Book Review: Skylab: The Nature of Building

What does it mean to be an architect in the Anthropocene? This is the question that attracts me to books about building reuse and earth architecture as well as writings by architects such as Tom Kundig, Weiss/Manfredi and Jeff Kovel of Skylab.

Skylab is an architecture firm based in Portland that has designed some of the more forward-looking buildings in the region, buildings that treat nature as a forethought not afterthought.

Skylab is also the eponymous book about their practice, written by the founder Jeff Kovel, with contributions by many partners.

The book is designed along the lines of a double-vinyl album which you have to see to understand; I’m not sure it entirely works, particularly the over-reliance on green-colored type. Fortunately, the book is rich with photographs of their many projects, like Nike’s Serena Williams building (a massive complex of more than a million square feet), the Yard apartment building and the Hoke house (as seen in the Twilight series).

While the projects vary widely in function, they do share traits, such as a dearth of right angles and a sense of stepping lightly on the ground below.

As you can above with with Yard, the lot was relatively small, crammed between a bridge and streets and yet the architects left room for nature and terrain, creating a small oasis among an otherwise industrial section of Portland.

In the book, Kovel talks about the importance of negative space, how, in the case of the Serena Williams Building “the spaces in between the buildings are more important than the buildings themselves.” For example:

The most interesting building has to be the Columbia Building, seen below, which is a public building housing Portland’s wastewater engineering department, among others. But this is no mere standard office building.

It’s built into the ground to take advantage of hydronic heating and cooling and the grass-covered roof works to direct water down a series of berms to filtration facilities before going into the Columbia river. And, yes, the building is LEED gold certified, but that’s to be assumed. A building that truly walks the walk when it comes to treating every drop of water as precious, as it indeed is.

The architect Louis Khan once wrote “A room is not a room without natural light.”

Today, one might say a room is not a room without nature. Not just light but fresh air, native plants and trees. And when it comes to office buildings nature has historically not factored all too heavily into planning. Sure, a few trees may be placed here and there, but not without sacrificing parking lots.

What this book focuses on are the many ways a building can co-exist with nature or, as in the case with many Portland buildings, give nature its due amidst the build environment. We live in a world in which birds and bees are struggling like never before. Homeowner are freeing their lawns of pesticides, replacing grass with native plants. And when they go to work they want to see their offices respect nature similarly. Architects play a critical role in not just helping us imagine the future, but actually bringing this future to life.

This book will inspire the next generation of architects to rise to the challenges of this fast-changing world.


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