Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Slowly but surely, we are learning to express ourselves through the outsides as well as the insides of our homes. Interest in pattern, ornament and decoration has been growing for years within the realm of interior design, partly as a reaction to the beige and often bland minimalist approach that was so current in the years leading up to the turn of the new century. Now the focus is shifting to architecture, where a growing number of designers are looking well beyond the idea of the crisp contemporary building box and experimenting with increasingly ornate and elaborately detailed facades.

At best, the exteriors of the new ornamental home have a sophisticated, crafted approach rather than loud, 'look at me' showmanship. They recall another golden era of craft and experimentation as the 19th Century spilled into the 20th, when both Arts & Crafts disciples and pioneering early Modernists were working within a carefully considered and restrained approach to pattern and decoration. Many of today's architectural innovators share the same kind of interests, while happy to look back as well as forwards in the search for inspiration as they invent houses and apartment buildings with a real sense of character and individuality. They are increasingly teaming up with clients and developers who are after the very same things.

'There is this global trend in architecture towards greater experimentation with ornament and pattern,' says Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects. 'There has been a sort of puritanism that has afflicted architectural style, which is very restrained and worthy, and not much fun. Some decorative architecture has rejected the puritanical ethos and responded with architecture that is not far off 'Disneyland' – decorative effects writ so large that people get it. But somewhere in the middle there is a real interest in materials, pattern and texture applied to form.'

Bowles recently completed a new house in Cambridge for financier Hugo Macey and his wife Hajni Elias, who works at Sotheby's, and their two children. Sitting on a quiet residential street, this new family home is practical and eco friendly but also eye catching. Its main façade has been made with sheets of milky glass with a subtle striped pattern, which reacts to the changing light of the day, becoming at times more reflective or translucent. The glass contrasts with the crafted timber coating on a music room positioned right at the front of the building, with the look of a sculpted timber hut or an oast house, faced with warm cedar shingles.

'We always knew that the façade would be important,' says Macey. 'I wanted the house to be quite open so that it does feel as though it's part of the community of the street and we'd seen some modern buildings and enjoyed them, so we wanted to go for something that was a bit different. We were looking to have a design that worked for us as a family without referencing a lot of traditional aspects of English architecture that many new buildings seem to do in this country.'

While Macey and Hajni did not set out to make a grand statement, they did want a house that would be unique, individual and something rather special. Visually, the façade lifts the house well beyond the ordinary and makes it stand out as something both modern and characterful, while still showing respect for the genteel surroundings. The shingles and glass become a key part of the outward identity of the home, grabbing the interest of any passers by.

In London, architects Squire & Partners are also experimenting with a highly unusual façade for a new family home in Mayfair, where construction starts this summer. Here, a former 18th century pub is being reinvented and extended with the addition of a new build structure that will be clad in an elaborate, decorative façade made with anodised aluminum shingles of different shades.

'The building opposite is covered in Virginia Creeper, which was the inspiration for the new façade,' says project associate architect Marcie Larizadeh. 'Each individual shingle is conceived as a leaf covering the building fabric. It adds a further level of detail to an otherwise more traditional Mayfair townhouse and draws in an element of "garden" within a constrained urban site. There is more room now for this kind of experimentation and making buildings bespoke to their context and more responsive to their setting.'

This push towards more individual houses, energised by fresh and more imaginative thinking about the coats and skins that envelop them, spreads far beyond Britain alone. The new ornamental home is very much an international phenomenon, tied to an ever increasing demand for more tailored and individual places to live. It also fits in with the notion that the thrust towards more expressive and crafted facades is one of the most important architectural themes of the age.

In Holland, architect Jaco D. de Visser has rebuilt the Huis de Weirs – a period mansion house that had fallen into deep dereliction – in contemporary style, reusing the foundations and the lower ground floor of the original building. The new manor house is a seductive and striking form covered in sheets of copper, which coat both the sides and the roof of the building forming one clearly defined object, like a sculpture in the landscape. Horizontal seams between the copper sheets create long copper bands reminiscent of great wooden timbers.

'The original Haus de Wiers was built in the middle of an area with lots of shipping activities and to my mind it was important to have a material that would be a reference to this world, with a roasted brown like aged timber,' says de Visser, who has made his home at the manor with wife Odette Ex and their two children, sharing the building with their offices and also a restaurant on the lower levels. 'Oxidised copper is the most wonderful material and lasts around 400 years. It has a wonderful colour difference under the influence of different types of light and different seasons.' In Noosa Sound, north of Brisbane, in Australia, architect Frank Macchia used a lattice of Corten steel to create an extraordinary façade for the holiday home of music producer Giorgio Serra and his family. The metallic 'cage' that wraps much of the building doubles as a sun screen, helping to protect the interiors of the house and keep them cool at the height of the day. Just as importantly, the Corten coating creates a powerful visual identity for the house, turning it into something distinctive and dramatic.

'Both Frank and I wanted to create something unique,' says Serra, who divides his time between Italy and Australia. 'Frank is very much an artist – he creates sculptures for people to live in. We both loved the Corten. My brother Paolo Serra, is an artist in Italy and he has used Corten and the way it rusts in his art for the last 20 years. We love the way that it ages and the colour of the material. It's like a great bottle of Pinot. It ages well.'

Such houses sit within a new global architectural vibrancy that is seeing a wave of experimentation with form and shape on the one hand and the coatings that envelop contemporary buildings on the other. We are moving from an age of crisp geometrical buildings in glass and steel into an era of more dynamic structures, made possible by advanced engineering and computer aided design. At the same time, architects are rethinking their approach to the exteriors of these buildings and working with texture, pattern, colour and materials of all kinds with the aim of dreaming up more imaginative and eye catching creations.

