Rowhouses Without the Wiggle

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ‘em down for your consideration.

The townhouse, or rowhouse, is a traditional urban approach to density that, somewhat ironically, has been embraced by suburban builders. Over time, this once simple and elegant species has evolved (some might say devolved) to reflect its newfound environment, becoming “squeezed” in its appearance, with little bits and pieces protruding — wiggling — in the oddest of ways.

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ReTales: How Trying Too Hard Messes Up Main Street

In taking on the foibles of our built environment, author James Howard Kunstler makes a point of noting that he’s neither an architect nor planner. Instead, he’s the everyman, and his profession is dutifully pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

I’m in a similar position. I’m not an architect or planner either (or a retail consultant, for that matter). I’m an interpreter of such folks, taking the wonky banter that characterizes their various disciplines and making it accessible to the concerns and interests of regular, everyday people. Continue Reading

Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

What We’re Reading: Leon Krier’s “Architecture of Community”

In 1984, Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone Magazine that he had albums of unreleased songs and that one day he would “put those out because there was good material in there.” In 1998, he did just that, releasing a beautiful 4-disc set of unreleased songs. Being a long-time devotee, I was more than a little impressed that, though it took fifteen years, I could still count on Springsteen to keep his word.

A "handy publication" indeed.

A "handy publication" indeed.

During a 2003 charrette, as I asked Mr. Leon Krier to sign my well-worn copy of Architecture: Choice or Fate (Andreas Papadakis Publisher, 1998), he noted that he hadn’t seen too many of his books in the States. In my lame attempt to impress Mr. Krier (no, I didn’t tell him I was a Springsteen fan) I told him that my copy had been found at Powell’s Book Store in Portland and I then began to recite my complete collection of Leon Krier books–L.K. Houses, Palaces, Cities (Academy, 1984) and Rational Architecture (AAM, 1978)–and where I had found them. Mr. Krier gently interrupted me to say something about the need for a “handy publication of my architectural and planning ideas.”

As quoted from the book’s Author’s Note above, Mr. Krier has kept to his word and done just that. The Architecture of Community is a seamless read and a comprehensive publication of his architectural and planning ideas crafted over 40 years. The 443 pages read quickly, as more than half of the book is filled with his poignant cartoons, vignettes, and parti. Eagerly, I read the book over the weekend, trying to not bend the corners or dint the dust jacket.

However, the book’s pristine condition will not last, as I have already begun to use the book as my primary reference guide for architecture and urban composition and theory. I tend to view my daily professional life as tilting at windmills of conventional architecture and urban design, and Mr. Krier’s pithy cartoons lighten this perception, both literally and figuratively. This book contains well-known images from past books as well as new images, photographs, projects, observations and captions.

A missed opportunity in the book is any direct reference to his polemic and inspirational debates with Peter Eisenmann in 1983, which were summed up with this barb, “You can’t, but I can,” in response to Peter stating, “Leon, come on, you cannot build this way anymore today!” Understanding that Mr. Krier’s theoretical position is detailed throughout the book, those series of debates, in my opinion, helped to shape what design means to the United States of America.

As discussed in his chapter, The Modernity of Traditional Architecture, “Traditional architectural forms derive from and are conditioned by the use of natural materials.” Today, with sustainability having moved from long-time trend status (such as Watershed Planning and Livable Communities) to radical movement (such as Modernism and New Urbanism), Mr. Krier’s long-time focus on ecological planning and humane buildings is rising up to meet our contemporary needs.

The book is published by Island Press (ISBN-13:978-1-59726-578-2). Through simple, matter-of-fact, black and white text and graphics, it comprehensively illustrates how Mr. Krier’s work has consistently delved deeper into the timelessness of building “good and elegant human settlements” with new chapters (The Architectural Tuning of Settlements) assembled upon the old (Aspects of Modernity). And, his steady, reliable, dependable and honest focus on shaping our buildings, neighborhoods and towns towards an architecture and urbanism that are simply beautiful is to be celebrated with the reading of Leon Krier’s new book.

- Howard Blackson

Preservation Through Beauty

A recent New York Times article, examining struggling efforts to preserve the architecture of the New Deal, raises an interesting question: Why do some attempts at preservation capture broad-based attention and support while others wither away as fringe acts of desperation?

The answer might have a lot to do with beauty. Because, while we’ve come to accept as truth that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it really doesn’t.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

In a 2003 paper, V. Patnaik and others examine the human face and demonstrate how we culturally establish a shared understanding of beauty, concluding it’s the “relational proportion of our physical features that is the primary factor in determining the perception, conscious or subconscious, of beauty.”

More simply, certain proportions and arrangements are more pleasing than others. Not as a matter of personal opinion but as a collective, cultural agreement. We may not, as a nation of individuals, want to admit that we essentially view beauty in the same light, but tough luck. We do.

That’s why it’s not such a leap to conclude that our buildings and infrastructure work the same way. Most would agree that, at some point, our built environment stopped responding to a shared, cultural understanding of what’s beautiful and started expressing – at the upper end – the personal artistic ambitions of its designers and – at the lower end – the need to cut costs.

Either way, the result has been buildings and places that often lack the one thing most likely to ensure their preservation – the ability to be loved and valued by the everyman. As architect Steve Mouzon says often, “Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with the issue of Lovability.”

We can agree on what’s beautiful. We have met the beholder and it is us. The big question moving forward, especially as the financial floodgates of the stimulus package begin to open, is what are we going to do about it?

- Scott Doyon