How to Address Designing, Renovating and Restoring in Delicate Surroundings


Sometimes we have to build very close, next to or in a delicate surrounding; it could be an historical site or ruin, a protected building or even a natural setting that could easily be ruined by the wrong design proposal. We have to ask ourselves, what's the best way to approach that situation? How can we build and be respectful to our surroundings? There are different ways to manage the situation, and all of them are valid if there's a reasoning behind it. Some architects believe it's better to blend in with the surroundings, others think it's better to clash with it in a very evident way. Here are some ideas to apply to your renovations, restorations, extensions or buildings surrounded by delicate settings.

The Mimetic Way

This way of designing implicates making your project almost invisible, inconspicuous. That way the project doesn't compete with its surroundings, or existing structures; the goal is to blend in with the "background" in a very subtle way. Some ways of designing like this:

- Facade color: By adding a non-distracting color to your facade -a color that won't clash with an existing structure or scenery- you can help your design to blend in. They don't always have to be "neutral" colors, like white or grey, the only requirement should be choosing a color that compliments and not overcomes the colors of your surroundings. For example, if you're building next to a black building, make your building a lighter shade of grey.

- Facade materials: Choose facade materials that won't clash with what you're trying to protect. If you're in the forest, choose complementary textures, maybe wood or wood-like textures; if you're building next to a building coated in zinc alum, choose a facade texture similar to it.

- Facade translucency: Sometimes, the best way to blend in is to be invisible; to achieve it, you may design your building with as many glass facades as you can. Two good famous examples of this technique are the Farnsworth House, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Louvre's Glass Pyramid, by I.M. Pei.

- Simple, clean shapes: If you're building next to a structure with a complex facade, for example, your design would clash with it if their shapes fight for the eye's attention. Opt for clean shapes, free of embellishments or eye catching features.

The "Clashing" Way

This way of designing is meant to emphasize its surroundings or adjacent building/s through blatant discordancy. In theory, the more different two things are, the more they stand out. This technique is widely spread among restorative architecture, and when designing new additions to existing buildings of historical significance. Here are some examples of this way of designing:

- Extremely different shape configurations: The goal is to make the new building as different from the existing building as possible, to emphasize the difference between the old and the new.

- Clashing colors and textures: Like the above, they mean to differentiate the existing structure from the new; the right color will even serve as a figurative pointing arrow to the existing building or surrounding. A famous example of this technique is La Villa Savoye by Le Courbusier, which uses its bright blatant white color to emphasize its green surroundings. Using different materials and textures to fill in gaps and add extensions is very common in restorative architecture; that way people can see where the ruins stop and where the restoration was made, and the essence of the historical site is not lost- which does happen when faithful imitative restorations are made.

Have you ever been in a situation like these? What path would you choose, the mimetic or the clashing way? Do you have more ideas on the subject? Share your thoughts.

How to Address Designing, Renovating and Restoring in Delicate Surroundings

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Comments (1)

Carol • 2016

I agree with all the different methodologies to either blend or contrast with the surroundings. But when blending in, I think it's also important to consider proportions of fenestrations, datum lines and articulation of other elements in elevation before one decides to either blend or contrast. Also, thinking of programming of what is happening inside will also affect the exterior choices one makes because sometimes buildings are designed inside out such as multiple family housing since units inside are the most important thing and in many cases the bottom line since the revenue of that property will be coming from the units. Then how do the windows for bedrooms versus private areas such as bathrooms relate to windows next door? When contrasting, proportions become even more important because if one tries to build too high let's say, it may affect the streets cape, and become too self-serving to even be respected or get a permit to build that way through the planning department.