Oh, look, another building that’s learned a trick. This apartment project, planned for South Melbourne, Australia, presents the illusion of a façade in catastrophic failure. Has a fire melted it? An earthquake buckled it? No, design did this. Presented with a straightforward program—a seven-story urban apartment building--Melbourne-based ARM Architecture will distinguish the project, dubbed Orbis, by devoting a lot of energy to something that seems almost entirely superfluous.
We see this all the time. Architects and developers, unsatisfied with producing mere background buildings, seek attention by doing … something … anything. The result is buildings that behave like actors at a casting call, improvising furiously. “I’ll alternate horizontal and vertical fenestration!” “I’ll perform awkward and unsettling cantilevers!” “I’ll embody an arbitrary pattern that neither reflects nor enhances my functions!” Worse, in this case, the architects have chosen imagery that makes light of the Vitruvian value of firmitas, and that’s something you just shouldn’t mess with. We’ve seen enough buildings ruined by war or natural calamity—and the associated human suffering—that a visual joke about buildings falling down is more disturbing than amusing.
So why am I still okay with this? Check out the rendering. Despite the antics of the façade, the building still acknowledges its setting and behaves with civility among its neighbors. Its street setback, height, and massing are all in keeping with what’s around it. All of that may simply reflect zoning constraints, but the result is still a net positive. While Orbis may aspire to something more, it fulfills the functions of a proper background building: It preserves the street wall, announces its function, makes its entrance clear, and offers a bit of visual interest to pedestrians without interrupting their passage.
In that way, Orbis differs from any number of high-profile buildings that not only perform meaningless contortions, but also ruin the space around them (does this ring a bell?). It comes to the party wearing a funny suit, but it’s not going to get trashed and knock over the punch bowl or stand in a corner talking only about itself. After hanging out with Orbis for a while, one might actually get to like it—in spite of the zombie getup. –B.D.S.