London Calling: Public Architecture, Inside Out

By its very nature, architecture has an obvious, and powerful, public presence. No matter who commissions buildings, they form the material backdrop of public life; the design of every building impacts towns and cities and the experience of those living and working in them. Architecture, though, is more than a stage-set. While, all too often, designed “iconic” buildings are indeed objects, and often vanity projects designed to show off the aspirations and egos of certain clients and architects, the space both inside and around these buildings, like most others, is public space: shared space, space used by communities of people, and space that often has psychological and emotional effects on very many of us. Think of shops, department stores, banks, offices and the many other buildings that, privately owned, play important roles in everyday public life.

It’s this internal aspect of public buildings that has been increasingly marginalized as architects and clients work together to maximize the external impact and character of buildings.  After all, the public life of a public building, be it a court house or shopping-mall, does not cease once you are inside.

Today,there is a danger of buildings becoming architecturally barren, soulless places rather than considered structures enclosing special public spaces. To comprehend how the heavily externalized “wow-factor” gradually took over from the idea of architecture as a noble service to the public at large, we must look at architecture’s recent history.

At the end of the 19th Century, Chicago gave us the structural steel frame and the means by which to build very high indeed. Burnham & Root’s 20-storey Monadnock Building of 1892, with its heavy brick structure and elephantine two-metre thick lower-storey perimeter walls, was superseded in terms of structural design just a year later by Holabird and Root’s framed extension to the same building. Burnham & Root’s Reliance Building [1894] and Sullivan’s Schlesinger & Mayer Store [1889] followed.

Sketch entitled 'The Monadnock Office Building, Chicago. Burnham and Root, Architects.' Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User

In France at much the same time, Auguste Perret was experimenting with concrete, although he was more interested perhaps in its material qualities than its structural properties. Fast forward - via Le Corbusier, the International Style and Functionalism - and the frame becomes the norm; it was no longer associated with the structural imperative of high-rise, but with the plan-libre and the idea of the façade as frame. For much of the 20th Century the façade was constructed as a system of panels within the frame, and pretty much any material could be used.

Villa Savoye / Le Corbusier. © Flavio Bragaia

Skip another generation, to the early 1970s and the energy crisis. Buildings were clearly consuming too much energy, and many Modernist designs, using relatively primitive building technologies, were the worst offenders. In remote parts of New Mexico and Colorado, architects were beginning to explore sustainable construction technologies that might heat or cool a building.  These were simple devices – getting the orientation right, thermal mass, trombe walls (where glass is placed in front of a heavy wall).  A new vernacular was emerging indicating that the positioning, morphology, construction and handling of daylight could converge to create a holistic form of design.

At the same time, in mainstream practice, the frame gave rise to non-load bearing cavity construction, rain-screens and curtain walls that were developed as a way of separating the cold and wet exterior of a building from its warm and dry interior. Cladding was born. Within one hundred years, what had begun as a high-rise engineer’s solution propagated by the Modernist architectural dream had spawned the autonomous exterior.

Inside these new forms of building, a similar dislocation was underway with the emergence of a new professional specialism - interior design - now charged with the spaces inside the structural frame.  Interior designers worked initially fitting out shops, offices and in remaking high-end apartments, and buildings like shopping malls and offices shells where the architecture does not complete the design of these speculative spaces.  The emergence of branded chains and mass-produced fixtures and fittings further established the interior designer’s role as someone who understands consumers, what members of the public have increasingly become to be seen as, and even to be.  And, eventually, the interior designer’s role has extended to all manner of buildings.

Today new forms of technology, ways of working and the manner in which practices are commissioned, all point to a profession unable to create true bespoke public space within buildings, even though, once upon a time, this internal space was as much the architect’s terrain as the elevation. 

But, must our generation content itself with making such hollow objects decked up with fanciful envelopes? Should it be obsessing about form and surface rather than content and real, architectural public space??  How conducive can this ever-increasing specification-led specialization be in creating buildings that address the idea of civic culture and the common good? Are these not themes that require the architect’s skill-base  - very different from that of an interior designer - as whole-heartedly as the urban planning of a project? 

As Ove Arup mused: “Civilization is built on Specialisation; Specialisation may destroy Civilization.”  For the schism between the external appearance and internal workings of buildings to be repaired, architects must take up their greater social and civic purpose and re-establish their central role in the commissioning and the creation of briefs for new buildings.  We must be seen as creative, professional and business partners working as allies with our clients in realising our patrons’ plans and objectives. These tasks should not go to management consultants, branding consultants, nor to real estate services, project managers, interior designers nor contractors, but to architects.

For public buildings to address public values they need to be conceived inside and outside. Only then can architecture have a more profound societal impact and create typological or organisational structures that are meaningful. It is only thus we can design true public space inside out.

Simon Henley is a teacher, author of the well-received book The Architecture of Parking, and co-founder of London-based studio Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR). His column London Calling will look at London’s every-day reality, its architectural culture, and its role as a global architectural hub.

About this author
Cite: Simon Henley. "London Calling: Public Architecture, Inside Out" 27 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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