Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Naughty Building CataBlog

I think this may turn into a running series or theme in this blog, listing a series of building typologies and how they fail to add to the complexity of city life and in many ways detract. There currently exists a draft listing about five building types already, but I may stretch each into individual posts in a series.

The reason for doing so is that I've been doing some thinking about what I said yesterday with regards to the modern high-rise essentially "boxing in" the success of Main Street in Downtown Dallas, the quiet beating little heart, perhaps of a baby bird recently fallen from its nest.

The visual representation of which is below, which shows that at the very least in conjuction with the scale and function (goal?) of the surrounding escape routes streets, doesn't act alone in its complicity:

Along with my calling these buildings little more than "culs-de-sac" in the sky, I came across this quote at Emergent Urbanism, in the post The Mathematics of Cities, which draws heavily from Chris Alexander's A Pattern Language. I thought it was prescient given my own line of discourse here:
The best support systems, the best urbanism, will permit the greatest density of relationships (not density of people), implying the greatest spacial complexity and diversity achievable.
Herein lies the fundamental failure of many high-rises or skyscrapers, and in particular the Corbusien "Towers in the Park," the obvious of which gets blame is that it was an overt and systematic concentration of poverty, but perhaps in some ways the design itself which failed the residents in at least as much as the attempts, whether intentionally or not, to "shelve" or warehouse poverty:

(Out of sight, out of least until we have to demolish them because of crime and perception.)

The issue Mathieu and Chris Alexander describe is that cities are not merely defined by density, but rather by the overlapping connections or relationships between two entities, whether be it, individual A to individual B, or A to his job, or B to her hair salon or to the grocery store, or even the grocery store to individual A's job, etc. etc. It is this overlapping complexity that makes cities.

Actual culs-de-sac in suburbs or even these culs-de-sacs in the sky minimize these connections or at least the opportunities for these connections by removing people from the potential for interaction or even creating a remoteness between any two entities that should have as many relationships as possible to instill the highest level of intelligence in design, ie the greatest number of solutions in a solution set.

This can be both social in terms of human interaction and interrelationships or physical design, as Alexander describes:

For example, in Berkeley at the corner of Hearst and Euclid, there is a drugstore, and outside the drugstore a traffic light. In the entrance to the drugstore there is a newsrack where the day's papers are displayed. When the light is red, people who are waiting to cross the street stand idly by the light; and since they have nothing to do, they look at the papers displayed on the newsrack which they can see from where they stand. Some of them just read the headlines, others actually buy a paper while they wait.

This effect makes the newsrack and the traffic light interactive; the newsrack, the newspapers on it, the money going from people's pockets to the dime slot, the people who stop at the light and read papers, the traffic light, the electric impulses which make the lights change, and the sidewalk which the people stand on form a system - they all work together.

From the designer's point of view, the physically unchanging part of this system is of special interest. The newsrack, the traffic light and the sidewalk between them, related as they are, form the fixed part of the system. It is the unchanging receptacle in which the changing parts of the system - people, newspapers, money and electrical impulses - can work together. I define this fixed part as a unit of the city. It derives its coherence as a unit both from the forces which hold its own elements together and from the dynamic coherence of the larger living system which includes it as a fixed invariant part.

So what does this mean? Well, it reiterates the point that plain density does not a city make, but density of opportunity in some sense does and where does this happen moreso, than in the public realm, ie the urban city street, where all of these overlapping interactions come together in a focused (and easily policed, both in terms of design as well as actual law enforcement) environment.

This is why people (joe average planner or designer) stress ground floor retail, which is in reality a dumbed down version of merely saying that buildings need to engage or have a relationship with the street, the street and the people on it inform the building, its uses, its access and in turn the ground floor uses and porosity affect the street scene, because as the sentence itself should imply, not all streets should have retail explicitly, but residential streets should still have that semi-public "address" of stoops or entries greeting potential guests and offering a differentiation or medium between both public realm and entirely private.

