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Attack of the Parabolic Façade?
Parabolic Façade

We return again to the surface of the sun, whose radiant energy has been parabolically concentrated onto a patch of turf somewhere in California.

From what we can gather, the photo above blazed through a sizeable portion of the interweb last month. And in all the blogs and forums where it was posted, there was one common point of departure for all of the discussions: that the photo depicts the constant and often catastrophic confrontation between Landscape and Architecture, with the former clearly loosing to its “foe.”

Obviously, we will digress.

The overriding narrative here isn't “architecture gone wrong” or “landscaping gone wrong”, and it's definitely not “building architecture vs. landscape architecture”. And certainly no one is reenacting psychotically disturbed periods of their childhood, involving ants and a magnifying glass. No one, too, is attempting to infuse in the workplace a sense of domesticity, collegiality, community and patriotism by infrastructurally facilitating American-style barbecue picnics.

In actuality, both architect and landscape architect are paying homage to Ancien Régime garden design. Specifically, with their purposefully programmed failures — Landscape as a water-guzzling lawn in hydrologically-challenged California; Architecture positioned in a gas-guzzling solar orientation — the two have conspired to create dazzling arabesque parterres.

Blackened curlicues. Charcoaled guillochés. The nearly dead and the really dead resolving into patterns of rosettes and sunbursts. Grassless geometries, muddied or parched and cracking. The Tuileries gardens etched in full scale by Apollo.

Jacques Boyceau de la Baraudière

Of course, we cannot really talk about parabolic façades without briefly mentioning The Temple at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign. Housed inside this campus building are the various studios, faculty offices and main offices of the Departments of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning. And for three excruciating and glorious years, it was our de facto home.

Temple Buell Hall

Temple Buell Hall

Of interest here is its west side. Although not that apparent in the photos above, in person, it's noticeably parabolic. And not only is it curved, but it's curved to a more southwestern orientation. In other words, during the steamy Midwestern summer months, that part of the building—a whole side made entirely of glass—faces the sun during the hottest part of the day.

Call it a greenhouse with AC, and we won't object.

Meanwhile, we're not sure if “sustainability” had made its way into department curricula when it was built over ten years ago, but now that it has, the building must now seem to the faculty as the worst building to teach “green practices” in. Or maybe it is, since here is a perfect example to use to illustrate solar orientation and climate design, key concepts in old school regionalism, which if properly considered and taken advantage of, you can probably save a lot on heating and coolings bills before you even think about wind turbines and green roofs.
  • Brendan Crain
  • September 25, 2007 at 11:20:00 AM CDT
  • I wonder if it would be possible to design a parabolic facade that was perfectly curved so as to focus and move the sun's light gradually and directly across a large garden of plants that can handle intensive sunlight. You could grow a cacti forest in half the time.

  • Anonymous
  • October 2, 2007 at 6:01:00 PM CDT
  • perhaps the parabolic facades could be used to super heat water,turn turbines, and generate enough electricity to offset their AC usage.

  • Anonymous
  • February 10, 2009 at 9:41:00 AM CST
  • see also the problems with the disney hall in LA.

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