This is an essay written for the class “Theory of City Form” at MIT, taught by Julian Beinart. It is an attempt to draw relationships between urban form and architecture design, however inconclusive they may be.
City forms are derivatives of many elements such as economic prosperity, governmental system, religious belief, and cultural behavior. Each city has a unique urban pattern, indicating the lifestyle of its citizens. Although it is a product of many things at work simultaneously, it has the power to reciprocate these forces back at them, including affecting architecture shapes and styles. A true urban city has distinguishable urban facades as its streets’ walls. These ‘walls’ vary not only from one city to the next, but also from one era to another within the same city. This is more apparent in old cities that have existed throughout various eras until today.
Over the course of time, architecture trends have evolved along with cities they belong to. At some point in history, that bond between city and architecture was severed, causing a loss of identity in architecture. On a more positive note, people refer to this new architecture style as “international style”. When architecture was stripped off ornaments and characteristics that indicate the culture of the cities from which it came, cities around the world also became less distinguishable from one to another as the western and eastern worlds traded scholars, citizens, businessmen, and along with them, knowledge.
How did this evolution occur? Surely contemporary urban architecture design must have originated from somewhere. Division of window bays, entrance heights, ratio of opacity to transparency, and many other things that are often unconsciously embedded within contemporary urban buildings evolved through time along with the shape of the city in which it came from. They are factors of urban elements such as street and block dimensions as well as sequences of public spaces throughout a city. Unfortunately, it seems that many designers today do not question the composition of a building because there seems to be a general acceptance to established practice of simply using some form of fully glazed curtain walls in many of today’s contemporary architecture. By studying a few historic and contemporary examples, we can have a better understanding of how urban form affects architecture, specifically urban facades, in various cities and eras.
Florence and Palazzo Rucellai
Florence is one of the most iconic cities in Italy and the pinnacle of the Medieval and Renaissance eras. It is home to some of the world’s most renowned historic architecture and excellent public spaces. The image above shows an urban plan of Florence during the Renaissance. Through pure observation of this plan, disregarding any previous knowledge of the city, the plan clearly shows a tight urban fabric with a series of open public spaces throughout the city. The public space at the center of the image is shown to have an iconic building, in this case a church, as an integral part of it, marking its importance. It is also clear that the city blocks are larger around the perimeter of the drawing.
Of course, these observations are clarified by Florence’s history. Originally an ancient Roman town, the beginnings of Florence had a typical urban form of a gridded ancient Roman castrum with two main streets (the north-south cardo and the east-west decumanus) crossing at the center of the settlement where a forum is located, in this case the Piazza della Repubblica. This original urban fabric was extended as Florence expanded outwards while maintaining a tight urban fabric with small blocks and, in today’s standards, narrow streets. This results in a specific architectural design that is germane to the city itself, such as that of the Palazzo Rucellai.
The Palazzo Rucellai may not be as iconic as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or the Battistero di San Giovanni, but its facade is a good measure for a more or less typical Medieval and Renaissance Italian facade. It is clear through the photograph above that the facade of the palace very much belongs to a continuous street facade.
Because of Florence’s tight urban fabric and parcel structure, the facade is built from one party wall to the other, spanning the building’s facade across its entire lot with no gaps between itself and the adjacent buildings. It is also built all the way to the edge of the street line, forming a relatively flat vertical plane that defines the street space in front of it. Without having a front yard or a driveway on the ground level or any kind of carved-out space on it at all, the facade maintains the continuous plane formed by all the building facades around it. This ensures that the facade performs as a part of the whole: it works as a piece in a composition of a row of buildings that surround the street.
By itself, the Palazzo Rucellai’s facade is simply divided into three segments vertically, indicating where the interior floors and ceilings are located. Horizontally, it is designed as two center bays placed right next to each other. The ground level is designed differently from the upper floors. It is taller and has smaller square windows positioned well above an average human height. This clearly indicates that they are a part of the ground level area, created to help illuminate the interior space, as opposed to the larger rectangular windows on the upper floors that relate to the proportion of a human body. Two large doors are located at the center of each bay of the building on the ground level, off-centered from the vertical axis of symmetry of the building.
American cities are almost the polar opposites of European cities. Many early American settlements did not start out as dense settlements with any kind of density-related planning. Unlike Florence or other early Italian settlements which were established as military camps, many American colonies were established for business purposes by entrepeneurs. Jamestown (Virginia), the first permanent English settlement in North America, is one of such cases.
