The Price of Transparency

In this world, you have two options: You either solve your problems by means of technology or design. Ordinary people will chose to go the easy way and use mainly technology. Smart people (good architects) will do good design in order to leverage the potential of a building.

For years, architects have relied on technology to solve their buildings basic problems, such as heating/cooling. The rise of technology made possible new building types and shapes on the 20th century. I’d like to trace a parallel between two projects that shares the same concept but were treated differently by their architects; The Farnsworth house in Illinois by the mythical Mies Van der Rohe and the House in Lyon-Vaise by architects Joursa Francoise and Perraudin Gilles (1988).

Ms. Farnsworth's house.

Lyon Vaise House

It is very clear what these two projects wanted to be: Glass boxes. It seems to me that Mies did not come up with any vernacular solution to his project. His house functions like a spatial suit on this extra-terrestrial green field. The project is from 1951 so it is reasonable that architects at that time wanted to break up with their contemporary architectural typologies; and in that matter, this House is very successful. At the time is was very unusual to see a completely glass-clad building. Mies, therefore, relied on technology to achieve this level of transparency. The problem with that, and with many modern buildings of that time is that they are completely detached from their surrounding. There are no kinds of mechanical relationships.

A more recent project, though, shows us how we can still achieve this same degree of transparency and create a building that responds to the the environment more efficiently. This residential project in Lyon, France , by Francoise and Gilles; is in a way similar to the Farnworth House. But as we look up to the roof, something magical appears: a wonderful curved ceiling that hovers over the house steel and glass construction.


In brief, the roof structure is completely independent from the primary building envelope. The important thing to notice, though is that both act symbiotically. The elevated roof creates an airspace between the top surface of the house envelope and the roof structure itself. This decision is very successful in regard to insulation, since the building ceiling is not directly touching the outside; it avoids the creation of thermal bridges. Second, the roof structure expands outwards; creating an interesting canopy condition. It protects the house from direct sunlight radiation, therefore keeping the interior cooler during the summer months.

Finally, what I wanted to get at with this is to raise the question: What price are you willing to pay in order to make your building look a certain way (in this case, transparent)?  Would you rather be like Mies and completely rely on technology in order to keep the building hot or cold or create a more interesting solution through design, like the one Francoise and Perroudin developed? In the world we’re living in, under the current social and economic conditions, we can no longer just waste energy. The time of technology fetishism has passed. It is time for architects to develop new solutions  and consequently create new kind of buildings and spaces.



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