Moris Moreno Photography

As the AEC industry increasingly moves toward specialization and compartmentalization of building design, many fear for architecture’s diminishing role in the built environment. “The multiple foci at the core of specialization have given rise to a world that is advancing while fragmenting,” wrote architects Stephen Kieran, FAIA, and James Timberlake, FAIA, in Refabricating Architecture (McGraw-Hill, 2004). “We applaud the advancement, but deplore a fragmentation that is no longer unavoidable and so needlessly diminishes architecture.”

A common complaint among architects involved in speculative developments, for example, is that their creativity is often relegated to the façade while other stakeholders design the building structure, services, and interiors. This restrained scope contrasts sharply with the responsibilities of the premodern master builder, who directed all aspects of a building’s design and construction. While the sense of loss due to diminished agency is understandable, architects’ apprehension in this case also suggests a disdain for building envelope design as a self-contained practice, or as a purely ornamental form of design.

Thom Faulders, principal of Oakland, Calif.–based Faulders Studio, offers an alternative perspective. Rather than viewing envelope design as a limitation, he sees it as an opportunity. Over the studio’s 22-plus year tenure, Faulders has amassed a notable collection of façade-dominant projects, including the multilayered skin of the Airspace Tokyo multifamily building and the mineral-accreting Geotube Tower proposal in Dubai. “It stands to reason that a higher percentage of an urban population will have some kind of experience or engagement with a building's façade, much greater than the percentage of those occupying a building's spaces contained within,” Faulders notes. “In this framework, I don't see being relegated to working on the outside of a building as being a limiting factor for the architect."

Moris Moreno Photography

Although Faulders Studio is not a façade consultancy in the traditional sense, the office continues to push the expressive potential of the building envelope, most recently with Wynwood Garage façade in Miami. Designed by local firm Wolfberg Alvarez & Partners Architecture, the 250,000-square-foot, eight-story parking garage includes ground-level retail and a single level of commercial offices at top. Located within Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, a creative destination known for its street art collection, the Wynwood Garage possesses ample surface area for making a dramatic statement in dialogue with its context. Given the commission to design the building’s façade, Faulders created a visually striking urban canvas with perforated aluminum panels. A high-contrast pattern vaguely reminiscent of soap bubbles contained within a box (although more angular and distorted) connects the building’s many floors while obscuring the individual parking levels from the outside. Thin aluminum panels protrude from the seams between the “bubbles,” adding visual depth to the surface.

“Here, surface touches space in all directions, and like the shared membranes of foams and bubbles, the building skin is in direct contact to the proximities of interior and exterior spaces,” Faulders says. The lack of repetition and multiscalar qualities of the pattern distort the viewer’s comprehension of the building program and size. The pattern also adjusts with the height above ground: “Delineated outlines are more expansive higher up, and address visual registration from a distance,” Faulders explains. "At closer proximities the façade’s pattern blends with the urban texture of the neighborhood; and nearer to street level, focused areas of articulation guide the eye downward to pedestrian street activities.” The envelope design intentionally lacks a sense of closure; it is what Faulders describes as “an open-ended condition that is never at rest.”

Golden Dusk Photography

In a metropolitan setting like Miami, Faulders considers the cladding to be an urban project first and an architectural project second. This approach was promoted in the 1960s by late British architect Cedric Price, who recognized the inherent uncertainty of the built environment—and its relationship to its original programs—over time. “Inbuilt flexibility or its alternative, planned obsolescence, can be satisfactorily achieved only if the time factor is included as an absolute design factor in the total design process,” he wrote in his monograph The Square Book (Academy Press, 2003). Price advocated that architecture be an enabling, rather than a deterministic, platform for human activity.

Taking inspiration from this strategy, Faulders explains that “loose-fit” architecture aims to attain long-lasting relevance in “embracing future possibilities by giving a building’s occupants agency in how its tectonics might adapt to changing needs.” He argues that it is possible to decouple interior and exterior programs in a successful way, not unlike the pre-industrial urban fabric in many European cities.

Wynwood Garage in contextPaula Kelly, courtesy of Goldman PropertiesWynwood Garage in context

Ultimately, context is a critical factor in façade design. During the initial meeting of the Wynwood Garage project team, the client, Goldman Properties, requested a façade that would make sense only in this particular location. When seen in cropped photographs, the Wynwood Garage skin design may appear extreme to many audiences; however, within its context it is readily accepted. Faulders even claims to be surprised at how unsurprising the building is to passersby. “I've had plenty of opportunities to watch people in the building's vicinity. Visitors from all over the world come to this neighborhood to photograph the street art, so their senses are already on high alert,” he says. "And it is really striking to watch people glance up at the building and take it all in stride, as if this is simply local convention.”