Sealed Envelopes and Porous Skins: Metaphor and Meaning in the Architectonic Enclosure

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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
Stream: Arts Theory and Criticism
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Madlen Simon

Associate Professor and Program Director, Architecture Program
School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland, USA

Madlen Simon is an experienced architect, educator and scholar dedicated to preparing students for professional careers in architecture. In her 30 years in professional practice, Professor Simon has developed a keen interest in innovative education for the next generation of architects. She brings to architectural education both design expertise and scholarly reflection on practice. Professor Simon entered academia in 1991, after 14 years practicing architecture in two world-renowned architecture firms, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Edward Larrabee Barnes Associates, as well as leading her own firm, Simon Design. She joined the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland in 2006 after 14 years at Kansas State University. Professor Simon teaches architectural design studios to both graduate and undergraduate students, including the Comprehensive Studio that integrates design and advanced technology, and a Topical Studio on Sustainable Building Skin. The research direction weaves together Professor Simon's architectural practice and instruction in advanced architectural design into an investigation of the material fabric of a building's façade and its relationship to technical performance, aesthetic expression and cultural meaning.

Ref: A09P0702