Architecture, history, and building systems

Architect and engineer Paul J. Donnelly has spent several decades advocating for the importance of integrated design both as a practitioner and an educator. I spoke to him about building systems and architectural history.

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How do you encourage your architecture students to be creative while paying close attention to functionality?

I describe the building blocks of an architectural environment as structure, enclosure, climate control, and light. These are the inevitable systems that are part of all architectural environments.

The integration of these systems, while also engaging their highest-performance characteristics, is critical. It’s like designing a Mercedes Benz, if you will. It’s bringing these systems together in an integrated, holistic fashion, where the structure is one with the lighting system by virtue of its geometry, or the active climate control system is integrated with the artificial lighting strategy, or the structural system is part of a passive climate control strategy, and so on.

Donnelly’s award-winning design (with Andrew Scott, RIBA) for the Building Integrated Photovoltaics Competition, sponsored by the US Department of Energy & AIA Research Foundation

What I’ve found critical over the years is that students keep an open mind regarding this potential. And I think for the most part our students are. It’s not a matter of just piling one system on top of another. They have to be understood as a whole and thought of in terms of not only the budgetary implications but also energy efficiency and embodied energy. So if there’s a very highly integrated strategy related to those systems, you can, for example, develop a floor–ceiling assembly that’s 2’6” as opposed to 4’6”, and that reduces the amount of embodied energy in the building, the cost, and energy demand.

Systems integration, for me, is the most fundamental craft in architecture, and a project’s potential can be advanced by engaging the wonder of building through the poetic engagement of these systems.

But what’s happened in a lot in contemporary architecture, particularly in the States, is that the wonder of building is not so much a part of the architectural environment.

How so? Do you think that American architects today pay less attention to systems integration than their predecessors, or than their counterparts in other parts of the world?

It’s a sensitive question. I started my career in Weidlinger’s office, and I worked with the offices of Jose Luis Sert, the Architect’s Collaborative, and others. There was a very high level of systems integration. The thinking was always about the media and how all of this comes together in a meaningful way given architectural purpose, budgetary issues, etc.

I visit their buildings a lot, and they’re amazing. The lighting is embedded in the structure; the structure is one with the enclosure; the wonder of the making is one with the architecture.

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Hansaviertel Housing, Berlin, designed by Architects’ Collaborative founder Walter Gropius

Whereas I think with the postmodern movement in America it was all about making something look like something, and the systems didn’t want to be part of that aesthetic. The inherent characteristic of the systems used in the mid to late 20th century were not consistent with the aesthetic which emerged, which was based on early 20th century and before. So it ended up being a little bit Disneyworldish.

And I think we see that today, looking at these buildings and the poor detailing — they’re working very hard to be something that they really don’t want to be given the fundamental nature of the systems that we were working with at that time.

People say, “Are we still in the postmodern movement? Are projects principally aesthetically driven?” As a whole, I would say yes. We’re still in a very highly aesthetically driven environment.

I also think that what’s happened in the digital age has allowed us to create new form and space. There’s this great curiosity about this form and space, but this new form and new space isn’t really about the integration of the systems that are going to provide for that environment; it’s really about the wonder of the aesthetic.

Systems integration, for me, is the most fundamental craft in architecture

I have really interesting debates with my colleagues. They say, “There’s a form that a student has created,” and I say, “Maybe you should take a look at the shape of that form as it might relate to structural performance.” There’s a potential geometry within a geometry, and that geometry has all this embedded intelligence in it. It’s a shape within a form. Does that support the architectural idea? Maybe, maybe not.

But there’s a lot of potential in tapping into that. I believe that that next level of trying to identify what something wants to be, that’s what the applied science brings. When I think of a Grimshaw’s Waterloo Station; and of course Piano’s work when he was collaborating with Peter Rice; and Foster. That generation, they kept pushing forward in terms of finding the architecture based on the materials and systems of the time. They sort of fought the fight, if you will — developing form, developing shape, developing geometries and space that were embedded in the systems of the time. America went off on an entirely different direction.

I mean, Lloyd’s of London, the Richard Rogers project, turned everything inside out because they were curious about, “What is a building? What does this architecture really want to be?”

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Lloyd’s of London, London, UK

That’s what they did, and I think it was an extremely noble endeavor. And they’re still out there beating the drum; I think they’re still doing a very good job. I also think that SANAA’s new Zollverein School and Helmut Jahn’s Post Tower, both in Germany, are excellent examples of systems-integrated architecture.

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Zollverein School of Management and Design, Essen, Germany

I’m not sure we quite have our feet back on the ground yet. But I hope there will be another cycle.

Interview edited and condensed.

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