Elevate Your Thinking: Light, air and connectivity beyond the street | PlaceMakers


Thinking of the entire building envelope. From placemakers.com.

This post from Howard Blackson addresses issues of building envelopes in San Diego. He feels that we may be putting to much focus on getting the ground floor of buildings right. This is important, and may be the most important thing for creating good street life; but it certainly isn’t the only thing to discuss, and Blackson thinks it de-emphasizes getting the rest of the building right. He mentions the versatility of the Vancouver podium, which ensures a strong street wall and allow for towers, while making provisions for light and air. Lots in San Diego (and many other places for that matter) are such that if a landowner wants to maximize the area of their lot, it will almost definitely bring them into conflict with their neighbors over these issues. He also advocates liner buildings to create small public spaces on interior lots. He also points out that upper stories need to be connected to the street and other buildings, which can be done via elements such as balconies and open stairs.

A good example of what Blackson advocates. From placemakers.com.

I agree to a point; if you’re below, say, four stories, I think it’s important for you to have a connection to the street. Above that number, however, I think residents are more interested in long views than street activity. I never held that position before living on the 8th floor of a building, but it does give you a new perspective being a bit higher. However, Blackson’s point about light and air still stands, and we need to think about the entire building envelope, not just the street level frontage.

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William H. Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – The Street Corner on Vimeo


I was actually very happy to find this video online. I think it is a resource that every designer should take a look at, and is as true today as when it was made. This video was produced by William H. Whyte, one of the greats in urban design, for New York City. In it, he takes an empirical look at which public spaces in the city are used and how. He found some commonalities. Good plazas have lots of places to sit, and they are located in places where people actually want to sit. They are connected to the street and the activity thereon. They have some access to natural light, although not always direct; Whyte makes a point of the light that is reflected off the glass facades of towers. Many have access to food, including formal cafes as well as food vendors and trucks. Many have access to water, and more importantly, the water can actually be used. Trees provide seasonal shade and a sort of covering or enclosure. The final element is what Whyte calls “triangulation,” or something that attracts people to the plaza. It could be public art, street performances, or something else entirely. These principles, even today, would make a great public space.

Noain just got a great building, but is it a great city hall?


Noain is a small town, essentially a suburb of Pamplona, Spain. The population was barely over a thousand in 1960, but the next fifty years saw exponential growth, reaching almost eight thousand today. Noain has been all over the architecture blogs because of their new city hall (seen here at ArchDaily and hereat Architizer, to name a few), designed by Zon-e Arqitectos.

The architecture is great, and the urban design, while not superb, could certainly be worse. The question I want to ask is, does this building say “city hall”?

I looked desperately to find the building that this city hall replaced, but I was unable to find anything. Considering fairly recent changes in the administration of the area, it could be possible that the old seat of government rested outside the city, or that it did not exist at all. The situation of the building on the very edge of the developed area of the city also suggests that this was not a demolish-and-replace job, but an entirely new creation.

The urban design that the building is a part of deserves note.

Click to zoom. From http://maps.google.com/.

The city hall sits at the southwest side of a square plaza, with buildings on four sides. The plaza is a bit wide for its buildings (or the buildings are a bit short for the plaza, take your pick), but it’s still fairly nice, even if it feels somewhat empty. The biggest problem with the plaza is that the building to the northwest is way too small, and the large open spaces on either side of it destroy the sense of enclosure for the plaza. On the north side of the city hall is a fairly busy park, and it would be a shame to destroy an amenity like that to complete the square, but at the same time, the plaza is fairly empty while the park thrives. My solution would be to scrap the square, put the park in its place, and build more around the edges. While a street does separate the buildings from the square, it is a fairly narrow and easily traversable street, and parking is relegated to the backs of buildings. Whether intentional or not, the city hall continues a theme of the buildings around the square having a differentiated base and upper stories, accomplished on the older buildings with loggias and on the newer ones by changes in material and building depth. This gives the buildings cohesion despite different materials and architectural styles. With the exception of the squat structure to the northwest, the buildings are of similar scale.

The exterior is made up of two layers. The first, and probably most interesting is a metal grid structure. Alone, this structure works as a brise soleil, shading the structure from high summer sun while allowing lower winter rays to penetrate. What is the more intriguing part of this layer is that flowerpots on the top and bottom of the structure house Virginia Creeper vines, which grow over the structure. The vines are deciduous, so their leaves shade the building from the sun in summer, but after they fall of in winter greater sunlight is allowed into the building. The creeper also ranges in color from green to a deep red, providing visual interest. Its berries also provide food for birds. Although it is beautiful, and probably my favorite element of this building, I have some fears about introducing non-native plants, which have a habit of becoming weeds when their natural predators and competitors are not present. On the roof, solar panels face the south, while a large skylight lets diffuse light into the entire building and also working as a solar chimney to ventilate it.

