Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Theatre of the Sun

Moving through the sky, the sun is one of architecture’s few constants. Precisely predictable throughout the year, its presence and ferocity has shaped the nature of architecture throughout human history. Regional typologies around the world have developed to either welcome its warmth or shade from its heat. In India, the numerous geographical differences in the country have created a vast variety of mechanisms to control the sun and none is more remarkable than the humble courtyard. To the untrained eye, an empty void nestled in the midst of a dense built environment would seem like a waste of space. However, it is an architectural device of astounding value and simplicity. The light diffuses into the surrounding spaces and the courtyard itself can be used for a myraid of activities throughout the day and night.

As an architectural typology it has endured for millenia, yet it is completely absent from modern cities. The pressure on the land, soaring densities and archaic building bye-laws have all, but eradicated the courtyard from the urban townhouse – It simply isnt feasible to provide so much open space within each individual home. The agglomeration patterns do not permit all spaces to be naturally lit from exterior windows. So how is one to sufficiently illuminate all interior spaces? One of the more successful solutions is one that imbibes the best qualities of the courtyard and marries them to the best fenestration technologies prevalent today – Operable Skylights.

Skylights have been around long enough, but have always had a plethora of problems. They are essentially holes in the roof, so water penetration is always an issue.  The glasshouse effect, where the effect of the heat gets compounded because it cannot escape – is a boon for colder countries, but very uncomfortable for an already hot climate. It is also important to diffuse the light coming from a skylight for the same reason, the glare in the summer rendering the area useless for anything other than sunbathing.Also, a critical function of the courtyard was to draw out hot air from the centre of the house, forcing in fresh air from the periphery, thereby generating some much needed air movement.

Operable skylights address all of these concerns and more. Modern sealing systems use a multitude of neoprene gaskets and draining systems that allow for minimal water penetration. The little bit of water that does enter is drained through perforations in the profiles. Powder coated aluminum ensures a robust finish to the framework that holds the glass panels in place. The operable panels themselves can be electronically controlled, based on internal temperature and humidity levels. A high-performance glazing system will generally admit more light and less heat than a typical window, allowing for daylighting without negatively impacting the building cooling load in the summer. This is typically achieved through spectrally-selective films. These glazings are typically configured as adouble pane insulated glazing unit, with two 0.25 in. (6 mm) thick panes of glass that are separated by a 0.50 in. (12 mm) air gap. This construction gives the insulated glazing unit a relatively high insulation rating, or R-value, as compared to single pane glass. A low-emissivity coating is also often part of these high-performance glazing units, which further improves the R-value of the unit.

Many daylighting designs will employ skylights for toplighting, or admitting daylight from above. While skylights can be either passive or active, the majority of skylights are passive because they have a clear or diffusing medium that simply allows daylight to penetrate an opening in the roof. They are often comprised of a double layer of material, for increased insulation. Active skylights, by contrast, have a mirror system within the skylight that tracks the sun and are designed to increase the performance of the skylight by channeling the sunlight down into the skylight well. Some of these systems also attempt to reduce the daylight ingress in the summer months, balancing daylighting with cooling loads.

Daylight redirection devices take incoming direct beam sunlight and redirect it, generally onto the ceiling of a space. These devices serve two functions: glare control, where direct sun is redirected away from the eyes of occupants, and daylight penetration, where sunlight is distributed deeper into a space that would not be allowed otherwise. Daylight redirection devices generally take one of two forms: a large horizontal element, or louvered systems. Horizontal daylight redirection devices are often called lightshelves.Tubular daylight devices are another type of toplighting device. These devices employ a highly reflective film on the interior of a tube to channel light from a lens at the roof, to a lens at the ceiling plane. Tubular daylight devices tend to be much smaller than a typical skylight, yet still deliver sufficient daylight for the purpose of dimming the electric lighting.

As mentioned previously, the windows must be carefully designed to control the solar gains and potential glare stemming from a daylighting design. To this end, solar shading devices are often employed to minimize the amount of direct sun that enters the space. These can take the form of louvred slats, which soften the lighting by bouncing it off the dark wooden surfaces.

This article originally appeared in Fensterbau, a monthly tabloid of the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Brutal Shock

 A visit to the unsympathetically, but aptly named Barbican Estate means coming face to face with the Brutal. And I don’t mean only the grim English weather, but also the architectural style that this midcentury urban experiment championed so fiercely. Raised above the vibrant streets of the city of London, the experience of walking along the desolate windswept podium harks back to the barbicans of old - akin to being in a fortified outpost high above the terrain, miles from civilization. Except that you are in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the planet and yet, completely devoid of life and colour.

The urban revolution made possible by reinforced concrete is one of the pivotal moments in human history. Cities were low-rise agglomerations of buildings, never more than a few storeys tall until the steel reinforced frame came into being at the turn of the last century. Quickly catching on as the fashionable material to build in, it remained cloaked under historic facing materials for almost half a century till innovative & daring architects like Corbusier started using concrete as both structure and façade. Needless to say, it spawned an entire genre of architecture styles, with some architects like Tadao Ando using it as a pristine cuboidal form and some using it as they saw it – as a raw, rough and plastic material. From this second subset of architects emerged the Brutalists, famous for making their buildings almost entirely of only two materials - rough concrete and smooth polished glass.

