Why Be Normal

ETSAV-UPC student residence prefabricated units.

Recently, I visited two buildings that provoked me to seriously question everything I learned in school. One is a student residence on the campus of the ETSAV-UPC architecture school, completed in 2011, while the other is the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-ICP) on the campus of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, completed in 2014.

Both buildings –collaborations between the firms data AE and H Arquitectes— have received widespread recognition for their energy efficiency as well as their clever deployment of industrial building techniques and materials. But it wasn’t the energy efficiency that impressed me the most, nor was it the understated elegance of these buildings. No. What impressed me was that these buildings managed to be both energy-efficient and very handsome at the same time, proving that these two architectural ideals are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, considering all the energy-saving systems these buildings contain (which I won’t go into here), it’s really quite remarkable how low-key and almost “ordinary” they look. A great deal of effort must have gone into making these buildings look relatively “normal,” even though in reality they are far from it. The idea behind these designs seems to have been to downplay complexity; the very opposite of so much architecture that seeks to wilfully convert normalcy into something more complex and “exciting”. Think of the many “high-tech” or “sci-fi” office buildings that bend over backwards in an effort to make a spectacle out of technology.

This “false modesty” is actually a very radical and refreshing idea; a complete inversion of everything I learned in school, namely that architecture had to be anything but normal; that it must always look difficult and complicated even if it needn’t be. Make sense? Of course not: architecture is not about making sense either.

Well, making building-energy technology look “normal” actually makes perfect sense, come to think of it, because energy efficiency urgently needs to become the new normal; to become a standard feature of the products churned out by a building industry that is averse to singular, rarefied and convoluted architectural statements full of complexity and contradiction.

Why be normal? Because it’s ultimately more likely to effect greater, more meaningful change. And these days, that’s a good enough reason for me.

ICTA-ICP building’s double-skin facade (in winter). The exterior layer is a standard industrial greenhouse that is opened in summer.
ICTA-ICP building. One of four interior atria acting as thermal chimneys and as lightwells.
ICTA-ICP building’s concrete slabs contain not only re-bars, but also extensive ducts, wiring conduits, and plumbing that improve energy efficiency. Photo courtesy UAB.

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