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Make a grand entrance

August 1st, 2013 / By: / Exteriors, Feature

The importance of entryways to buildings, and how to design a good one.

Any actor will tell you that making a proper entrance is the essence of theater. “What is theater, after all, if not a series of exits and entrances?” says Arnold Aronson, professor of theater at Columbia University. Shakespeare knew this. What would “Macbeth” be without the entrance of Macduff? Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, a master at understated humor, knew this as well. “Seinfeld” depended heavily upon the show’s regular characters entering (or exiting) the comedian’s apartment through unlocked doors, a source of repeated funny business. “The door marks a beginning and an end; it punctuates comings and goings,” Aronson says.

Doors, portals, gateways—these all mark the threshold of transition that connotes an entryway, and, depending on how well designed, they signal the importance of that transition. The Romans deemed this transition so important they assigned the god Janus (a double-faced god with one face looking out, one looking in) to guard entryways, and its attribute was to symbolically watch over all entries and exits, and, by extension, the past and the future, the profane and sacred.

For the Romans, this transition was important enough that entrances were decorated not only with the two faces of Janus, but also elaborate designs, the more elaborate signifying places of greater importance in society. The noted architecture author and teacher Francis D.K. Ching, in his book “Architecture: Form, Space & Order,” states “Since we move in time through a sequence of spaces, we experience a space in relation to where we’ve been, and where we anticipate going.”

Entrances as theater of space and movement

As Aronson would agree, entryways are signs of passage, separating inside from outside. “An entrance sets up the anticipation of things to come,” says New York architect Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA, LEED AP, senior design principal of FTL Design Engineering Studio, New York, N.Y. “It can be welcoming, it can be formidable, august, and imposing. It can be playful and festive, but it always acts as a harbinger.”

Clearly, designing entrances is no small effort and care must be taken to give each building’s entryway its proper due. Besides the symbolic aspects, there are the practical concerns of visibility, function (both primary functions such as shelter, and secondary functions such as signage), the relationship of the entrance to street or setting, and the approach.

“Projected entrances announce their function to the approach and provide shelter overhead,” says Ching. He might also have said that good entrances provide shelter from rain and sun in addition to drawing attention to the entry point.

Architects know that form-making can be almost as important as functionality in building designs, especially when the building needs to signify an important social function such as a government building like the Reichstag building in Berlin or the United Nations Assembly Building in New York, N.Y. “The form of the entrance can be similar to, and serve as a preview of the form of the space being entered,” says Ching. “Or it can contrast with the form of the space to reinforce boundaries and emphasize its character as a place.”

“A great entrance invites you to start an architectural journey,” Goldsmith says. “It draws you in and seduces you to enter the building.” Goldsmith’s temporary entryway to the United Nations General Assembly building in Manhattan works very well at drawing in visitors. The fabric-clad canopy functions as a porte cochere entrance pavilion and security screen for arriving and departing General Assembly delegates and sits adjacent to the UN’s new temporary General Assembly building designed by architects HLW International while the original Assembly building undergoes extensive renovation. In contrast to the more permanent Assembly building, the entry pavilion is a relocatable structure intended to be moved to another part of the campus at the renovation’s completion. (See also FA March, 2012 online) Drawing its inspiration from the UN campus landscape, “The porte cochere design explores lightness as a visual, physical and sustainable approach,” says Goldsmith, “using a minimum of materials to reduce its environmental impact.”

Another case in point is a new entry canopy at the headquarters of the fabric manufacturer Glen Raven. An “eyebrow” or bow-arched roof gives the entryway an attractive, contemporary appearance. The canopy appears quite solid, with a base of dark glass enclosing the lobby and is topped by a plinth of mid-gray and a light tan edge of the curved roof. In truth, both the plinth and roof are taut fabric surfaces framed by regular geometric shapes. The curved roof fabric is translucent, to allow softened daylight to the interior, and the lower gray portion with the company logo is opaque, to block light where it’s not wanted.

“The use of fabric enhances the ‘curb appeal’ of the entry,” says John Gant, manager of sustainability for Glen Raven. “Each part has different properties and integrates perfectly with the architecture of the building.”

Material world

The materials used for canopies and entry structures vary widely from heavy-gauge steel and aluminum to wood and even bamboo, and depend on the nature of the contextual building the entry is intended for. Structures can be attached to their buildings or freestanding. Cladding can be durable awning fabrics, such as solution-dyed acrylic, PTFE-coated and PVC-coated fabrics, or translucent and transparent ETFE foil pillows. In every case, the softness of fabric contributes to a humanizing quality of an inviting, welcoming entryway.

Color it green

There is tremendous value from fabric canopies because they have much less mass than canopies of metal or concrete, and thus a much lower impact on the environment. An equivalent metal canopy would require a bigger more massive frame, and therefore larger embodied energy and materials than with a fabric canopy. “If you are not building a green building, you are building an obsolete building,” says Guy Bazzani, president of Bazzani Associates, a design-build firm in Grand Rapids, Mich., specializing in sustainable construction. “Awnings contributed to our LEED energy and atmosphere credits. We lowered our cooling costs by placing awnings in the right positions.”*

Conclusion

“Architecture,” says Ching, “in combining form and space into a single essence, not only facilitates purpose but communicates meaning. The art of architecture makes our existence not only visible but meaningful.”

With the use of specialty fabrics described here, architects and designers have a wide pallet of options to design engaging, dynamic and colorful entryways for their buildings. These can be entryways that are not only functional but also meaningful to all involved.

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is an architect/journalist and the former editor of Fabric Architecture magazine.

In some Bazzani projects, building operating costs were lowered by 11% where west-facing windows are shaded by awnings. Learn more.

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