In the UK, Brutalism caught on as the need for low-cost functional architecture in the post-war era was compounded by the need for reconstructive urban planning. Firms like Alison & Peter Smithson, Erno Goldfinger & Chamberlin, Powell & Bon created iconic structures with dynamic silhouettes and bold planning strategies. Amongst these, the Barbican Estate was arguably the most radical, albeit not the most successful reconstructive urban design of its time. Built during the late 60’s and early 70’s, it reimagined a 15ha site that had been irreparably damaged during the war. Much has been written about the social problems associated with the barren pedestrian plazas and the empty, unsafe peripheral streets, but the sharpest criticism was reserved for the treatment of the façade. The entire complex was rendered in a concrete so rough that merely brushing against it would ensure torn fabric and scratched skin. It was also an especially melancholy shade of grey, which would eventually stain irreversibly in the perpetually rainy weather and take on sinister dark streaks. To compound the problems, the rough surface was prone to vandalism by way of graffiti and for some of its early life, the approximately 2000 apartments had few takers.

Today, the Barbican Estate is Grade II listed and the ambition of the project is lauded as being visionary in its time. A quick search on a real estate website reveals that the apartments in the tall towers are worth around 1M GBP, the ones with no alterations being worth a little more. This suggests that not only are these desirable for their location and views, their thoughtful interior architecture is being appreciated as well. The Barbican Centre, an arts hub, is also undergoing a revival of sorts, after a sympathetic 2006 refurbishment that allowed better pedestrian access from the neighborhood. Yet the façade remains as uninviting as ever, devoid of any color save for the railings and planters. On a rainy September morning, the buildings seemingly merge into the gloomy sky, the weather doing its best to match tones with the beton-brut, the glass somberly reflecting the atmospheric mood.

It comes then, as quite a shock, to see the difference that a little colour can make. Simply by replacing the sky with flat neon tones leads to a dramatic re-perception of form. The skyline acquires clarity and the planar juxtaposition of the volumes and textures holds attention. Even the apparent disconnect between the 3 towers and the podium level blocks gets understood as a way of ordering movement along the plaza by creating urban walls. Rather than try and upstage the buildings, the intent is to provide a shocking contrast to the dramatic silhouette and bring the architecture itself into focus. To hope for vivid backgrounds to stolid buildings to enhance appreciation might be seen as wishful

For the complete photo essay, see our website

 © AKDA | Amit Khanna Design Associates
Photography by Amit Khanna

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi

The Triveni Kala Sangam is a cultural and architectural landmark in the city of Delhi. Designed by Joseph Allen Stein in 1957 in the part of Lutyens’ New Delhi dedicated to cultural activities, it has remains as one of the icons of post-independence architecture in the city. Stein, an architect and urban planner, was trained in California, but produced the bulk of his remarkable oeuvre of buildings in India. Known for his sensitivity to form and climate, his architecture has inspired an entire generation of architectural practices.

 Of this building, Mr. Stein said “I have sought forms and a vocabulary that would express a rational, effective reconciliation of advanced techniques of modern engineering and twentieth century architectural attitudes, with the ancient, yet enduringly vital, aesthetic and cultural values of India, in particular those of the Delhi region… At the same time, the character of the building was evolved with regard and respect for Indian sensibilities and Indian conditions.

The existing building can be read almost as a campus of individual blocks, each specifically designed for a specific purpose and that is reflected in the nature of their respective elevations. A four-storey classroom block is joined by a wall-less entry foyer to the art gallery and the open air auditorium. A three storey extension to the north was built in 1977 which accommodates additional classrooms, artists’ residences and a 200 seat auditorium. 

Despite being built to Mr. Stein’s fastidious attention to quality, the building has started showing its age, both by being non-compliant to new safety norms and by general deterioration under the ravages of the climate, where temperatures swing by almost 50ºC through the year. The highly polluted air in the city doesn't help either, especially as the building is situated in proximity to the central business district of Connaught Place.

In 2013, AKDA began the process of upgrading the building, first to comply with more stringent fire-safety regulations and then to preserve the building’s façade, including the signature screen, or jaali. The first physical manifestation of this process is an external metal stair, providing an additional egress point from the auditorium. Rather than try to design something that would blend in with the subdued character of the building, the stair was designed to be a departure from the old, retaining the spirit of what Stein sought, as opposed to the physicality. Fabricated entirely from steel, with minimal vertical supports, the stair is attached to the side of the building on a largely blank façade. Rendered in bright orange, the addition enlivens the sculpture court into which it descends.

Mandi House,New Delhi
Triveni Kala Sangam
Built-Up Area              
7000 Sq.Ft.

© AKDA | Amit Khanna Design Associates
Photography by Amit Khanna