Shell construction photographs The Ecole d’Architecture de Nantes by Lacaton & Vassal Architectes, the Alvéole 14, Saint Nazaire, by LIN and the Archivo Historico de Granada Carmen del Negro by Luis Feduchi in photographs by Javier Callejas


Shell construction photographs The Ecole d’Architecture de Nantes by Lacaton & Vassal Architectes, the Alvéole 14, Saint Nazaire, by LIN und the Archivo Historico de Granada Carmen del Negro by Luis Feduchi in photographs by Javier Callejas

1924 vs. 2009 “The bare construction reveals the truth. As yet without flesh and blood, the skeleton displays the boldness of the construction in a clearer and far more impressive way than the completed building.“ In his evaluation of his trip to the USA 85 years ago in “Amerika. Bilderbuch eines Architekten”, which was published two years later, Erich Mendelsohn portrays and interprets skyscraper construction sites in Detroit and Chicago and discloses a source of inspiration “Towards A New Architecture” (the English title of Le Corbusiers manifest ‘Vers une architecture’ which was published the same year). To the Berlin architect, the shell construction is an “X-ray of the completed building” which, on close inspection, can reveal the architecture’s inner character and its pathogenesis with an almost scientific precision. A diagnosis facilitates successful treatment of a patient and can, of course, only be achieved if there is an elucidative X-ray, i.e. if the shell construction chosen provides conclusions about future developments. While post-World War I architects such as Mendelsohn strived to reconcile engineering, construction, functionality and shape, today’s industrial nations, faced with an ageing and shrinking population, diminishing fossil resources and global warming, are confronted with the necessity of a fundamental correction of modernity’s habit of exploiting the world and the environment and a revision of its values and objectives, resulting in a new culture of sustainability in the profoundest sense of the word. Can looking at shell constructions offer us inspiration in our search for a way out of convention? And if we venture on this undertaking, which shell constructions will provide us with insight?

The framework: as durable as possible In the architecture of historism, most emphasis was given to public space, i.e. the façade, whilst today, most effort goes into technical details. The analysis of vernacular architecture in the context of sustainability puts the shell construction back into the focus. If the frame is to be durable, costs cannot be saved on the shell construction, particularly under consideration of the resource-intensive building process – in just a few decades, only a wealthy constructor, unconcerned about his reputation, will be able to afford the destruction of a structurally intact ferroconcrete skeleton. In the coming culture of repair, a waster of this kind will be regarded as irresponsible, if not anti-social. The only comfort is that no longer amortization cycles and real estate speculation will determine the durability of the world. Shell construction displays the quality of the framework and allows us to estimate how many conversions, floods and tremors the building in question will endure. The sight of monolithic building delights us; even more so if it appears generously dimensioned and robust. Mixed constructions, however, compiled from synthetic and variously layered and coated materials, provoke skepticism; we will dare only to construct them in secrete. The result: construction sites concealed by huge advertising canvases arouse suspicion; the modern aspiration for the highest possible transparency is spreading from architecture to construction site esthetics. Yet the celebration of flimsy weightlessness, familiar to us from modern architecture and which, in future, will still be found in ephemeral wooden or textile works, is joined by a new enthusiasm for mass, weight and impenetrability – characteristics which are considered appropriate for any construction which requires large amounts of energy and resources and is recognized as valuable. Such mass can store both heat and cold. Who cannot recall the comforting coolness of a vaulted cellar on a hot summer’s day? Rising temperatures are increasing demand for vaulted cellars and chambers – rooms surrounded by thick walls.

The frame construction as a stage: space for orchestrated change While apartment houses built according to traditional design have had to endure only few radical changes over the past few centuries, ferroconcrete frame constructions are predestined for conversion. They constitute the puffer zone for social change. The wider the span width of the construction, the larger the stage upon which life can unfold.
In shrinking societies, such as those in Europe, the supply of real estate is increasing even without resource-intensive new construction. In some areas, however, demand is also growing. Even today, in times of stagnation, cities and towns in Germany are expanding into the countryside, contrary to reason. In doing so, new supply networks are established which future generations will struggle to maintain and operate at the expense of more important investments. These networks produce new traffic which wastes a substantial proportion of increasingly scarce and expensive resources and robs residents of the time to do more substantial things than wrestling with the logistical organization of everyday life with the help of individual vehicles or public transport. In future, instead of additional land enclosure and simultaneous perforation of the city corpus, towns will endeavor to meet the demand for real estate with existing facilities. Cramped and overly specialized structures will yield to more open structures that offer greater possibilities: dockyards become studios, factory buildings become university auditoriums, coal power plants become technical test tracks. “Just make the house bigger, Hugo, then you can do anything with it,” Mies van der Rohe is said to have told his office partner Häring when the latter was calculating the turning radius of an ox, so as not to dimension the stalls too generously. The future belongs to loose clothing, not diving-suits: to a Convention Hall rather than a Garkau Manor. Shell constructions can show us in advance which possibilities a new building has to offer. As already mentioned, costs cannot be saved on the shell construction.

The façade as a curtain: a flexible filter between the inside and the outside If we detach ourselves from the representational function of a façade, its material, energetic and financial costs can easily be reduced. While the solid front wall of an apartment house may contribute substantially to the appearance of a public space over a long period of time and, even in future, must therefore be designed with some care and detail, the insubstantial curtain wall in front of a ferroconcrete frame construction has only a relatively short lifespan. In future, short-lived designs will be more modest: bronzed steel profiles will be too extravagant for such purposes. Varying usage with its changing demand for space will favor a nomadic structure, tolerant towards other connecting and exterior spaces as yet undefined; willing to meet neighbors and to contribute to urban life: In future, questions of style will not be discussed in terms of façades but rather of what happens behind them.

Translation Jocelyn Tillner