How to Give Your Project the “Snake Skin” Effect

Through experimenting with allegorical curved forms, architects have sought to discover seamless ways of softening a city’s edges. As a result, undulating surfaces are deeply apparent in every region’s architectural vocabulary. However, upon looking around — seriously, take a look outside — you may quickly notice that the smooth shapes of massive façades are rarely executed through an entirely unified or unbroken surface. They are partitioned into hundreds of composite parts. Otherwise, most materials would collapse.

Enter unusual designs clad in roof tiles. Cascading down from roofs to wall faces, tiles hone a unique approach to creating flexible and malleable surfaces; even in their most mundane applications, they work cooperatively to break up a large structure into small digestible bites. In doing so, architects have realized folds, bends and curvatures that may have otherwise gone unrealized. With unyielding slithering surfaces, two projects particularly stand out for their distinctive tiled roofs and façades: GilBartolomé Architects’ Casa Del Acantilado and Studio Libeskind’s Vanke Pavilion.

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Left: Casa Del Acantilado, image by Jesus Granada via GilBartolomé Architects; right: Vanke Pavilion, image by Hufton+Crow via ArchDaily

While most would not jump at the opportunity of purchasing a cliffside plot that rests at a 42-degree incline, most homes do not turn out as daring and cavernous as this one. Described by the architects as a “Gaudíesque contemporary cave,” Casa Del Acantilado features a curved double shell made from reinforced concrete, which defines and encloses the interior living spaces. Seven centimeters thick, the dramatic shell was moulded around a formwork of metal mesh and finished with gypsum plaster and handmade zinc tiles — a system that costs less than steel or timber roofing. Each scale-like zinc tile turns up slightly at one corner, naturally catching and bouncing the light.

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Sectional drawing of Casa Del Acantilado via designboom

Open to the sea, the main living area — a cantilevered ancillary terrace — is a stage or auditorium for up to 70 guests. The stunning entertaining space, which is separated from the outside with floor-to-ceiling movable glass panels, frames views of the Mediterranean and orients airflows. Deeply buried in its mountainous context, the interior benefits from a constant annual temperature of 19.5 degrees Celsius.

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Images by Jesus Granada via GilBartolomé Architects

Similar to Casa del Acantilado in its light-reflecting and sinuous exterior properties, Vanke Pavilion features a state-of-the-art cladding support system. Created by Daniel Libeskind — the king of metaphorical architecture — this evocative pavilion was clad in more than 4,000 blood-red tiles, which were designed in partnership with Italian ceramics manufacturer Casalgrande Padana. Simultaneously rhythmic and mathematical, the design features torquing curves that seamlessly transition visitors through stairways and other bending spaces.

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From inside to out, the brilliantly complex façade system is composed of structural steel ribs, thermal and acoustic insulation, recycled wood panels, waterproofing resin and custom self-cleaning ceramic tiles with additional air purification properties. In its finished state, the 3-D surface, which is coated in a metallic coloration, changes as light and viewpoints shift; the evocative skin was caught taking on deep crimsons, dazzling golds and even brilliant white tones. After the pavilion closed, the architects up-cycled all of the components and tiles used throughout.

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Façade details of the Vanke Pavilion

Not only do both projects use individual tiles to create a sense of collective movement, but both have been likened to the skin of a dragon. According to GilBartolomé Architects, Casa Del Acantilado’s “metallic roof produces a calculated aesthetic ambiguity between the natural and artificial,” rendering a structure that is almost uncanny. Vanke Pavilion produced a similar site where one could wrestle between that which appeared to be happenstance and measured, static and alive.

Fascinating in their applications, tiled roofs and façades provide a unique option for creating daring building skins that may even appear to organically live and breathe.

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