Sunday, June 3, 2007


Today I visited Norman Foster's Philologie Library at the Free University in Berlin. The Building has been affectionately nicknamed the “brain” for both its shape and its prominence at the Free university. The building itself was placed in the center courtyard of an existing core-ten steel structure that had been given the name “rustbucket”. (thoughts from the COD crowd encouraged) Apparently, Berliners like nicknames.

When I set out of this trip I brought with me a stack of photocopied reading material about 6 inches thick. It has added considerable weight to my backpack, but it has been well worth the effort. When I first began to imagine this study, and started searching for buildings and architects to include in this study, I always thought that Norman Foster was kind of the odd man out. I chose this building not because of the intellectual content behind the structure, but instead for its aspects of sustainability. In my mind, Norman Foster is a fantastic architect, who has built technologically sophisticated structures all over the world (150 buildings in 22 countries to be exact), but he was not someone that I would associate with a theoretical discourse in architecture. I am beginning to think that I am quite wrong with my initial assumptions.

I had no idea when I began this study that Norman Foster was influenced by and had collaborated with Buckminster Fuller. Beginning in 1971, foster collaborated with Buckminster Fuller on three unbuilt projects that would eventually prove to be important first steps for his later work. According to Foster, he and Fuller shared “an impatience and an irritation with the ordinary way of doing things” Foster apparently could identify with Fuller’s approach of “doing the most with the least.”

“Like Fuller, Foster believes that energy is the key to this issue. The energy question is ever present and sooner or later it is destined to reach another crisis that will make enormous demands on thos few designers prepared to confront it.”

Foster and Fuller’s “climatroffice” project was an egg shaped, tensegrity structure enclosure, “sheltered by the most energy conscious enclosure”, which enclosed landscaped office floors with their own microclimate. The section for the “climatrofffice” project is remarkably similar to the Free University Library building section, as is the overall shape, and the attitude toward the use of energy. Fuller and Foster also collaborated on a pair for houses, one for Fuller and his wife in California, and one for Foster and his wife in England. While they were never built, they were double skinned buildings where the heating and cooling would be delivered between the two skins. If you combine these two early studies from the 1970’s you get the Free University Library. I think this illustrates the importance of conceptual design work for an architect. Here is a set of environmentally sensitive ideas that Foster began in his early career, which now over 30 years later have come back to inform his current design work.

“weight, energy and performance – of ‘doing the most with the least’ – and that has consistently been the story of technological progress from the earliest cathedrals to the latest cellular phones.” Fuller once asked Foster how much his Sainsbury Center weighed. Foster didn’t know, but went through the calculations for the weight and learned a lot about efficiency from them. The lightweight structural envelope of the Berlin Free Library weighs exactly 640 tons.

As most of you know, we assign Williman McDonough and Michael Braungarts “Cradle to Cradle” for our intro to architecture class. I usually describe this bool as revolutionary, and one of the most important books of our time. Interestingly enough, many of these ideas, much to my surprise, were advocated by Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky was one of the first people to advocate the recycling of source materials. He proposed that major manufactured items be rented from industry – cars for eight years, ships for twentyyears, and so on. In this way, he argued, the recycling process could be guaranteed.”

In Foster’s own words….

“Since the end of the Second World War, the Free University has occupied a central role in the intellectual history of Berlin and it is one of the most symbolically important institutions – its foundation marking the rebirth of liberal education in the city.”

“The library building is perhaps the closest we have come to a direct realization of the Climatroffice concept, which gave us a clearer focus on so many crucial issues: flexibility of use, in the form of multi-function spaces; energy saving; lightweight envelopes; and the use of natural light and ventilation. All of these concerns are encapsulated in the library.”

The library, as mentioned, is clad with a lightweight, double skin enclosure that is almost in the shape of an egg. The outer enclose os aluminum panels anf glass, the inner enclosure is a combination of clear and translucent fabric. In between is a steel truss structure which is painted bright yellow. The outer skin can open and close to introduce air in between the envelope. “ The cavity between the resulting double skin creates a ‘solar motor’ which assists a natural ventilation system to maximize energy efficiency” The structure can be naturally heated and cooled for 60% of the year, which is a significant energy savings for this building. There are 4 different patterns of open and closed, depending on the outdoor air temperature, so this solar motor in effect can assist the building all year round. In addition to the double skin, radiant heating and cooling is delivered through the concrete mass structure in the center of the building. The question I have, on my search for the importance of concept…. Shouldn’t sustainability be one of the most important concepts of our time?

In my opinion, this building represents one of these rare occasions where sustainability is used in a holistic approach in design. I want to also stress that fact that this buildings functions very well as a library and place of study. Nothing was compromised in the name of sustainability. The library has clear and legible circulation, beautiful study areas with double height spaces created by the staggered s-curve balconies, and most importantly a wonderfully naturally lit space that was absolutely pleasant to study in. I spent an entire afternoon here reading all of my Foster research, and it was tremendously pleasant. As the sun went behind clouds, there was a noticeable shift in atmosphere, but the diffuse light levels, sun or no sun, were always comfortable to read by. Furthermore, the small glimpses to the outside provided much needed respite from long stretches of reading. Having worked on several library buildings in the past, I have a special place in my heart of the building type itself, and this one was as good as they come.

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