Take a look around the 21st-century built environment, and it quickly becomes clear that architects, aided by technology, have largely conquered all questions related to structural design. Essentially any form—for better or worse—can be built (and probably has been somewhere).

So what’s the next formalist frontier, then, for the profession? In the view of Robert Matthew Noblett, AIA, a partner at Behnisch Architekten (with offices in Stuttgart, Boston and L.A.), it’s exploring how sustainability should inform a building’s architectural qualities.

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Behnisch Architekten has designed a new law school for the University of Baltimore

“What does sustainability mean formally? We’re just at the beginning” of finding out, he said at his session on the first day of Architectural Record’s Innovation conference, in a presentation titled “Content Driven Approaches to an Innovative Architecture.”

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Behnisch's Center for Cellular and Biomolecular Research in Toronto; photo by Tom Abran 

Over the course of his talk, Noblett would show visually striking examples of his firm’s work—all of which incorporated a number of ecologically sensitive features. But, interestingly, Noblett also began his talk with something of a sustainability disclaimer: “We’re often tagged as the ‘green guys,’” he said, a label that he “resists.” Rather, he’d prefer that Behnisch be known for “designing buildings that people want to be in.”

Personally, I’ve always thought of Behnisch as “the atrium guys,” and, reinforcing this view, Noblett opened his slideshow with Genzyme Center, the headquarters of the Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company. The building’s signature feature is a heliostat that drives light into the interior depths of the 14-story structure—a design element that both increases daylighting and an employee’s sense of well-being. 

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The atrium at Genzyme Center (left); exterior of Genzyme Center (right); exterior photo © Anton Grassi

Another project put forth, the National Center for Tumor Diseases in Heidelberg, Germany, also boasts an ultra-cool atrium, with plenty of secluded areas for the privacy so essential to a place where life-and-death discussions occur.

But what was most impressive/surprising here: Behnisch Architekten also designed the patient-examination chairs, modeled on the sort of luxury lounger you’d find in a first-class airline cabin. While it wasn’t something that the client had even asked for, Behnisch thought it was a part of the overall design mission of creating a space that was calming and healing.

In fact, furniture design became something of an unexpected sub-theme of the presentation, with Noblett showing firm-designed desks “driven by the geometry of space” at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

And an OLED “disappearing lamp” designed by the firm was deployed widely at Unilver’s Hamburg headquarters—where concrete-slab ceilings, critical to the building’s energy-efficient cooling-heating plan, prevented the use of dropped ceilings (and the lamp approach saved the cost of creating recessed lighting in the ceiling).

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Look hard, and you can see the "disappearing lamps" used at Unilver's HQ; photo © Adam Mørk

Some other notes from Noblett’s talk:

• The Unilever building (again, with an eye-attracting atrium) was “lifted” to provide a passage for the public through the building—all part of an effort to rebrand the consumer-products giant as a transparent, welcoming company.

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The Unilever HQ in Hamburg; photo © Adam Mørk

• The Unilever building, sited near Hamburg’s windy harbor, presented an exterior challenge as well: The façade’s sun-shading product works well in calm-air situations but was going to need protection at this spot. Rather than the cost of a double-wall, the firm opted for an EFTE foil on a frame mounted on the building, creating an interesting exterior (and gaining the self-cleaning benefits of EFTE).  

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Views of the ETFE skin that allows ample daylight to enter the Unilver facility; photo © Adam Mørk 

• LED lovers will definitely want to check out Behnisch's Haus-im-Haus project, built inside Hamburg's 19th-Century Chamber of Commerce building--it gives full play to firm's admitted "preoccupation" with LED technology.

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Haus-im-Haus; Photo © Roland Halbe