Although Jamestown’s true purpose was wealth accumulation, military power was a complete necessity to protect itself from attackers as well as to attack and claim new territories. Eventually a fort was constructed to fortify the colony and it served as the capital of British colony in America for almost a century.
The painting (above) of Jamestown’s aerial view shows a town structure formed by multiple individually free-standing houses, a fort, and farmlands. Despite the long and rich history of Jamestown, the focus here are the buildings and the town structure.
The settlement does not have a clear layout. In comparison to Florence, which was built in a typical Roman military camp layout with a clear center and grid around it, Jamestown was built almost arbitrarily one house after another with a new one placed near a previous one. There is some form of a main street where goods traveled into and across the town from the port, where most of the houses are built around with farmlands behind them.
The fort contains, in addition to defensive structures, important civic and military buildings such as the church, barracks, storehouse, main housing quarters, and governor’s residence.
Because the buildings are placed a good distance away from one to another, each building has multiple facades. Typically, as shown here in the paintings, one main facade faces the main road that comes out of the fort, through the houses on its right, and out to the wilderness. In addition, each building has another main facade that faces into a farmland behind it.
Because of the ample amount of land surrounding each building, there was hardly any need to build above two stories. In most cases, the second story space is an attic space formed right below the roof.
Eventually, this housing model helped the creation of what we have now as large suburban farm houses/mansions owned by wealthy Americans that exist across Virginia and other southern states. The less glamorous ones are the more average two-stories suburban house that exist in most of American suburbs.
Because the town layout was sparse, it was impossible for early settlers to build their homes adjacent or very close to each other. As the settlement prospered and became more permanent, new homes were not build in between older ones to create a tighter urban life. Perhaps one of the reasons is because the existing homes, as mentioned before, are designed to be multi-faceted and therefore cannot share a party wall and exist with another house immediately adjacent to it (unless of course, one does not mind having windows that open and lead immediately to his neighbor’s home).
The drawing of Worcester’s parcel plan indicates that it has a rather dense urban fabric in comparison to Jamestown. However, it is not dense in the same way Florence is. Unlike Florence, the city of Worcester does not have many small streets with small blocks. In comparison to the previous plan of Florence, the streets here are much more legible and far less intricate. Oddly, not all of the parcels are immediately adjacent to a street. Some of the blocks are a bit larger that the plan above shows parcels inside blocks that are immediately surrounded by other parcels on all sides. Perhaps the inner parcels have the same owner with the surrounding ones or one has the option to purchase an inner parcel to build a bigger home, a backyard, or a private garden. In comparison to the more recent 2007 aerial view of the town, the larger blocks have been divided into smaller ones by paving streets through them. This block shrinkage was probably caused by political and/or economic reasons.
Just like Jamestown, Worcester was surrounded by a defensive fort with a larger castle fort south of the town (North is on the left side of the drawing). It has one main town square near the south with the cathedral marking its location and a few smaller public squares marked by smaller churches in the center and northern parts of the town. The main streets connect these public squares in a sequence with less emblematic homes along them.
Because the town fabric is relatively tight and the parcels are subdivided into small parcels adjacent to each other, the building types that came out of the town were more similar to those in Florence than Jamestown.
Although stylistically different, these urban buildings exhibit similar basic ideas. They are built from one party wall to the next and the facades are constructed all the way to the edge of the street, collectively creating a continuous urban facade. There is a clear datum line in each building that defines the street level, separating it from the rest of the building above. Unlike the Italian palaces, the medieval tudor buildings in Worcester have a slight cantilever overhang on the upper floors, protruding towards the street outside. This creates a small space underneath each building, enough to spatially privatize the area in front of it even though it is very much a part of a public street. This space can be used for visitors to linger around or for the owners to place some decorative objects.
Even though there are more recent developments in Worcester, the dense town fabric is still implied in their design. The examples of the proposals for High Street’s redevelopments in the mid 1900s show the clear influence and power of the city fabric that truly stand the test of time. Because of its tightness, the new modern buildings still retain all the basic urban characteristics of their predecessors. These were clearly not designed by the same people who designed the earlier medieval buildings nor did they have the same approach in architecture design, but they were ‘forced’ to design buildings this way because the city form demands it.
Xi’An (Chang’An), China
Today, it is almost impossible to talk about anything urban-related without mentioning China somewhere in the conversation. In the past several years, China has been one of the hottest topics of discussion due to their ability and speed to create, develop, and expand their cities. Although many Chinese cities have existed for hundreds of years, most of what people seem to call “urban” are relatively new. Since China opened up its country to foreign affairs, trades, and policies, it has grown rapidly at an unprecedented rate.
