Marc Simmons is a co-founder and partner of the facade consultancy Front Inc. As a facade specialist, Simmons directly shapes the public image and reception of a building. His designs integrate these representational functions into an array of technical and economic demands. Front’s expertise includes the design, optimization, prototyping and even procurement of all aspects of the exterior. The firm’s unusual variety of skills enables them to work with diverse design languages, negotiating between technical requirements and the aesthetic sensibilities of architects ranging from Frank Gehry to SANAA. Simmons speaks with Volume about the gritty details of beautiful surfaces.
JS: Now that clients are increasingly concerned with the environmental performance and resource efficiency of their buildings, how does this development, which is as much political as ecological, affect the design of the facade?
MS: You might have a client explicitly interested in realizing a zero-energy consumption building with the most advanced environmental technologies and lowest carbon footprint possible, where the form, the site location, the materiality, everything is driven by that one ideological concern. It’s an interesting idea, but while some environmental advancements are expressed visibly, an awful lot of them aren’t. A desire for sophisticated environmental technologies will not by itself produce a sophisticated architectural form. Often more conventional buildings perform the same - if not better - than what seem to be the most environmentally advanced buildings. You might design a building that looks like it came from an Andres Duany New Town and achieve a better performance without wearing it on your sleeve.
I don’t think environmental efficiency always needs to be expressed, and often its willful expression is in fact a highly deliberate act in the service of certain political and ideological values pursuing a certain end.
JS: You have a unique role in that means to an end. As a facade specialist, you don’t work on a facade unless it’s a crucial element in the building’s technical and representational performance. Clients and architects only come to you when they want to advance a set of ideas or an agenda which you help them to express.
MS: In the CCTV building in Beijing, the curtain wall may be structurally expressive, but not in the simple way that some critics have suggested. As it happens, the combination of the program as a national media outlet and the structural diagram requires a highly blast resistant facade of fifty-one stories. Apart from its blast resistance, you have a one million-square-foot over hang continuously subjected to gravity, so the forces going through the building are enormous, with some elements permanently under tension and others under compression. The result is that the facade consists of very large steel sections spanning from node to node with a crumple zone behind the steel facade to protect the structural steel brace. Some people say it’s a merely representational facade because it tracks the structure behind it. Of course you can’t expose the structural steel for thermal and corrosion reasons, not to mention security concerns. In that sense the facade is expressive, but it was only created because of a performance requirement to function as protection.
Architects don’t normally go into lecture halls and talk about the subtle relationships and shifts between real performance requirements, real programmatic requirements, how they generate certain technical requirements and how they become aesthetically expressive. While CCTV’s facade is expressive, many interpretations of why it is are not accurate. If someone dismisses it as being gratuitous simply because it’s expressive, they’re wrong, but they will never know why they’re wrong.
With many buildings, the performance and representational requirements work at cross purposes or at least don’t directly correlate without substantial reconfiguration. There might be an agenda to do a complex form, an agenda to do something environmentally intelligent and an agenda to do something that’s naturally ventilated. Very often those are conflicting requirements that you can’t satisfy. In designing CCTV, Arup, working with OMA and Front, spent several weeks writing a report on why the building should not be a cavity wall and why it should not be naturally ventilated through the facade. There’s an array of reasons why it shouldn’t be a naturally ventilated double facade including all the equipment inside, humidity levels, environmental control and security issues. But that is what the client wanted because of the perception that it is state of the art, and therefore has a higher added value. It’s not an unreasonable request, but soon we realized that there are many liabilities associated with doing a double wall. We also felt from an operational maintenance standpoint that it would be untenable when combined with these other costs.
JS: You finally arrived at a solution using ceramic fritting. Was that to make up for the environmental performance lost by not having a double wall?
MS: No, the ceramic frit only contributes marginally in terms of environmental performance. It was very much an aesthetic decision to unify the building and give it a luminous quality on a massive monumental scale. It creates the effect of 237 meters of uniform reflectivity throughout the frame. And it works–on certain days it’s just sublime. It has this amazing abstract quality.
JC: You’re also doing the Mandarin Oriental Hotel which is on the same site as CCTV. A luxury hotel has a very different relationship to the public than a state-operated building like CCTV. How is that difference expressed in the design of the facade?
MS: In the initial phases of the design there was no operator, so Mandarin didn’t have much of a voice at the outset. Of course that can be a problem, because it helps to have the operator on board from the start. The metallic wrapper that encases the building was there very early on and was maintained even while the building changed in height and geometry. The way that the corrugations work with the folded planar geometry of the wrapper is very complex, because of how each plane meets the corrugations couldn’t be orthogonal. In the end they are parallelograms that shift along the height of the building so that the corrugations track across the planes of the wrapper. While the corrugations look straight and continuous, they’re actually making torturous adjustments. It was a complication in the service of an idea.
JC: How did you arrive at the facade design for the pixel-style glass boxes that fill the wrapper?
MS: There were hundreds of models studying variations of the idea. It could have been a lot of different things and it was kind of a compromise in the end. The hotel rooms were conceived as a single sheet of glass, like one piece of glass for one pixel. Eventually there was a limitation on the procurement side–the glassmaker didn’t want to do jumbo glass for these hotel rooms. In the end the glass is split down the middle by a single mullion, but apart from the mullion each facade is floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall glass. The quality of an all-glass room is rather interesting, so we went through a lot of gymnastics and a lot of heartbreak to try to make that happen.
