Most architects go to some lengths to hide the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems in their buildings, but recent history has been marked by some notable exceptions—famously Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris, which sported ductwork on its exterior. A project by the firm Emergent—a concept for a “Radiant Hydronic House,” which will be on show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this October—goes a step further by proposing a heating-and-cooling system as the defining structure of a building and a “performative” feature of its spaces. The concept house—a runner-up in the Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition earlier this year—is formed around a central armature for moving heat, air, electricity, and data, which doubles as the building’s structure, folding and turning to form ramps and bridges.
The design, which was commissioned by a film director and a T.V. writer for a site in west Los Angeles, revisits the eco-idealism of 1960s architecture with less sentimentality and a lot more technology. In winter, rooftop thermal pools of radiator fluid collect solar heat, which is redirected to the rest of the house. In summer, liquid is replaced by air, as louvers open up in the roof, drawing westerly night winds through the spine to cool the floor slab. The central HVAC system becomes an aesthetic feature of the house with the help of transparent materials and water features—including warm baths. “We have these flowing liquid elements and radiant pools—not just on the roof but inside the house,” Emergent principal Tom Wiscombe says. “You can get into the pools at some points, and other times they’re behind glass in the floor; you’ll be living on a glass floor with glowing radiant elements down below.”
The idea of turning structure into decoration marks a shift in architecture that has emerged with the use of digital design and fabrication methods, according to SF MoMA curator Joseph Rosa, who selected Emergent’s project for the upcoming show Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture. The Radiant Hydronic House will share a room with a model of Herzog & De Meuron’s Prada Tokyo building, examples of what Rosa calls the “monocoque box.” As he explains, “The simple definition of a monocoque is where structure and surface become one, and Tom’s building does that.”
A network of architects who maintain active roles at larger firms (Wiscombe is a senior designer in the Vienna-based Coop Himmelb(l)au), Emergent was behind the 2003 P.S.1/MoMA Urban Beach project and has two ongoing house projects. But the group’s gurgling, energy-efficient hydronic home will not be built. The patrons, Wiscombe laments, “decided to rent.”