Sealed Envelopes and Porous Skins: Metaphor and Meaning in the Architectonic Enclosure
The terms of the discourse can inform our understandings of the architectonic enclosure. Liberated from its structural role at the turn of the 20th century, the primary responsibility of this architectural element became its function as interface between interior and exterior. In the late 20th century, the architectonic enclosure was known as a building envelope. By early 21st century, the term building skin gained parlance.
In the later decades of the twentieth century, building envelope became a sealed barrier between inside and outside; mechanical engineers strived to perfect systems creating idealized interior environments independent of exterior conditions. Sealed office buildings evidenced a proud conquest of nature by architects and engineers, spawning a global landscape of climate-controlled, fluorescent-lighted, mirrored-glass boxes.
In the 21st century, building enclosure has become a porous skin, permitting an interchange between inside and outside, as building partners with nature for human comfort. Sustainability is the architect’s mandate, loading the design of building skin with expressive possibility, performative capability, figurative layers of meaning, and literal layers of active and passive elements of environmental control systems. Skin exists in the public realm at the same time that it wraps the interior spaces of the building. It is both the public image of the building, and the private lens by which the building’s occupants view the outside world. The sustainability imperative gives a new public role to the skin as an arena for action in the preservation of our planet for future generations. This public role has led to real change in the design of building skins and has also led to charges of “greenwashing”, the assertion that a design merely looks sustainable.
This investigation of building enclosure uses the revelatory power of metaphor to illuminate the changing relationship between building and environment, in its tectonic, material, and cultural manifestations.
Keywords: Building Skin, Building Envelope, Sustainability, Environment, Tectonic
Associate Professor and Program Director, Architecture Program