Every building has a program that defines the uses of a structure. This program defines the building type and it’s general visual ‘flavor’. There are museums, residences, commercial, offices, warehouses, manufacturing, government including state houses, fire/police facilities, schools/universities and many others (hospitals, laboratories, storage, parking, recreation, parks, club houses, etc.) and one can extend this list of building types to include components of a city and include infrastructural elements like roads, highways, bridges, subways, docks and other hubs and elements that allow our cities to function.
All these program building types and components carry with them certain architectural languages based on a long history of expressions. But, despite the presumed importance of history, one has the ability to design a building no matter it’s program, to look like anything they wish, especially given the worldwide availability of resources and technology.
So how does one determine what architectural expression is appropriate for any given project? Part of what determines this expression is the program itself. The size and spacing requirements inevitably determine certain parameters and expressions. For instance, a residential tower will inherently express its interior uses by the size and position of its openings. Still, even with these constraints, there is a lot of freedom available to a designer. And, to add to the complexity, there is even more freedom as to what is expressed on the interior versus the exterior, as in this realm one doesn’t need to deal with weather constraints. These programmatic and environmental forces influence what we ultimately see, but they do not influence how one edifice juxtaposes itself with another edifice, or how these ‘fit’ within the whole composition of a city.
This is where the skill of a conscientious Architect comes into play. They will look at the context and approach it in three possible ways, 1) to mimic the context, 2) to act in defiance to the context or 3) to play off the existing context by acknowledging it but provide the public with relief from it’s monotonous rhythms. But what if the context is chaotic? As an Architect myself I would seek out to establish some sort of reinforcement of the best qualities of a given context. This ‘4th’ approach is all too often overlooked in sprawling conditions where Architects are being influenced by ‘no quality context’ situations that are typically dominated with demands of parking and low budgets. Nevertheless, let’s look at the condition of most urban centers where new buildings are being proposed and how achieving an appropriate solution would not only enhance their own contribution but become part of a greater compositional whole (a topic covered in an earlier article). Because of the huge variety of programmatic building types, I like to cut to the chase and propose how and why certain building types should adopt certain approaches of appropriateness, i.e., the part (building) being one element of the city, together, creating a whole composition that one would regard as beautiful.
Residential Building Types: One has to look at the quality of the existing residences to determine if they are worthy of emulation. If they are, then one should emulate this context to reinforce the overall neighborhood feeling and identity. If they aren’t, then one should achieve something significantly different and better. In the residential category, expressions should be restrained, not iconic as perhaps a city sculpture or state building might act as a focal point, unless the context itself is allowing for such freedom of expression (like Los Angeles, California). Still, assuming a proposal is located in a relatively uniform contextual environment that is ‘reasonable’ then one should attempt to achieve a reflection of the materials (and exact colors!) and form with an eye of proposing juxtapositions of form and/or openings only, that in themselves achieve harmonic proportions that are, when combined with other parts (housing buildings), act as a single composition to reinforce beauty, so that the addition to the context enhances the overall composition while at the same time providing relief of variety, unique identity and surprise.
Ultimately, as with all contemporary and ‘modern’ new buildings, they should obviously reflect ‘today’ and not ‘yesterday.’ That, for all projects built ‘today’ reflects an honest expression of what us contemporary humans can achieve in Architecture and perhaps will be emulated by future Architects if they forget this fundamental rule and do not have in themselves the ability to be creative.
As with all residential areas, uniformity of composition is key. In all programmatic compositional types residential is one of the types that is recessive compared to museums, academic or institutional programs where they should dominate the focal points of a community composition. Residential does though stand above building types of manufacturing, storage or other utilitarian types. Also, residential should have an intimate connection with nature, providing both public and private outdoor areas to meet the variety of recreational needs of humans.
A small note: Office and commercial zones will be unhealthy and non-vibrant without the integration of residential. Because of this, and that the context of the residential is influenced by it’s surroundings, special care must be given to be true to its program thus reinforce its true identity while reinforcing the context in which it resides. It is fundamental that while integration is a must, so to is it’s visual integration feel seamless with office and commercials buildings that surround it. This is important in order to reinforce the overall image of the city core as being unified, robust, healthy and vibrant.