The second layer is made up of two sub-layers, one of transparent glass and one of a translucent cover that shields most of the building. This translucent layer allows diffuse light to come in throughout the entire building, and turns it into a light-emitting beacon at night. The double layer also provides greater insulation than a single layer of glass alone, making it easier and less energy-intensive to keep the building at a comfortable temperature.

The facade, on all sides, is periodically broken up by large, rectangular overhanging balcony elements. These are colored bright red, providing some much-needed color, and breaking up a facade that, at least from a distance, may otherwise seem somewhat repetitive. Having a weird thing about railings, I’m not wild about the vertical panes of glass with no rail, which a very determined child or clumsy adult might make their way straight through (and as a former janitor I hate because people seem to get their fingerprints all over every conceivable glass surface), but I do see how it makes the elements seem deeper and more connected to both views inside and out.

The central interior feature of the building is an open staircase running through all levels of the building and connecting to corridors on each floor which then connect the offices and meeting rooms. While there are things I dislike about it (railings), I really like this strong, simple and central element that unites the different parts of the building. The interior walls do not reach all the way to the ceiling, which allows light from the outside to further penetrate into the interior. The emphasis on natural light cuts down on the need for electric lighting, while heating and cooling are accomplished by an energy-efficient geothermal system and radiant floor heating and cooling. The climate control and ventilation systems are all synced up on a central computer system that works to optimize both comfort and energy efficiency.

This is, without a doubt, an excellent building. My question though is, is it an excellent city hall? What about this building says government, stability, democracy? Some would say that government transparency is embodied in the design, but I can see few other elements that conjure up the working of government. Part of the reason that classical and neoclassical architecture is so widespread in government buildings is because it conjures up ideas of power, stability, and tradition, which few modern attempts have been able to match. Now, I do not believe at all that all government buildings need to be neoclassical, but I think it is important to investigate what it is about that architectural style that says to people, “democracy.” Is it the association with ancient Greece? Is it the bilateral symmetry? Is it the repeating elements of column and void? Whatever it is, as much as I like this building, I don’t know if it has the elements that label a building as a house of government.

Millbrook House


Thomas Phifer built this house outside of the small village of Millbrook, New York.

First, the house is very much a procession, and it must be explained as such to be understood.  It took me a little while studying the layout of the house for it to make sense.  The first thing one sees as they come up the driveway is the guesthouse, perched over the parking area.

From here, one walks up the stepping stones to the left of the picture and up onto a flat grassy area that connects the guest house to the glass pavilion of the main house.

from http://www.archdaily.com/79028/millbrook-house-thomas-phifer/. Guesthouse is in the foreground left, glass pavilion is in the background center.

From inside the pavilion, one travels down a flight of stairs and underground to reach the individual “cabins” (in the first picture) which house bed and bathrooms.

My first thought when I saw this was that it was some sort of contemporary take on rowhouses, which probably led to my confusion about how the entire place was linked together.  I am always a fan of using wood as a material, but the boxiness of the cabins puts me off a bit.  Having lived in an apartment where we only got light from one direction, I can say that I’m not a big fan of it, and generally prefer to have light on two sides of every room, as Christopher Alexander recommends.  The gardens of the cabins though are quite beautiful and give each person their own little green space.  Also I was more enamored with the glass front of the cabins when I thought they were rowhouses and that the front room would be some sort of public room.  When I found out they were bedrooms, I was a little disconcerted, because I would feel uncomfortable about changing and such in front of that much glass.  However, the house is on a two acre site, and considering the area, there is probably sufficient foliage to provide privacy from the nearest street or neighbor.  Phifer also has set the bedrooms on the east side of the house so that they will receive morning sunlight, something else that Alexander recommends.  It’s probably a great place to wake up and go to bed, but not great for other activities.

The grassy area above the cabins presents me personally with some big questions.  Do the residents here have kids, or do they ever plan to have kids?  The area is protected from the drop-offs near the cabins by glass guard rails, but I worry about how well they would stay intact with rambunctious children (or adults, for that matter).

The panoramic views of the glass pavilion are beautiful, and this is the great advantage of any glass house.  However, it does raise some questions.  How energy efficient are these windows?  Double-glazed windows with argon inside them can be very efficient, but the architect doesn’t state anywhere in this article that they used such elements.  Also, I always worry about roofs that are completely flat, because they don’t shed water well and have a tendency to leak.  I don’t know if the architect has taken measures to mitigate such effects, but I prefer a sloped roof, preferably with wide overhangs.

Another interesting feature I think is the wall that holds back the earth of the grassy area, as can be seen in the second picture.  The wall is faced in patinated steel panels, which blend in very well with the color of the wood and look very natural.  I understand that there are many that may feel that this aesthetic is not appropriate for a residence, but being from the Steel City, I really appreciate it and think it works very well in this context.

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