Xi’An was once the most important city in China, serving as the capital of various dynasties for over a millenium. The drawing on the left shows the layout of Xi’An (Chang’an at that time) during the Tang dynasty. At a glance, the plan somewhat resembles that of a Roman Castrum. It has a regular grid with a main axis at its center formed by two main roads that cross each other at an important civic area, in this case the Imperial City. As is the case of old cities, it is surrounded by a fortified wall. It has two main markets on the Western and Eastern part of the city with several shrines and tempes as well. The block structure appears to imply a dense and tight urban settlement, although the city model tells a completely different story.
Each block is considered a ward that contains a few walled homes. Each ward has a varying level of population density, but even the most highly populated ward is still less dense than the city blocks of Florence, even though there are similarities in both of the cities’ urban layout and structure.
As mentioned before, the houses are located within an enclosed wall. This means the buildings are individually free-standing and multi-faceted. The main facade that faces the street is not that of the house, but of the wall and the gate that leads into the courtyard or garden of the house inside. Because of this, the street facades are not as diverse and lively as those in Florence. Of course this does not mean that the streets themselves are quiet. Social and commercial activities still take place outside on the public realm including the streets, markets, and temples.
The images above show two different parts of today’s Xi’an (both images are of the same scale). The image on the top shows city blocks within where Chang’an’s old city used to be whereas the image on the bottom shows more recent blocks development. Although the block sizes are relatively similar, the parcels are nothing alike. The image of the old blocks on the top shows a rather tight urban density whereas the image of the newer blocks at the bottom shows large parcel subdivisions, allowing large individual high rise buildings to be constructed. Another apparent difference is the width of the streets. The newer blocks are surrounded entirely by large arterial roads and highways whereas the old blocks are surrounded by smaller streets. This tells us the main method of transportation used at the time of the creation of these blocks and the way people access them. Since the old blocks have smaller streets with smaller buildings that fill up the entire parcels, the street space is well defined. Even though this does not always mean the streets are good, at least it guarantees a definitive shape of the space. In contrast, the newer blocks with large towers free-standing individually in the blocks give almost no definition to the streets around them. In this case, the figure-ground relationship between the streets and the buildings have reversed. The buildings have become so figurative that the streets lost their shape and clarity of space. It is no surprise that the old blocks maintain smaller parcels and smaller buildings because they have lasted since the Tang dynasty, created when Chinese people’s lifestyle was entirely different than what it is today. Even though the Chang’an blocks were never as dense as Florence blocks to begin with, they still maintained a relatively small parcel subdivision compared to the newer blocks, disabling large figure-like free-standing buildings to be erected.
All the building types that exist in old Chang’an blocks and the new Xi’an blocks are in fact free-standing. The main difference here is not necessarily the size, but the proximity of one building to the next. In the old blocks, even though houses were enclosed within walls and free-standing, they were close enough to each other that the city was more or less still intimate. The new tower developments are located so far from each other that getting from one to another by walking is almost unthinkable not only because of the distance, but also the large scale of spaces and streets between the buildings.
Unfortunately, it does not seem that the relationships between urban form and architecture are absolute and conclusive, no matter how we look at them. Today, so many architecture designers strive for popularity and recognition. It is agonizing that the profession has been consumed by stardom and the hunger for a celebrity status. Because of this, many designers are adamant at making a bold statement through the only one thing they know how to do: designing buildings. Sadly, this unyielding energy often overtakes good conscience and sensibility. Architecture designers often ignore their design context. Those that take it into consideration do not take them seriously or simply attempt to relate it to their design, whether it actually had anything to do with it or not. In this economy, those who are widely acclaimed have better chances of success. Thus, whenever the opportunity arises, designers race to make a design that gives the biggest bang in media. Of course this may not be the sole purpose of design. In fact, most of the time, this is blanketed by unreasonable experiments of geometry for the sake of creating something novel. Granted, some of the best and most popular architecture pieces have come from this method of design, although architects such as Ando Tadao or Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa can probably attest differently.