Within many cities, new apartment buildings in particular are bidding to entice and seduce buyers with distinctive use of unusual materials, ornamental facades and layers of texture and pattern. In New York, Herzog de Meuron's recent 40 Bond apartment building developed by Ian Schrager used a highly ornamental façade that mixes a chunky, crafted lattice of bottle green glass to frame the windows along with extraordinarily elaborate aluminium gates at ground level, which blend references to elaborate graffiti tags with a sinuous Art Nouveau quality.

Such imaginative detailing gives character and individuality to the building, but also helps set it apart and give it a particular identity and branding that helps make the place not only more interesting but desirable. These are energetic statement structures that are certainly meant to stand out from the crowd, rather than sinking away into the obscurity of the street line.

Ben van Berkel of UN Studio is another high profile architect, working on the international stage, who has been at the very forefront of the new spirit of experimentalism through both the dynamic form of his buildings and the use of ornamental and innovative façades. UN Studio has designed the Five Franklin apartment building, also in New York, which will be completed in late 2012. Situated in Tribeca in downtown Manhattan, the 20 storey building will undoubtedly form another landmark in the city, wrapped in a series of horizontal twisted metal ribbons that become balconies, sun screens and frames for views across the city. These powerful ribbons dress Five Franklin like a carefully tailored garment, partly inspired by the design of late 19th century Tribeca buildings, as well as the way that the pattern of the street grid system of the city becomes warped and distorted as it hits lower Manhattan.

'The bands are key to the design and help link the building to its surroundings, such as the cast iron buildings of Tribeca,' says van Berkel. 'But then they do also turn into balconies and sun screens so they have many different qualities. So you cannot see the difference between the utilitarian and the aesthetic aspects of the bands – it's a highly ambiguous façade.

'It's like good art that you come back to and reread it and analyse it again. I hope that we are aiming for a similar effect with our buildings and that we do draw people back to the project again and again. I do believe in the strong communicative effect that architecture can have.'

It's the ability of such buildings to communicate with all of us on a more sensual and artistic level, without resorting to shouting out at us, which makes them so powerful, although van Berkel argues that a sense of discipline and restraint is vital to avoid the dangers of architectural excess. It can also help architecture become more contextual and tied to a sense of place by inviting a more crafted and imaginative response to a particular place and set of conditions.

New ornamental facades also offer an increasingly attractive way for architects and developers to reinvent and remarket existing buildings that have become tired or unfashionable. Instead of rebuilding from scratch, a new façade offers a more affordable and eco conscious way of recycling and re-energising apartment buildings and other structures.

In London, Make Architects have just brought new life to a 1960s apartment building in Marylebone. While creating additional floor space, the rear elevation of the building – looking onto a quite mews – has been totally reinvigorated with new brass cladding that incorporates cantilevered balconies, which are partially sheltered by punctured and patterned brass screens. Something that was ordinary and non-descript has become something unique.

'It is very positive that our scheme has changed the face of the building and made the mews side its best face,' says Make partner and project architect Simon Bowden. 'The design of the balcony pods means that the residents are given this opportunity to stand outside the façade so that they can really appreciate it. 'There is an enormous amount of building stock in the UK that can be given new life by recycling the good bits and adding new elements where required to create a new identity for the building.'

Above all, the new ornamental home – whether an individual house or an apartment building – creates a fresh kind of excitement about design and architecture. The importance of craft and artistry allied with imagination and technology allows for a new level of expression. As architect Sean Griffiths of London based practice FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) argues, we have been frightened of facades for too long and they are finally getting the attention they deserve.

'We argue that a façade is one of the most important parts of a building because it forms part of the urban scene and is generally what is most communicative about a building in telling you what it is,' says Griffiths, whose work has long explored ideas of ornament and decoration within facades which often echo rococo and baroque themes in abstracted use of cut out patterns. 'Facades are the interface between public and private space – most people know buildings by their facades even if they never go into them.'

Griffiths designed his own three storey, live-work London home, the Blue House, in East London using a layered façade which suggested the idea of an almost cartoon like version of cardboard cut out home topped by a miniature office block with a sequence of small windows. Now FAT have just completed the Grote Koppel restaurant and hotel building in the Dutch city of Amersfoort, using an intricate façade made of pre cast concrete sandwich panels carved into exotic patterns inspired by historic Dutch window surrounds.

FAT's buildings are playful and captivating, but still serious pieces of architecture. Above all, like the best of the new ornamental architecture, they offer an enticing alternative to the crisp, puritanical carbon copy homes and soulless buildings that seem to have invaded so many streets. And the move towards a fresh ornamental style has only just begun.

'Our buildings are not meant to be a joke but they can raise a wry smile,' says Griffiths. 'We are trying to offer something that is more idiosyncratic and communicative with a wider audience than just other architects. There's lot of characterless buildings out there and people do get bored with one dominant architectural style. Things change and generations move on. Architects are always in denial about the importance of fashion to architecture, but people do get bored with endless bland boxes and want to move on. They are looking for something different and variety is the spice of life.'

MOLE ARCHITECTS – – 01353 688 287
SQUIRE & PARTNERS – – 020 7278 5555
JACO D. DE VISSER ARCHITECTEN – – + 31 (0) 30 231 9892
FRANK MACCHIA – – + 61 (0) 7 547 424 22
UN STUDIO – – + 31 (0) 20 570 2040
MAKE ARCHITECTS – – 020 7636 5151
FAT ARCHITECTURE – – 020 7251 6735

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