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18 May 2015

Designs of the year: Elemental's UC Innovation Centre

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The UC Innovation Center in Santiago, Chile, designed by community-centric practice Elemental, has taken the 'Designs of the year' award for architecture.

Essentially inverting the contemporary 'glass towers' being built in Santiago, the monumental structure wears the bulk of its mass on the outside, while a large glass atrium fills the inside. The reason for this is two fold – social and environmental.

The glass skyscrapers, due to desert climates, act as 'giant greenhouses' and vast amounts of energy are required for the air conditioning. In contrast, the thermal mass of the centre's thick concrete walls mitigates heat gains, as does its windows being recessed within them out of the sun's reach, which also allows for cross ventilation.

Overall, the building consumes 45kW/sq m in a year, rather than 120kW/sq m – the standard for its glass counterparts.

"Such an opaque facade was not only energetically efficient but also helped to dim the extremely strong light that normally [needs curtains and blinds] to protect interior working spaces," said practice founder Alejandro Aravena. It is this, he says, that transforms the "initial theoretical transparency" into "a mere rhetoric. "In that sense the response to the context was nothing but the rigorous use of common sense" and not "rocket science".

View Aravena's TED talk, in which he discusses the UC Innovation Center, a housing project inspired by the slums and a park that aims to prevent flooding. "The more complex the problem, the simpler the idea needs to be." 

The inverted structure serves another purpose. As a place where university lecturers and businesses converge to share knowledge, the transparent internal core creates its own community to encourage interaction.

"We thought that face-to-face contact is unbeatable when one wants to create knowledge, so we multiplied throughout the building the places where people could meet: from the elevator's lobby with a bench where you can sit if you happen to run into somebody that has interesting information to share, to a transparent atrium where you can sneak into what others are doing while circulating vertically, to elevated squares throughout the entire height of the building."

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