Efficiency is Beauty

Efficiency is Beauty

You’ve heard the adage, “Beauty is only skin deep.” Turns out that concept applies to the built environment as well. There’s a common misconception out there that you have to sacrifice beauty for efficiency or vice versa. The truth is you can have both. 

Day 11: The Beauty of Process & Partnerships

Photos by Chang Kim & Devin J. Dilmore.

Photos by Chang Kim & Devin J. Dilmore.

“What a beautiful maintenance facility!” said no one ever.

But Division 13 (D13) isn’t your average bus maintenance and operations facility. Beauty, whether being used as an adjective to refer to our built environment or otherwise, is inherently subjective and its use is easily debatable. Beauty can describe physical appearance and it can also be about the meaning and the process behind a project. LA Metro and the D13 design team at RNL sought to design something different when the project was first conceived. The facility was not only meant to be physically attractive, but it was also to represent something different, that appeals to the senses on a larger scale.

The tree is depicted as a series of graphite drawings laminated to polycarbonate panels. Source:  Metro

The tree is depicted as a series of graphite drawings laminated to polycarbonate panels. Source: Metro

The use of color, scale, landscape and massing all contribute to the beauty of D13, but one element stands out above the others is the public art integration. The lantern, as it is referred to, is subtle and almost hidden during the day, but at night becomes a focal point. The dynamic art piece is the product of an extremely collaborative effort by RNL, Metro Art, 3form and artist Christine Ulke. The artwork consists of hand drawings of a sycamore tree that were scanned, enlarged and printed onto a interlayer of composite translucent 3form panels. Titled El Aliso de Los Angeles, the piece commemorates a 400 year old tree which stood near the site and was cut down due to encroaching industrialization. The massive tree was at the center of Yaanga, one of the largest settlements of the native Tongva people in the LA basin.

It can be seen as an urban scale lantern, but more importantly as a commentary on the control of nature imposed by the built environment. Beauty is sometimes in the details (or the materials), but it can also be in the statement made by a public agency in partnership with artists and architects.  D13 may not appeal to everyone or evoke feelings of beauty for many, but the process and the story can be appreciated by even the most cynical of critics.

3form panels being installed at Division 13. The artwork will improve the quality of a high visibility street intersection across the street from Union Station. Credit:  The Source

3form panels being installed at Division 13. The artwork will improve the quality of a high visibility street intersection across the street from Union Station. Credit: The Source

Article by:
Will Todd, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
RNL Associate, Project Architect

Don’t Just Think About Design, Feel It

Our reaction to our environment can be hard to quantify at times, but it may be that we should be doing less counting and more feeling. This is no different than the subtlety with which we interpret our own non-verbal communication. Since humans can interpret meaning in millimeter differences of facial expressions and since we have an innate sense of finding human characteristics in almost everything we see - from art to inanimate objects - there is a psychological relationship between the form of what we design and the meaning people derive from it.

In his book, "The Architecture of Happiness", Alain DeBotton writes about a psychologist’s study where respondents use a simple line drawing to describe a happy relationship and then a relationship filled with tension, argument and anger. Results were categorical - happy relationships are bubbly clouds, angry ones are jagged snarls. So what does this tell us? It is our non-verbal limbic brain - the part that deals with our gut or our emotion - speaking. Design, speaks in this way as well.

In a typical design process, we spend a significant amount of time wrestling with the logic of our decision making, pursuing the illusive modern architectural goal of creating rationalized "machines for living". This is the practice we have grown accustomed to in the world of big data. We humans are comfortable in that realm because we use our neocortex for such reasoning and data correlation, but if we forget to engage the silent emotive portion of our brain in the process, we will miss the most human part of design’s impact.

if we forget to engage the silent emotive portion of our brain in the process, we will miss the most human part of design’s impact.

While the limbic brain is an older place evolutionarily in our mind, it has deep roots in our psychological sense of wellbeing, our sense of place and our connection to our environment. It’s no coincidence that Alzheimer’s disease causes damage to the limbic brain. Another more rare condition, Kluver-Bucy syndrome is related to damage in the limbic brain and can be characterized by an inability to recognize objects or faces. In design, this subtle center of abstract recognition cannot be forgotten amid the logic and data being amassed to justify our work to our more evolved neocortical minds.

Design has a base appeal to our gut that is immeasurable. Our ability to listen to that call with the rigor that we dig for logical justification can be every bit as important as finding hard metrics. When we describe a design as dynamic or aggressive, quiet or subdued, we show a recognition of it’s limbic appeal and open a window into the feel of the environment we create. This is not unlike the way a grin, smirk or frown may inform our next few words in a conversation. Humans are a remarkable blend of logic and instinct and our design should be informed by the context of both.

Biophilia of the Week

A mountain top museum that commemorates the evolution of modern mountaineering.

