Undulation, No Breathing

For years we have seen like architects like Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid produce other-worldly buildings that inspire the imagination and sometimes defy comprehension. They have been criticized for their visions of pushing the limit of what buildings can look like and how they can be assembled. Zaha has been criticized specifically for designing buildings that don’t make sense visually and seem to be flamboyant for the sake of flamboyancy. Not all of their design choices were economical or ecological in nature (mostly the opposite, it turns out).

A new trend that looks pretty ‘out there’ is actual useful and economical. Who knew?

Undulating façades oftentimes reflect the surrounding environment or history. Sometimes the design is used to assist in the conservation of energy; i.e. helping to reflect light back into interiors as to reduce the use of overhead lighting. An example of a building in Chicago actually helped to curb wind and allowed residents above the 60th and 70th floors to have balconies (a typically disallowed amenity). Those undulating balconies also served as midday sun reprieve for their neighbors below.

The Yinchuan Art Museum in China mimics the layers of sediment left by the gradual shifting of the nearby Yellow River. The 3,400-mile-long river once ran right through the area but has gradually moved over time. This was the starting point for the design, which is intended to embrace the region’s “rich ecological history”.

Yinchuan - Entry

Yinchuan – Entry

Yinchuan - Scope

Yinchuan – Scope

Jeanne Gang was able to use undulating architectural elements as a low-cost, but effective way to mitigate wind and midday sun. With her starting point as a generic glass-clad building, she was able to imagine concrete balconies that look to undulate as if the wind were blowing ripples across the surface of the building. Aqua been said to resemble draped fabric too. With each floor of the building having a different shape, all balconies are therefore unique (a cool selling feature perhaps?).

Aqua - Façade

Aqua – Façade

Aqua - Façade

Aqua – Façade

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this design allowed for the use of balconies on every floor of the building, mitigated wind (in Chicago no less), helped create a reprieve from the hot, midday sun, as well as prevented the almost inevitable use of a “tuned mass damper” — a mass weighing hundreds of tons that engineers place at the top of tall buildings to stabilize them against the vibrations and sway caused by the force of wind. These all sound like great benefits in addition to making the building look cool.
Even anchor retailer stores have found the value in unique, undulating architecture. The façade of the Neiman Marcus store in Natick, MA, resembles a woman’s dress. Howard Elkus of Boston-based architecture firm Elkus Manfredi said, “The elevation should look like a dress on a woman, rather than a dress on a hanger.” And it does look like the bottom of a flowing dress!

Neiman Marcus

Neiman Marcus exterior

Neiman Marcus

Neiman Marcus exterior

Another interesting effect when driving past this store is that it seems to be in motion, looking like a series of waves (duh, undulating). They were able to create this façade without stepping out of the owner’s original budget. In other words, they delivered this visual masterpiece with the same budget as a traditional store exterior. That’s pretty amazing folks.

Japanese Eatery

A Japanese eatery

I love seeing this trend on large scale projects as well as smaller, residential projects; it works well at both scales. I hope this doesn’t become a trend that gets overused, but rather one that is used sparingly as to give some longevity to its thoughtfulness. What are your thoughts on undulating façades? Hit me up on twitter @TocciBuildingCo or Facebook. If that’s too much work, you can leave a comment fairly easily down below.


  1. I love your website. Learning about he diversity of your projects will be interesting for the Intro to Civil Engineering students in my class at SU. The elevator pitch is a perfect example for students! Thanks for being a great role model for the students. Prof. Joan Dannenhoffer, P.E.

    • Hi Joan,
      Thank you so much for your comments. We appreciate the support! Let us know if we can assist you with anything.
      All the best,

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