with completion in 2016. The facade was installed by its in-house team, Laing Facades.

Recent advances in metal facades mean that designers are choosing to show off the construction and materials rather than masking them, and Imperial College’s Molecular Sciences Research Hub is a good example of this. It also shows that an increasing number of building designers are creating structures that give a nod, externally at least, to art.

In some respects, architecture has always done that, from the elaborate carvings of medieval stonemasons, through to stained glass used by Victorians. They all have one thing in common, which is that the quality of materials should be emphasised in design, not hidden away. Advances in metal cladding allow building designers to do just that, ensuring the ongoing vibrancy of our cityscapes and enabling architects to ‘sell the dream’ to clients of the next awe-inspiring design.

Simon Gregory is sales manager at Proteus Facades