For example, check these Montreal buildings for their flexibility of use that can respond to "market forces" (dumbed down word) or aka allowing people to take ownership and define their world, while creating "eddies" or places to linger or hang out aside from the movement of the street:

This is also not to say that towers in and of themselves are entirely bad. I like a good skyline postcard shot as much as the next person, but they do have their drawbacks environmentally despite what LEED might tell you. Personally, I worry that they are also a form of privatizing views and/or sunlight, but how then do we compromise with the American impulse of meeting demand with supply?

First of all, there has to be demand, which is a fundamental failure of so much real estate development, city planning, and most of all infrastructural investment, which comes from a supply side state of mind. I'm currently drawing a blank, but it was either Alexander or Gordon Cullen who wrote that any high-rise is STRICTLY a real estate exercise because they add nothing to city life that a dense network or arrangement of mid-rise buildings can't do. As we state above, density of population is not the solution and as this link discusses, the best cities in the world (or at least sub-areas of those cities) have no high-rises.

But single-story buildings also aren't quite ideal similar to those you might find in small historic hearts of Texas towns or "lifestyle centers," which are rapidly becoming one and the same because they lack both the density of both people and uses, as well building types, and height, which forms the space defined as the public realm, where we want to focus the majority of these solution sets or potential interactions. Read: meaning not underground in tunnels or in the sky in the form of sky bridges.

For the sake of argument, let's assume the ideal situation for building "up", that "place" is established by years of functional urbanism at a lower scale, and demand becomes so great that it overcomes any self-imposed regulation on building height in order to (remember best and most benevolent case scenario) spare natural or agricultural land (much as what has driven Portland's use of UGB's).

How do we compromise and make towers that accommodate the demand to be in this great place that we have defined without completely wrecking the public realm or removing too much of the potential for interactions from the streets?

Vancouver created legislation requiring setbacks for all new towers to be set on low-to-mid-rise bases so that from the street level, you feel like you are next to a four-story building. New York has gone back to some of their "towers in the park" and created one-story retail liner buildings to create a built perimeter or "street wall."

Vancouver, new buildings with four-story bases.

NYC: Adding one-story retail frontage to "towers in the park"

But, these are still physical examples, that while good IMO, don't address the social issue of the vertical cul-de-sac. One idea that I have put forth in the past for an idea for mid-to-high rise co-housing, is that there are hierarchies of social, public, or semi-public space based on the size of the community.

This stems from the idea that any one person's community, the amount of people they can ever really "know" at one time is approximately 150. I probably need to track this back to source the info, but something tells me it was one of those tidbits that stuck with me from a psychology class in college. In this case, the vertical co-housing would be the person's "community." Whether they choose to know everybody within their building is beside the point, but the opportunity is there.

The vertical cohousing was based on the idea of eliminating excess inefficiencies of excess individual plumbing lines, savings on sharing of electricity and appliances, and all but elimating inefficient floor space, meaning, no hallways. The elevator opens directly into a shared kitchen/dining area that would be shared by 4 to 8 units per floor and potentiall two floors per kitchen area. This would be organized as a tenants "nuclear family."

The rest of the common amenities would be structured similarly based on the amount of people to use it. Meaning every four or so floors there is a common gathering area, be it a workout facility, a pool, game room, home theater, etc. These areas would be the "extended family."

The idea of which has been done with many high-rise towers in europe that create garden floors every fifteen or twenty floors in modern "green" office towers, ie creating social spaces for subsets within the larger unit. However, as I have said, to some extent this minimizes the person/place/thing interactions or feedback loops that create more intelligent places, ie rather than being 100 on the street, there might be 20 every 100 feet in elevation (although I imagine diminishing returns based on the exponential overlapping that occurs in these semi-lattice networks).

The base of the building, would have a community-wide amenity area. One building we worked on was supposed to have a wii station for resident use.

The last level of the hierarchy is the public, which is the street, or city at-large, and this is where the building would have its "third places"; how the building engages the street and the city. Here could be some overlap with the community-wide amenity area as I have seen in my building with the bar/grocery store as a popular hangout after work for building residents.

So, I guess, the final point is that Dallas has very few places where the density of towers might be appropriate, given demand, but even then that might be doubtful given how badly many of the new condo towers have done. Even though this is a city built on speculative dreams, we have to create "place" first to establish demand, and that means building upon the successes of Main Street, CityPlace West, and State/Thomas.