In Mexico City, a carbon-steel veil draped over the south and east façades of a six-story structure is the latest dynamic skin from Belzberg Architects. At Profiles, the Santa Monica, Calif.–based firm’s second project for Mexico City developer Grupo Anima, the perforated metal cladding doubles as a sunshade and privacy screen, while also turning a spec office building into a local landmark.
Typically, says Belzberg partner Brock DeSmit, developers want the side elevations of new buildings left plain, figuring they will be obscured by neighboring structures in the future. "That portion of the building that’s exposed above the adjacent smaller building ends up being a big, blank façade," he says. "It’s a huge contributor to the urban experience.” Profiles subverts this functionalist approach. The architects decided to pull the majority of the six-story building’s mass away from the southern lot line and to add an open-air space on the second floor, creating a highly visible building with significant southern exposure, which the architects wanted to leverage.
To craft the façades, the team worked closely with local steel fabricator El Roble and studied the site at length. “We situated ourselves on the sidewalk ... and asked, ‘What is going to be the perception of this mass from the street?’ ” DeSmit says. “There was an interplay between sculpting that metal façade and then tweaking the glass and concrete to adjust to it, and then tweaking the glass and concrete from the inside due to the structure and layout, and adjusting the metal façade as a result.”
A similar interplay took place in Belzberg's office. The firm’s projects tend to carry the fingerprints of the project’s lead designers, DeSmit says, and in this case, much of the architecture was driven by the interests of DeSmit and his then-colleague Joseph Ramiro, particularly during the ideation process. “Maybe you do a 3D model on the computer, but then you lay it out in 2D, and overlay a 2D pattern, then project it back onto a 3D surface,” DeSmit says. “And it’s that interplay between 2D and 3D that unique moments start to emerge.”
The resulting skin, which is 50% opaque, wraps the concrete-and-glass building and arches over the second-floor terrace to provide views out. Totaling 400 flat, curved, or double-curved steel panels, it covers a surface area of 6,865 square feet. While the perforations were randomized using parametric design software, the designers created a secondary pattern through the addition of 13,000 carbon-steel “chads”—2.5-inch to 4-inch discs angling outward between 10 degrees and 60 degrees—that imbue a reflective quality throughout the day. Each chad was welded by hand at its specified location and angle.
Mock-ups built by El Roble were crucial to honing the gauge of the carbon steel, the maximum diameter of the openings, and the sizes of the panels, which are 3 feet wide, 4 feet to 8 feet tall, and 0.2 inch thick. “We would study shadows, how much shading [the mock-up] is producing, what sort of views it's allowing,” DeSmit says. The mock-ups also determined the tightest radii permitted by the cold-bent steel, and highlighted the cost and time required to manufacture double-curved panels, which then drove a simplification of the façade geometry.
That the façade reads as a singular, diaphanous skin is testament to the team’s attention to detail. In places, the circular openings intersect or span panel edges, which, despite adding another level of complexity to the fabrication process, was necessary to achieve the continuous look and feel of the façade. “We were trying to contain everything within each panel, but ultimately we realized that you could read that too much,” DeSmit says. “So we worked with the fabricator on how we can have elements that don’t terminate right at the panel edge, but that carry over. That’s actually a pretty nice detail.”
On the building’s east elevation, the panels attach to a structural steel tube frame via metal angles, bolted through the panel’s return flanges. On the southern façade, the panels attach to a series of steel-tube maintenance walkways that run between the metal panels and the building’s storefront glazing. Here, the panels tie back to the concrete floor plates via a continuous, embedded steel plate. To ensure accurate placement, Belzberg worked with El Roble and Grupo Anima, which also served as general contractor, to outline the assembly process and assign each panel an alphanumeric code.
Although he still ruminates over some design decisions, DeSmit is proud of the project and its contribution to Belzberg’s growing Mexico City portfolio. Last December, the entire office flew to Profiles for Grupo Anima’s holiday party and experienced the finished project from inside. “To wander through the building,” DeSmit says, “and come across different moments that we spent so much time thinking about and anticipating is really awesome.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated since first publication to clarify details relating to the orientation and placement of the chads.