Herbert Wright goes into hiding

In its great sifting of opinion, discussion and rumination about architecture, there’s something the Farrell Review will not have seen. I refer, of course, to the invisible building.

Paradoxically, this sort of building has a lot of history, with that most visible typology of all, the skyscraper. In 1989, Jean Nouvel proposed a 425m-high cylindrical tower for Paris that would have risen from la Défense, called Tour sans Fins (Tower without Ends). Its base would have been stone, but in stages it would have become more progressively more transparent until visually it merged into the air. It was never built, but the basic idea of exploiting glass to deliberately dissolve skyscrapers into the sky has been realised many times, from IM Pei’s super-smooth reflective John Hancock Tower in Boston (1976), where even mullions were minimised, to Renzo ­Piano’s Shard with its especially-clear glass.

Still, you’d have to be blind to not see the glassiest of towers from nearby. To strive for invisibility, technology has new tricks. In September, California-based architect GDS announced a 450m skyscraper for Incheon, South Korea, that would use HD cameras to feed images of the sky to LEDs on the curtain wall. Thus, the skyscraper disguises itself as the sky behind it – but only from the angles the cameras capture. Isn’t that exactly the ticket for London, where viewing corridors of St Paul’s in particular are protected? It could be chocks away for the City cluster, which is constraining high-rise onto slices of land because of views from a few places like Waterloo Bridge or distant Richmond. Indeed, why worry about high-rise behind St Paul’s? We could completely surround it by towers, as long as their facades presented the proper image of the cathedral at certain angles.

We’ve already covered one of the Farrell Review’s four areas of scrutiny, cultural heritage. Another is economic benefits. Few activities bring more of that than vice – well, gambling, anyway. Unfortunately casinos change the tone of the neighbourhood, so the thing is to let only gamblers find it, perhaps by uploading an app into Google Glass. To all others, it would be hidden, perhaps inside a blur of water spray. Diller and Scofidio did this with its Blur pavilion for Swiss Expo 2002 – a tensegrity structure that looked like a cloud on Lake Geneva. Admittedly, a cloud may look odd in an urban setting, unless passed off as a particularly vigorous car wash. That, too, can  be un-neighbourly, not least by making a slip hazard on the pavement outside. Large sheets of glass would have to be mounted at the property boundary, and would steam up like shower cubicles.

With so many reaping the economic benefits of the invisible building, no wonder Germany managed to weather the recent slump

Perhaps this sort of invisible building has already been built, and on a staggering scale. Cruise down streets in Google Street View, and more and more buildings, especially in side streets, have been obscured, as if by great sheets of frosted glass. In Germany, about one in 30 buildings are like this. With so many reaping the economic benefits of the invisible building, no wonder the country managed to weather the recent slump.

Of course, landlords might be exercising a legal right to property privacy with one of those Google blurs, but I say that’s a cover. Even if  true, it would at least indicate a great potential market for real-world invisible properties, one already identified by address.

Architects should be looking into the emerging technologies of invisibility cloaks, such as light-bending meta-materials or active embedded electronics, rather than worrying about the aesthetics of design. The Farrell Report looks into government’s role in promoting design quality, but if you can’t see the design, we can cut back on design watchdog quangos, save taxpayer money... and help the design-and-build sector.

The final Farrell area of scrutiny is education, where the benefits of invisibility remain to be identified. There are implications for health, however. All those injuries suffered by bumping into invisible buildings... 

Trained physicist Herbert Wright is an architectural writer, historian and art critic

Sniff, sniff

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s controversial new gallery plans for New York’s Museum of Modern Art involve the demolition of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ Folk Art Museum (2001). At a meeting called to defend this sad decision, one attendee brought up the narrow, metallic-textured building’s special olfactory signature. Smell is something that architecture almost entirely overlooks, except as something to eliminate with plant. But it can produce strong and subtle emotional response, and is worth design consideration, perhaps starting with choice and treatment of materials.