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The Facade

Text by
Cees Dam

As you move through the city, the facade or outer wall is the first part of a building that you see. In traditional architecture, the facade had to be handled in one of  a limited number of ways. Facades were made of stone or brick, sometimes with wood or stucco added. These days, there are many more possibilities. Besides the traditional approaches, there are also all sorts of curtain walls made of metal or glass with synthetic or wood cladding. Stone and wood are available from around the world and can be combined with an ever-expanding range of new products. Yet all these choices do not change the fact that the outer wall projects the character of the building to its surroundings. A facade does more than keep out wind and water. It also indicates where the public domain stops and the domain of the individual or group begins.

The outer wall is often compared to a skin, a kind of membrane stretched over the interior like a thin protective layer. This metaphor is very apt but somewhat oversimplified. On the one hand, the image of skin makes it clear that the boundary between inside and outside is less stable than it may at first appear. The analogy with skin also illustrates the fragile, ever-inconclusive nature of the dividing line between individual and society, a central theme in architecture.

In other respects, the image of skin is a poor fit; architecture is containment, true, but it is also, and in equal measure, concealment. The glass pane, through which everything that happens inside is visible from the outside, is therefore just one, very predictable and impoverished, version of the story an outer wall can tell. How much more intriguing it is to pass a marvellous restaurant and catch only a glimpse, perhaps of the doorman’s uniform, a glimpse that inspires dreams and fantasies. As you walk through the city, look up and you may see a beautiful old stucco ceiling, a few shadows, a fine cabinet… Even though you are outside, seeing only fragments, you are not an outsider, because your mind fills in all the rest in more lustrous colours.

The facade tells you how the building is meant to be interpreted in its context: how it rests on the ground, how its surface relates to the street wall and the paved surface of the street, and how the gable meets the sky.

If we now turn to the streets and squares of a particular city, we quickly see that, regardless of the diversity of the individual buildings, there are clear and consistent similarities in how their fronts relate to urban space. It is this cohesiveness that enables us to perceive an urban space as a whole. In the Amsterdam city centre we find a dense tissue of spaces varying greatly in size and scale: the many little alleyways, the canals, a few long, narrow streets, and the larger space of Dam Square. In Dam Square, the determination of the boundary between the square itself (the outer room) and the buildings is a much more vital issue than in a more ordinary place. Whatever activities may take place inside,  a building will certainly be influenced by the metropolitan character of its surroundings.

The front facade of a building on Dam Square expresses the delicate balance between the inner world of the building and its outer room. The building front manifests as a thin surface, subordinate to Dam Square’s spatial form. The building thus takes its place in the wall of well-known and lesser-known buildings  surrounding the square. The crucial features of the outer wall are its surface, the upper and lower edges, and the thin round column in the corner. The windows are regularly spaced, like gaps in the facade, expressing – and, in the same breath, complicating – the metropolitan scale of the building. The building is anonymous, one among many, yet it leaves no doubt as to its individuality.

The outer wall contains an incision that reveals the building’s inner world. Two lifts lead to the glazed upper storeys. The human traffic inside the building takes place before the eyes of everyone in the square. The space of the square and the interior intermingle without becoming identical.

The thin outer wall of the building front has been compromised in such a way as to leave the boundary between building and square intact, and with the desired effect: the outer world of the square and the inner world belong together, despite their obvious differences. The lifts, half covered by the outer wall, also make a visual connection to the world of the glazed upper storeys. The outer wall, despite its enclosing function, thus discloses the contents of the building without literally making them accessible, like an upright floor plan.

This text is an excerpt from the speech that Prof. Cees Dam delivered upon accepting the office of full professor of interior architecture in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology. The full speech can be found in the book ‘On architecture: Visions and dreams by Cees Dam’. ISBN 978 94 6208 412 4

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