While the lecture that Alejandro Zaera Polo held in April 2008 essentially signalled the start of his examination of the relation between building volume and politics, he is now working on a general theory about The Envelope. November 25 he gave another lecture on the subject at the Berlage Institute.

According to Zaera Polo, the outward appearance of a building volume, The Envelope, is probably the oldest and most primitive architectural element. It materialises the division between exterior and interior and is therefore automatically charged politically. The subject, he says, is relevant because the focus is increasingly put on the border between outside and inside, instead of on the internal organisation of the programme.
Summarised briefly, Zaera Polo distinguishes four typological forms: flat horizontal, flat vertical, vertical and spherical/cubic. Each type possesses a number of fundamental characteristics that make the volume suited, in greater or lesser degrees, for certain representations and functions. In addition, the different types can be linked to certain social and political effects.

Anyone who attended Zaera Polo’s earlier lecture and had come again in the hope that he would theoretically build on the theme he had introduced back then should have stayed at home. In the first lecture he sketched the different themes on the spot, while now he had integrated them into his presentation. In addition, he provided historical and contemporary precedents for each type, before he explored the types more deeply with illustrations from his own work.


Zaera Polo drew an interesting comparison between the Silodam in Amsterdam by MVRDV and his residential building in Madrid. Both belong to the flat vertical category. This type, usually housing, often features a representation of the units of which the building is composed, namely the dwellings. In the Silodam this is done by giving the units contrasting colours. The Madrid building is wrapped in a closed skin of bamboo that residents themselves can open. Here the occupants produce the dynamic representation of the units, while the building itself maintains a homogenous skin. At the same time, the bamboo and balconies behind form a climate buffer between interior and exterior. Representation, function and climate control form a single unity here. Such a symbiosis would seem to be the core of what Zaera Polo is searching for in his architecture, and that is supported by the descriptions of a number of highrise projects.

The tower is the type deployed most often for representative purposes despite the severe technical and climate-control restrictions. These two characteristics conflict with each other, and the upshot is that architectural and technical innovations are often made at the expense of the representational aspect. Using a number of projects currently ‘on hold’, Zaera-Polo discussed his ambition of deploying architectural tools to organise climate-control aspects such as natural ventilation and, at the same time, define the identity of the building.

It is commendable that Zaera Polo has committed himself to a subject that touches on the core of architecture. Usually, the building volume is related to either representation or technology. Zaera Polo’s belief in the combination of representation, function and technology in relation to elementary building-volume types seems genuine and is relevant because he also tries to point out the social and political effects of this relation.
The increasing political interest for sustainability and the need to represent this effectively, now provides great opportunities to integrate climate-control technology, function and representation in buildings.


The fact that the recession has slowed down the progress of projects allows Zaera Polo to explore the theme more and integrate the results into his work. He acknowledged that he would like nothing more than to produce an ‘Envelopes Neufert’ in which both the typological essentials and the architectural potential is set out. The basis for such a handbook is already prepared.