JS: What kind of relationship do you try to cultivate with the architects when working to realize a building?
MS: It depends on the collaboration. One of our deeper collaborative relationships is with Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote. When we work on a project they’re obviously the author, the architect, but we work with them almost as a second team, making drawings and models with them, voicing opinions. It’s very satisfying because as architects and engineers we don’t really want our role to be relegated to checking mullion sizes. There are many other firms who can do that.
OMA has also been very open in part because their working method is based on a critical or reflective approach that enables the design of a project to change very quickly. That kind of process is perfect for us. While other people might fear the chaos of working this way, we relish it. Front is one of the few consultants whose principals have done all-nighters in OMA’s model shop cutting blue foam. We don’t really care if the design changes twenty times from schematic design to construction documents. In fact, that’s why we do it.
JC: How do you see the role of the office expanding from its highly specific field of expertise?
MS: One area where we’re seeking to expand is design-build. Currently about 20% of the projects in the office are design-build, where we do all the construction drawings and fabrication. For example, we’re the builders on the facade for Neil Denari’s High Line 23. We have about 100,000 pounds of steel under fabrication, in addition to the glass.
As part of our long-term plan we’re trying to integrate the roles of developer and engineer. Over the past five years we’ve made a fairly heavy investment in CATIA and it’s becoming one of our core working platforms. We’re exploring using tools like CATIA to fully design and engineer projects, to allow us to do our own cost modeling, scheduling, work construction sequencing and construction management. Our goal is to supply about 40% of the dollar value of everything in the building including the steel frame, enclosure, miscellaneous metals package and then perhaps even occupy it as our office space – to be our own guinea pig. It’s not that easy to acquire a skill set that includes architectural design, facade design, procurement logistics and financing. I spend a great amount of time reading real estate books, because ultimately we want to become an autonomous organization that can finance, design and develop its own buildings.
But that vertically integrated model must run parallel with select collaborations with different clients either as architects, facade designers or engineers. Because in the end, we’re very interested in how the values, desires and needs of the owner or client influence the design of a building.
JS: How do the contexts of those relationships inform your projects?
MS: When you enter into a project it’s worth the effort to understand who the constituencies are, who is providing the funding and what matters to them. For the Wyly Theatre in Dallas the client is the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Foundation which was set up to manage and control the development of these arts assets. It gets its money from municipal bonds and private donors so you might ask who those donors are. If you do, you realize you’re not working with a municipal organization, but rather with the cultural business establishment of Dallas. That might not seem like such a difference, but you must be clear that they’re who you’re working for. Whereas if you’re working for Prada, well, you’re working for Prada. It’s a very different experience when you work for a pseudo-municipal arts foundation with a lot of private money mixed in.
The Seattle Library, on the other hand, was an unequivocally public project entirely funded by the raising of a public bond. The city decided that the building would cost $160 billion. That’s how much they allocated, and that was what we had as a budget. Our desire to use metal mesh glass wasn’t possible within that budget, so Josh Prince-Ramus and Rem asked for permission to raise funds independently. The client would only provisionally approve that option based on proven support from the Seattle elite, and it’s an interesting idea that a donor can buy the quality of light in a building as opposed to putting his or her name on a room. They were paying for natural light, because otherwise the building would have had dark grey glass and been very different.
JS: How do you consider the political implications of working for a particular client, receiving funding from a particular donor or specifying materials
from a particular source? For example, the projects that you’ve worked on in China.
MS: In addition to the building projects in China, we also source the steel and glass from China for other projects. I think that ship has sailed. Even with the Toledo Glass Pavilion–in the center of glass fabrication in America–the glass came from China.
JS: Did the client object?
MS: They did not object because the money we saved made their project possible. There were a few questions from board members at the museum, but Toledo does not make its money from architectural glass; it makes its money from selling glass to the automotive industry. They’ve already invested to increase the sophistication of their glass fabrication techniques and actually the glass used in the museum, while impressive, pales in comparison to the complexity of automotive glass. They make their money on one side and then they buy a trophy building on the other.
Well, it’s actually a bit more complex than that. Libby Owens Ford (LOF) started in Toledo, but it was acquired by Pilkington, the British company, which has since been acquired by Nippon sheet glass in Japan, so LOF is actually indirectly owned by the Japanese. LOF wanted to supply the glass for the building, but the only way to affordably fabricate it was to ship the glass from Shenzhen, curve it, laminate it and then ship it to Ohio. That’s the modern world.
JC: Do you think that the downturn in the American economy will affect the typologies of projects that the office undertakes?
MS: Yes, it has changed. Residential is dead, and a number of big projects have been put on hold, but they’ve been replaced by institutional and international work. We’ve been trying to make a slow entry into international work. We’re considering working on a big tower in Bangkok, which is very interesting, and about four projects in the Middle East. There’s a lot of work out there and it’s starting to come to us without our really looking for it. We’re looking at a few big things in Singapore right now as well as in Hong Kong and Kazakhstan.
JS: Some of those places you just mentioned are semi-authoritarian countries. To what extent does that matter for you?
MS: I lived in Singapore for six months and in Hong Kong for six years. Most of my early career was in Asia. To quote Bob Stern: ‘I’m an architect. I’m not a politician.’