Some people get upset when they see an apostrophe in the wrong place on a shop sign and seem to spend half their life looking for examples in order to be offended. Some graphic designers can name a font from 100 metres away and tell you the date and the name of the foundry or the designer and for many it's Comic Sans that sets them off. Me? Well I get worked up about cladding.
OK that's a slight exaggeration but I've spent my working life looking at and taking photographs of and writing about buildings so it really is hard to switch off. Walking along a street, I’ll suddenly spot an interesting or curious feature and then I realise, although I was not conscious that I was doing it, I've been scanning and registering buildings as I'm walking. Perhaps that's why it's difficult sometimes for me to understand that, for lots of different reasons, other people don't even see the awful buildings all around them or, come to that, appreciate when a building has been designed with enormous care.
If I mention cladding then you'll probably look slightly blank … then possibly recall that it's a word for the planks that people nail on the outside of garden sheds. But even architects can be a bit vague when talking about cladding and some manufacturers use the term façade panel and many use the word generically for the exterior skin of a modern building and some only where it is a curtain wall. Using that tighter definition of curtain wall construction is probably a good starting point and so that's where the different levels of a structure are built in concrete or in steel and are supported by pillars or piers in reinforced concrete or steel so external walls do not actually carry any load. So, when it comes to the facades, then anything goes … anything that keeps out the rain and keeps out or keeps in heat and keeps out … or keeps in … noise.
One benefit/problem with concrete or steel-framed buildings now is that there is a general sense of freedom … a sense or possibly the misconception that the outer face of the building, its cladding, does not have to be related to the interior spaces or to the functions of the building in any direct way. For many architects that has released them from conventional restraints - anything is possible and anything should be possible. Recently I read an article by one of the team who worked with Zaha Hadid who said that many of her ideas could not be realised until computer drafting in 3D was developed to deal with the complex shapes the cladding of those buildings form.
Also, of course, materials can now be shipped in from any manufacturer anywhere in the World so, even if that seems exciting or adventurous or exotic, it begins to undermine the specific character and continuity of place. And those materials cover an enormous range of colours and textures, including shaped and tinted glass, plastics of various forms, artificial stones and coloured and preformed panels of concrete and sheets of metal that will have no relationship to traditional local building materials.
So some of the new buildings along the harbour in Copenhagen could be anywhere in the World and are ambiguous in terms of a possible date - they could have been constructed at any stage in the last 40 years - and, with several of those buildings, it is unclear from the outside if they are apartments or offices and, when it is an office building, it's not obvious if they have a civic function or are let to a fast turnaround of small companies or are the global headquarters of a vastly profitable organisation. Quite often an ambiguous or bland exterior can be used deliberately to conceal what is happening inside … although of course the opposite is interesting where a flash and brash exterior to a building is used to exaggerate the importance of what is actually going on inside and is much more mundane than the front suggests.
Cladding does not have to be novel or exotic - many building have brick or tile on the front but when you look carefully at the joins you can see they were applied as large, pre-formed panels - rather like a veneer - and that is completely unrelated to the traditional way those materials have been used in the past. This might seem proscriptive or even puritanical but one of the key principles of good design is that good design should be honest about the materials and honest about the method of manufacture or construction. Perhaps the easiest way to explain that is to look back to an early use of moulded plastic. Early household pieces in plastic would imitate glass … often ornate and highly coloured glass or might even imitate cut glass - basically to produce a cheap version - but the products looked wrong and certainly felt wrong because when you picked them up they were much lighter than you expected. Plastic is a fantastic material but only when it is used in ways that exploit it's own qualities. Plastic is a perfectly acceptable material for cladding as long as it looks like plastic and not, for instance, when it is given a colour and fake grain to pretend that it is timber.
If buildings work in the way planned and don't actually look horrendous - simply boring or nondescript - does the cladding matter? And doesn't it make the street or the square more interesting if architects and builders make buildings look a bit more … well … exciting. Who needs drab in a drab life?
But I'm not saying that buildings should be boring and deferential. I admire clever architect who are pushing the boundaries but I'm worried if a developer or their architect is simply being lazy; being bolshie or testing the limits just to be controversial or they are in a hurry or simply didn't think they had the time to think or because it was the cheapest option or because they think it is fashionable in the sense of being trendy or edgy. Today's edgy tends to be tomorrows tiring and boring.
I'm not sure I will convince anyone that cladding spotting is interesting or fun but maybe you can agree that inappropriate use of inappropriate cladding diminishes the quality of the urban setting of all our lives.