Photo Credit: Werner Huthmacher

Photo Credit: Werner Huthmacher

Typically, you wouldn't scale a mountain because of a building at the top, but this cast in-situ museum in South Tyrol is calling.

A hotel in the modern Singapore skyline that looks to fulfill its civic duty.

Photo Credit: Patrick Bingham-Hall

Photo Credit: Patrick Bingham-Hall

Singapore-based WOHA Architects have long been advocates of the ultimate ‘green city’ – one that would be comprised of more vegetation than if it were left as wilderness – and the PARKROYAL on Pickering was designed as a hotel-as-garden that actually doubled the green-growing potential of its site. - WOHA

A Vietnam day spa lush with hanging gardens and pools of water.

Photo Credit:  Hiroyuki Oki

Photo Credit: Hiroyuki Oki

Yes, it's a spa, but it could be the DMV and I would still feel serenity-now in this building.

Source: Dezeen

A rainbow pathway cheers up a gloomy Monday commute in London.

Photo Credit:  Spark Your City

Photo Credit: Spark Your City

So, this is stretching the definition of 'in-direct connection to nature' a bit, but it does look somewhat like a rainbow. During the rainy, gloomy week we have had in Denver I think this would have made an awesome addition to our plaza outside the Denver office.

Source: Inhabitat

Origami Strikes Again!

If you saw ‘Between The Folds’, the first in David’s summer movie series. Then you’ll know that Origami has worked its way into many, many aspects of our daily lives (air bags!). You’ll also remember there are some very ‘passionate’ paper folders out there... Here, origami is elegantly applied to a plant pot that grows along with the plant. The pot references the dynamic aspect of nature, in contrast to the static spaces we surround ourselves with. It’s also a way of ensuring your interior landscaping looks great from the day the building opens, instead of the typical scenario of stick-like plants sitting in vats of soil sized for year two of growth.

There is a strong disconnect between nature and the environments we are used to and comfortable in as humans. The spaces and objects we build and surround us with are very static. In nature, everything evolves, adapts, grows, blooms, degrades, dies, gets absorbed, reused. - Begum & Bike Ayaskan, Royal College of Art
Image Credit:  Dezeen

Image Credit: Dezeen

Biophilia of the Week

This week we go super-size-me biophilia big!

Thomas Heatherwick reveals his plans to build a Maggie's cancer-care centre in Yorkshire, England.

Image Credit:  Thomas Heatherwick

Image Credit: Thomas Heatherwick

Described as "a collection of stepped planter elements", his design comprises a series of curved structures that each feature rooftops covered in plants and flowers.
The aim is to take advantage of the therapeutic effect of plants, creating a welcoming facility that stands in contrast to the more sterile environment of the adjacent hospital. - Dezeen

CTBUH recently named CapitaLand building as a regional winner in its 2015 Best Tall Buildings Awards.

CapitaGreen, a 40-storey tower in Singapore, winner of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat 2015 Best Buildings Award.  I read the description quickly and thought it said the flora-inspired structure on the roof added a decorative scent, instead of accent. Considering it looks like a red pineapple I immediately imagined the office floors smelling like Pina Colada’s. Love it or leave it, the double-skin curtain wall with vegetation over half the façade will make a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of people in the offices. Neighboring buildings get a secondary benefit from the view-of-biophilia too.

Source: Architect

Photo Credit:  CTBUH

Photo Credit: CTBUH

A love for trees and religion.

Photo Credit:  Barry Cox

Photo Credit: Barry Cox

While some aspire for grand pools or tranquil gardens in their backyards, New Zealand resident, Barry Cox, had other ideas for a 3-acre space in his own yard. Yearning for an old stone church like those he had admired on his travels through Europe, Cox united his passions for religion and tree relocation to create a 100-seat chapel at his Ohaupo, New Zealand home made almost entirely from mature trees. According to the New Zealand Gardener, as a child, Cox wanted to be the Pope, but instead, settled for the position of head altar boy in his hometown church. His interest in Christianity, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of trees, came full circle in the creation of Tree Church. - The Dirt

An organic installation by Henrique Oliveira at the Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris.


3D printing is all the rage right now, with applications ranging from the awesome to the absurd. This one caught my attention as a fun way to combine signage and biophila. Be warned, before the grass grows they look like coils of dog turds, so you might want to consider some the lead time before opening day on your next project.


A modular, sculptural approach to shade structures. Elegant and simple yet highly functional – Shade! PVs! Directional Breezes! Let’s hope the solar geometry math was right and they work. Phoenix is not a city you want to mess around with when it comes to shade. My one question is if there is a lot of reflection (and glare) off the metal? Field trip the Phoenix office…

photo credit: Matt Winquist

photo credit: Matt Winquist