Utilitarian Building Types: Historically manufacturing contributed to the overall architectural expression of a community. They were typically brick, using local materials, contributed to the skyline at 4 to 6 story ‘walkup heights’ and, very generally speaking, were part of a defined area. Unfortunately the access to cheaper metal paneling and land, with enhanced excavation techniques and resulted in a blight on a very large scale in and around our cities. This, I feel, is a serious threat to the sense of an urban composition and can really become, partly because of their huge sizes and large parking lots, separators between residential areas. It’s not like they have to be this way, but it’s become this way as a reflection of developers wanting the facility at the lowest possible cost. In the end, the cost paid is on the community’s back for they have to live with the eye sore. I suppose that effect is balanced with our ability to roll up the windows and turn on the stereo to try to insulate ourselves from this obvious visual blight.
Regarding composition and how they should be approached, they should reinforce the ‘street wall’ and materials of neighboring structures, and be of forms that echo those neighbors, without ignoring their special and unique programmatic requirements.
Infrastructure: To be blunt, all urban infrastructure should not be lead by engineers, but instead by Architects. Their impact on the overall compositional health of cities is massive. They offer, in most instances, the first impression people get regarding a city, and also in most cases, are the scars that affect the visual and dynamic health of a city. Yes we need highways, sometimes canals and railways, but these, along with bridges and other urban components, can be part of a scheme which reinforces the quality of their particular neighborhoods rather being the excuse to which so many flee from. It’s ironic, the component cities build in order to ‘bring more people, goods and services into the city’ are in almost all cases ‘the components that make people flee the area’ they are a part of, thus eliminating the need for such components except to help people to leave the city. Not sure this is true? Just look at the 75 yards on either side of railroad tracks, or the 100 yards around highways. What to do? Add these components in design sensitive ways, not just brute engineering ways. The price of any infrastructure component has to be considered over the long term. While ‘large scale’ projects are a fundamental requirement of a healthy city, like larger veins on a human can pump more blood and oxygen to the extremities and heart, these veins are no good if they are big, but the heart and extremities are small and unhealthy. It, like the amazing human system, must all go together in ONE harmonious whole and be integrated so as to not affect its neighbors, just as a vein should not ‘bleed out’ into it’s neighbors and thus diminish its functionality.
So how can we achieve a level of appropriateness in engineering projects? By hiring Architects who understand they are working on a utilitarian project, but that their input can be used to sensitively incorporate those components into the fabric of the city to soften their impact while at the same time enhance the experience of those who are using it. A rail line’s banks should be beautiful, a highway should be extremely efficient in its occupation of space/land so that it’s maintenance is minimized and those who use it spend less time on it. Manufacturing should be used to insulate highways from residential areas while at the same time offering appropriate facades that say ‘welcome to our city.’
Now why would I cover Residential and Utilitarian building types first, before other types that certain offer more design opportunities? Because these building types offer the biggest opportunity to create a unified whole because of their shear scale. They are the background onto which the foreground can be seen, appreciated and shine. Without a solid background everything is perceived as chaotic and will result in urban fleeing and deterioration. Like the old middle ages perimeter fortress walls, highly defined and cohesive residential areas help define the core and without it, the core will remain rotten. Clearly define components that themselves are solid offer the reinforcement to, perhaps, less than quality areas giving them the opportunity to enhance themselves. People flee from chaotic non-unified contextual environments to places that they can feel proud of being a part of. People want views, to be a part of, to have reflected upon themselves and their choices, the best possible situation. This isn’t magic, it’s reality. Unfortunately many civic decision makers, as well intentioned as they may be, do not understand the fundamentals of urban composition and again, unfortunately hire engineers to create massive structures that themselves lead to much urban compositional strife and resulting fleeing and degradation.
