Skyscraper Expert Gordon Gill Talks High-Performance Facades

Facade detail of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture's Wuhan Greenland Center in Wuhan, China. (Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture)

Facade detail of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture’s Wuhan Greenland Center in Wuhan, China. (Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture)

Architect Gordon Gill has one simple rule for facade design: seek performance first, and beauty will follow. Gill, who will give the opening keynote address at next month’s facades+PERFORMANCE conference in New York, is a founding partner at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, a firm known for pushing the boundaries of what architecture is and does. Gill and his team start by “establishing a language of architecture that’s based in the performance of a building,” he said. “We’re trying to understand the role of the building in the environment it’s being built in, then shape the building in order to benefit it the best way. Once we take that approach, the facades play a pretty rich role in either absorbing or reflecting the environment.”

Masdar Headquarters in Masdar City, United Arab Emirates. (Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture)

Masdar Headquarters in Masdar City, United Arab Emirates. (Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture)

Gill titled his keynote talk “Skin Deep” as a tongue-in-cheek reference to what facade design ought not to be. “A lot of times facades are treated that way, as just a wrapper to make the building look good, when in fact we find their roles to be much deeper,” said Gill. “The role of the facade is really an amazing opportunity to change perceptions of space, to change thermal compositions of space, to change experiences of space on either side of that fence.” Gill has plenty of experience designing high-performance facades for challenging climates, from the heat of Dubai to the cold of Kazakhstan, where, he said, the air was so frigid and dry that he saw ice on the floor of the car that picked him up from the airport. “It’s amazing the environments that we have decided to occupy, and in doing so then we turn to these envelopes to protect us, everything from our coat to our building,” he observed.

Gill embraces technology as a means to the end of high performance. “I’m a big fan of trying to get the most out of everything, and the technology plays a pretty big role in that for me,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a whole host of factors, including massive wind loads, movements of buildings, safety and protection in something that’s one kilometer tall, you’ve stretched the boundaries of conventionalism, you’ve gone beyond the normal expectations of materials. So now it becomes this combination of things you have to do to solve the problems.” Balancing performance and sensitivity in a facade, said Gill, is “like conflict resolution at the threshold of the built environment”—and technology can be an important mediator.

Sky terrace at Kingdom Tower, Kingdom City, Saudi Arabia. (Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture)

Sky terrace at Kingdom Tower, Kingdom City, Saudi Arabia. (Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture)

“I would just put out a little call to arms for everyone who’s out there in this business, because we do have a responsibility to improve the environments that we design and work in,” concluded Gill. “I think beauty [has] a pivotal role and [is] a quality we all want to pursue, however, it shouldn’t be at the cost of intelligence, performance, and all the other things that make our environments valuable to us. I look forward to seeing more of that in the architecture that’s being produced—from us, too.”

Construction photo of Federation of Korean Industries, Headquarters Building. (Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture)

Construction photo of Federation of Korean Industries, Headquarters Building. (Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture)

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