Written by: Paul Dowsett
I mean no disrespect to the architects, I’m just using River City 3 in Toronto as a very visible example of a very common problem.
April 23, 2017
Apropos yesterday’s 48th Earth Day and the many Marches for Science worldwide, I submit that:
We need to recall that Architecture is not merely the deployment of sculptural art. Architecture is the symbiotic relationship between art and science - most particularly, building science.
It should follow then that excellent architecture is not merely the accomplished deployment of sculptural art - it must be, at least, the accomplished synthesis of sculptural art and building science. Architecture is more than mere construction.
As stated by Le Corbusier: “You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: This is beautiful. That is architecture. Art enters in.” Le Corbusier: “Towards a New Architecture,” 1927.
Personally, I have always been drawn to architectonic sculptural art - like the work of the Russian Suprematist, Kazimir Malevich:
... and I think that relationship of Malevich’s sculpture to River City 3 is obvious.
As a piece of architectonic sculpture, I like River City 3 (RC3).
As a piece of architecture, I feel differently.
As a piece of architecture awarded for ‘excellence’, I would feel very differently.
RC3 is not yet up for an award for excellence by the Ontario Association of Architects, but its sisters - River City 1 & 2 - are, so I will not be surprised to see RC3 so honoured.
I have a number of problems with RC3, which temper my appreciation of its architectonic sculptural qualities. These problems centre around the apparent disregard of basic thermal and solar building science.
It is my opinion that, while the like or dislike of one style of art over another can be, and should be, the purview of personal preference, the same can not be said of science. Science is based on facts which are either proven or disproven. There are no ‘alternative facts’ in science.
Regarding thermal building science; the most prominent facade of RC3 looks like a series of drawers pulled out to various depths. Whereas this can give an exhilarating feeling of vertigo to those lucky enough to live in a protruding ‘drawer’, while giving a comforting feeling of protection to those lucky enough to live in a pushed-back drawer, I ask at what cost are these feelings provided, and could these not have been achieved with greater regard for fundamental thermal building science?
Robert Maxwell, professor of architecture emeritus and dean of the Princeton School of Architecture from 1982 to 1989, notes, in reference to much of modern functionalism, that: ” ...instead of spending money sparingly where decorum requires, the whole building is convoluted in plan to achieve the desired effect, at great expense. The program itself is pressed into the service of an ideological position: functional form becomes the source of plastic richness. The building, refusing a representational duty, end by representing its own status as an artistic product.” Robert Maxwell: “Symbiosis in Art and Architecture,” December 1992-January 1993.
Thermal bridges occur where (usually structural) elements of a building pass through the thermal plane (the line of insulation) from the conditioned area (the inside) to the unconditioned area (the outside). These bridges allow heat to move from inside to outside in winter, and from outside to inside in summer - defeating the very purpose of the insulation.
It’s like building a well-insulated house and then leaving the door open all winter. It’s wasteful, not only of natural resources to heat and cool the space, but it’s also needlessly expensive - wasting the money of the eventual, and unwitting, occupant.
Further, where a thermal bridge loses heat, and becomes cold, it causes the condensation of warm, moist air to occur. When this condensation of humidity occurs within the building envelope - the floors, walls and roofs of these protruding drawers at RC3 - the accumulation of moisture encourages the growth of mould. According to another branch of science, living in a box surrounded by mould is not considered to be beneficial to the health of the occupants.
Regarding solar building science; it is beneficial to allow the sun to heat a space in the winter, and to shade the space from the sun’s heat in the summer. Your grandmother knew this. The overhangs of the balconies at RC3 could provide these functions, if basic solar orientation had been considered.
The balcony hoods at RC3 are oriented to the northwest, a direction from which the winter sun does not shine, and precisely the direction where the summer sun sets. Thus, there is no benefit from the winter sun (no free heat), and only unwanted, late-day summer sun (no free cooling) - turning the condo into a pre-bedtime, solar oven. This is precisely what you don’t want, wasting more natural resources and more occupants’ money to cool the super-heated space.
To summarize: Architecture is the symbiotic relationship between art and science - to the benefit of the people who it serves.
Not to suggest that we should exclude architecture entirely from the realm of the expressive, however we may do well to pay heed to Adolf Loo’s warning: ”...The work of art is the artist’s private affair. A house is not ... The work of art aims at shattering man’s comfortable complacency. A house must serve one’s comfort. The work of art is revolutionary, the house conservative ... Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument.” Adolf Loos: “Architecture,” 1910.
Sadly, it would appear that the architecture of RC3 is meant to serve the developers who appear to want to sell condos based on the image of a sexy architectonic sculpture. It does not appear that the architecture of RC3 is meant to serve the people who will ultimately use these condos as their homes. One of the fundamental purposes of a home is to provide for the occupants’ welfare. Welfare is defined as the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group. RC3 may well provide for none of these.
It has been reported by many occupants of glass tower condos that there is a great portion of their otherwise tiny units which is rendered unusable, due to its uncomfortable proximity to the glass wall - too cold in winter, too hot in summer. Not only have the occupants paid handsomely for unusable space, but they also continue to waste money and energy resources to keep the space within the bounds of comfort. Science shows that excessive heat and cold compromise health - as does the presence of mould, as mentioned above.
The seemingly unnecessary thermal bridges and seemingly intentional solar ovens of RC3 will only make these conditions more extreme. Extreme Architecture, indeed ...but probably not the way in which the marketing team had intended ... For more on the inefficiency of the modern glass condo tower, you can read the “Gimme a Thermal Break” articles by green architecture advocate, Lloyd Alter below.