Architecture of Fins / aka / Fin-Tek-Ture

Fins are the new architecture style obsession 

In the post-industrial, post-information internet age we live in, architects are searching for ways to bring detail and a sense of craft back into their buildings. Designers are abandoning the Miesian grids that have blanketed our cities over the last seven decades and are experimenting with new ways to inject scale, pattern and texture back into architecture. A construction industry that relies heavily on pre-manufactured systems, such as curtain walls, are being challenged by architects using atypical materials on facades in new ways.  One recent trend, has introduced ‘Fins’ into curtain walls. Fins are little wings that project perpendicularly from the facade and used randomly across the facade creating rhythm and scale on otherwise soulless cartesian curtain wall grids. This trend started about ten years ago as an interior ‘Slat’ concept typically on retail interiors (see my post on this subject). Starbuck’s may have started the recent trend, but retailers including Old Navy, Anthroplogie, McDonald’s and Taco Bell have since blanketed America with versions. Interestingly the original slat concept may have come from the modernist Finish architect Alvar Alto’s work. He used wood slats, in a vertical orientation and in a randomized pattern to create a texture that warmed and humanized his modern, sculptural form, ultra white museum like spaces. 

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While slats may have been an inexpensive way to create texture on rather mundane retail stores, its transformation into Fins has become a ubiquitous style flourish now seen on corporate and higher ed campuses across the county. For example, Amazon’s corporate buildings in Seattle are a prime (pun not intended) example of the trend going main stream. Designed by NBBJ, the  corporate campus’ perf-metal and acrylic, projected fins are placed in a randomized pattern across the edifice as a new type of ornament i.e. decoration. What works is that the poly-chromatic fins brand the corporate giant’s multi-building campus in the middle of Seattle. Where it falls short is that it looks additive, arbitrary and superfluous, even though I’m sure it was painstakingly studied. As with most ornamental decoration, it’s a fashion statement of the day and will become dated quickly.   

fullsizeoutput_127dBottom Line: What is the antidote to this ephemeral architectural flourish?  A rigorous site and environmental analysis that yield’s new forms and incorporates new materials. An example is  Kieran Timberlake’s US Embassy in London. The architects incorporated a new screen material,  in a unique form that responds  to the context of place and the environment. Architects may be getting nudge away from glass curtain walls from new model energy codes that either limit the percentage of glass on buildings, or dramatically increase the efficiency by trending toward triple glazed systems. Lets just hope the model building codes develop the regulations before politicians do, as has been proposed in New York City.

Alvar Alto Wood Slat Screen
Alvar Alto’s Wood Slat Screen

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