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Facade Engineering Emerges as a Highly
Specialized Science and a Striking Art Form

The modern curtain wall has evolved from static wrapper to active building system.

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By Sara Hart


Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

Learning Objective:
After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Describe innovations in facade design..

2. Explain how the facade works with other building systems.

Raimund Abraham’s Austrian Cultural Forum in Midtown Manhattan slopes away from the street in accordance with strict zoning regulations.

In Building Skins (Birkhauser), Christian Schittich writes, “[In the Fagus Works shoe factory (1911–25)], Walter Gropius succeeds in collaboration with Adolf Meyer in suspending a curtain wall in front of an industrial hall as filigree, transparent skin that no longer has any load-bearing function and clearly announces this freedom.” He and other pioneers of Modernism liberated the building skin from the load-bearing frame, and there was no going back. Such liberation, however, absolved the facade maker from any obligation to the interior. Architects make careers out of creating wrappers for undetermined spaces.

Today, facade engineering is synonymous with curtain-wall design, which is to say that every facade is a curtain wall. Facade innovation first came in the form of incremental improvements—more energy-efficient glazing units, structural sealants, lighter materials. More recently, innovation has been associated with new products—new composite materials, high-strength concrete, fabrics, and photovoltaics.

The following projects show that real innovation grows out of successful problem-solving, whether it be in response to the impossible site or in developing systems integration.

Between bedrock and a hard place

The Austrian Cultural Forum (this issue, page 122) was wrenched vertically out of the ground and stuffed horizontally into what can only be called a mean fissure in a tightly packed urban block of Midtown Manhattan. The program for the building, which is only 25 feet wide and 81 feet deep, called for a 24-story structure on the site of a former town house. This incredibly tight space created a multitude of challenges for Austrian architect Raimund Abraham in his first American commission.

The building envelope was the major design problem from the onset—how to give an iconic presence to the entrance facade while meeting New York City’s stringent zoning requirements.

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