Unusual architecture: Part III

How Art Shapes Our Life

Sal MaccaroneJanuary 19, 2012 

I can remember the first time that I became aware of architecture that was truly innovative. Gary Fiehmann, a contractor and very good friend of mine, told me that he was going to start building houses that can make decisions for themselves.

This kind of thinking was happening all around me and somehow, at the time, it seemed to be "par-for-the-course." Keep in mind, we were having this conversation in the 1970s at a place that is now known as "Silicon Valley."

During those days, many original leaders of the semi-conductor society were also clients and friends of Gary and I. As local craftsmen, we were fortunate to work closely with them ... building their houses and offices. Sometimes we were even privy to some of the new ideas that they were working on.

Months after that conversation I went to look at Gary's first "smart" house, which he built in North Lake Tahoe. He had chosen that location because it is renowned for extreme daily and seasonal temperature swings and he wanted to make a point. I was amazed. He had designed a building that was controlled by a micro-processor which was developed for him at a burgeoning company called Apple.

To begin with, the house faced south and actually enjoyed 280 days a year of sunshine. He had installed the small computer, which, of course, was the brain of the building. It could do things such as open and close windows, drapes and vents; turn fans on and off; or open a sky light to exhaust excess heat.

There was also a built-in greenhouse and suspended concrete floors which were used to store the heat that was generated during the day. The duel-pane windows could sense the inside and outside temperatures and then tell all of these different mechanical aspects to move the heat accordingly.

Now-a-days a lot of Gary's ideas have become basic strategies when designing buildings of all types. As an example, consider the innovative white concrete pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum which first opened on May 4, 2001. It was designed by Spanish architect and structural engineer, Santiago Calatrava. The building has a huge movable, wing-like "brise soleil," (a French term which means sun-breaker).

Designed to control heat and light, it can open to a wingspan of 217 feet during the day and then fold back over the structure at night or during inclement weather. A piece of art in itself, this building has become a symbol for the city of Milwaukee and received the prestigious International "Outstanding Structure Award" in 2004.

Then there is the city of Dubai, which has garnered much attention with a never ending supply of architectural wonders that are now currently being built or proposed. Most of these structures are tall and very grand ... some can even be considered to be "green" -- such as the 200 unit Time Residences building that utilizes stored solar energy to rotate a full 360 degrees over the course of a week. Another Dubai building, David Fisher's rotating tower, will be powered by both sun and wind.

Fisher's firm, Dynamic Architecture, designed this self-sufficient, kinetic building that has all of the floors individually pivoting around a central axis. It will be continually in motion, changing shape and giving residents the ability to choose a new view whenever they like. This building will never assume the same shape twice.

Among other things, this will also be the first structure of its size -- a skyscraper -- to be fabricated in a factory and then assembled on site. The huge modular units will be fitted over a central concrete core. Truly astounding.

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