Office Building Types: The American city core is one of triumph as towers soar into the sky. It is the core that allows residents to visually see the magic of their city and to identify their own place on earth. Here, acknowledge should be the hierarchical relationships between buildings, those that are significant should be allowed to stand out and those which are simple in form should reinforce the overall look of the city through use of materials and color. This is because a unified spirit creates a larger positive impression than one where everyone is vying for attention, which is typical on today’s strip highways where signs and parking lots create so much visual chaos that everyone has to make their signs even larger just to be noticed.
Convention Center Building Types: Generally part of the city core and invested in to become a welcoming symbol of the city, or at least to help draw people into the core, the typical Convention Centers has a major flaw. Typically there are 3 massive blank walls with the fourth being the entrance. The walls are blank because the use of windows would affect the interior display of products. What needs to be done is incorporate the Convention Center into the fabric of the city by wrapping those walls in a blanket of townhouses, that themselves are only 20 feet in depth (considering that land availability is a factor) so that there is 1) continual street activities and life, 2) to provide tourist and other shops at ground level, and 3) to create a charming and inviting context rather than a harsh and unwelcoming environment. Because lots are typically tight in a city, and because those responsible for a Convention Center’s program are too short sighted to consider long term ramifications of this sort of consideration we will continue to be confronted by 2 and 3 block long walls that, because of their scale, will never be considered inviting, even though that is the antithesis of it’s purpose. The city core and all it’s components must be considered as part of a complete artistic composition.
Competition Attitude: Most if not all cities are in a competition mode with other cities, that is they want to be known as the best city of the State, or country. City leaders need to drop this frame of mind and instead look at the specifics of their domain and concentrate on the visually weakest areas and make sound and real improvements. The perception of your city will change with the concrete decisions that are made. In most cases, the best place to start is along highway zones where the most people will see and witness your city. If, as they drive by, they think to themselves “I don’t want to go in that area,” or “I’m glad I live outside the city” then there is obviously a perception problem that is being reinforced every day they see ‘it.’
Individual Attitudes: People want backyards, their privacy, and enough autonomy to feel independent from others to have the freedom to do as they please. Ideally, I suppose, we would all love to live on a beautiful island overlooking a calm ocean yet have total access to the social and business needs in our life without having to travel. Well places like Ohio are far from the ocean, and individual houses do offer some of the qualities desired by individuals in a ‘good enough’ balance. But there are obvious downsides to such an attitude. And even though I know what I propose as a utopian solution is foolish, some of it’s aspects are not. Given the desire for independence and ‘a backyard’ many of these qualities can be achieved with an urban solution given the right design. One of the most common issues for those leaving the city is space and an inability to expand, but if people were given adequate space to begin with, and houses weren’t continually chopped up into tiny apartments some of those issues would disappear. The real problem comes with fundamental zoning and planning, that communities aren’t thought of in a ‘big picture’ way but instead of thought of as individual plots of land. Fortunately over the last 2 decades there have been more ‘complete communities’ with an overall goal of the community which accommodates individual needs that have been built. These do offer hope to cities that appear out of control. The main priority for all new construction is giving an oversight body the power to ask the question ‘does the curb appeal of this project enhance the community?’ It is this simple question that will help solidify communities into healthier more appealing places to live.
The ultimate goal of any city should be to define it’s boundaries between city and country, and thus reinforce itself as beautiful urban jewels laying effortlessly against the smoothest complexion of nature, so that both can be part of the human spirit and appreciated each on their own, and not to create pimples dotting a rough and potted landscape, thus ruining the potential of both and leaving humans in search of a better place that isn’t the place they would rather be, home. This can be accomplished by deleting the sprawl and literally condensing it into well planned zoned areas. Of course this could never be accomplished because land is purchased and developed, so we will continue to watch our cities dissolve into weak representations of their potential, but zoning can have an important impact to reinforce this city/country attitude and make certain areas ripe for certain types of development while limiting sprawl in other areas. But, given the reality that those who might be limited with certain types of zoning, even if the result creates a beautiful and highly desired regions, most people would be ‘outraged’ that their ‘freedoms’ were being threatened. Perhaps though, if a person is using their land as farm land, that the city zones it as farm/natural land to help limit the sprawl and again, encourage condensed well design structures within other areas to accommodate growth that all cities desire.