This study was never meant to draw an absolute conclusion to begin with. Even though it is not definitive, urban forms do affect architecture in many ways. As shown before, certain urban characteristics can steer architecture design in a certain direction, more explicitly shown by the new redevelopment proposals in Worcester. In many Chinese cities including Xi’an, the real estate and urban design policies encourage large developers to build large building complexes that focus on themselves rather than the city. Even if an architect wants to build a nice walkable urban facade, it will not be easy because of the regulations, client, and developer demands. On the other hand, a city like New York restricts developments to urban buildings through parcel divisions and building policies. Even the more figurative sculpture-like buildings such as Norman Foster’s Hearst tower or Frank Gehry’s New York apartment building usually meet the ground responsibly and maintain a continuous urban plane on the street level.
Many of the cities created before motorized vehicles were invented that have lasted until today are some of the best cities in the world in many ways. People around the world are attracted to cities like New York City, Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo, and London. Newer cities are less attractive partly because they lack the charm that these older cities have embedded within them. Many Chinese cities are indeed very old, but they experienced a sudden jolt in growth and development. This caused them to feel “artificial” and out of scale (all cities are artificial, but they do not have to feel that way) because too much happened within a very short period of time. In contrast, the aforementioned old cities evolved through time slowly, responding to current phenomenon by adjusting their city fabric and creating new architecture types. As Howard Saalman writes, “The resultant shape of the city, the character of its buildings, its streets, and its larger public spaces, is determined by the interaction of private and public interests. It is sometimes suggested that the medieval town ‘just grew,’ unplanned, if quaint and charming.” (Saalman, pp. 29) Even if old remnants of the city are eventually taken over by newer developments, they occur slowly and transitionally, leaving traces of what once was there. In fact, the beauty of these cities lies in the more or less natural and seamless co-existence of architecture and urban design developed hundreds of years ago along with new contemporary design gestures.
However, the invention of private motorized vehicles is not the sole factor to blame for the scale explosion of cities. Private automobiles provide privacy, statement of wealth or status, and are very convenient, allowing them to become the most desirable form of transportation for most people in the world. The shift of focus from public to private space is just as, if not more, detrimental to the compact city. In distinguishing public spaces from private spaces, Saalman writes,
”Perhaps the most essential difference between public and private space within a city is their relative penetrability. Public space is, almost by definition, penetrable, i.e., accessible to all within relatively few limits. Private space, whether it be enclosed or open, is impenetrable. It cannot be used, crossed, or entered except by consent of the owner. But the production and exchange of goods and services, the basic purpose of the city, depends on buyer meeting seller, hence inevitably on free movement and interchange of goods and persons. Regardless, then, of the irresistible hunger for private space, it is countered by an immutable necessity: a city must have public space.” (Saalman, pp. 28)
As private spaces become larger, public spaces become smaller. Urbanists who are proponents of the compact city often fret that this is a tragedy, often arguing that mega buildings or mega blocks undermine the vitality of a city. However, this is not actually a problem at all as long as an adequate amount of public space is maintained. The real issue lies in the sole concentration of private properties. It is understandable that people would only spend their resources on what they own and for their own good. As buildings get larger, so do the spaces between them, which is not so much of a problem if they are clearly defined. The tragedy comes when public space is formed by the leftover spaces between private entities, as is the case of many large Chinese cities or any other city in the world with a similar urban model. The public spaces in these cities are not intentionally designed and thus are almost ignored while in fact, public spaces are equally as important. Even if we argue that they become less important as we move from one private space to another in the closed boundary of our private vehicle, the consequences of ignoring them are becoming more and more apparent in the past years as traffic congestions and air pollutuon level become unbearable in these cities due to the sole reliance of cars and lack of good transit options.
In any case, if we do ever get the opportunity to create an urban scheme that will be realized, we can at least be optimistic that the urban design we create has a good chance to yield the result we hope for in terms of architecture and lifestyle even though we do not control each individual architecture design in the city. By setting up the framework for future architects and designers through the form of a good urban plan, we can instill a certain design direction that can last for centuries to come, as has been proven by many of the most excellent cities we currently have throughout the world.
References and Images:
Whitehand, J.W.R, PJ. Larkham. Urban Landscapes: International Perspectives.
Saalman, Howard. Medieval Cities.
Lilley, Keith. City and Cosmos: The Medieval World in Urban Form.
Sit, Victor. Chinese Cities: The Growth of The Metropolis Since 1949.
Kiang, Heng Chye. A Digital Reconstruction of Tang Chang’an.
Other images are from WikiCommons, Google Earth, and Google StreetView.
On Tuesday April 9th 2013, in the convention space of MIT’s Media Lab, the Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) posed a question:
The intermodal station, based on the intersection of regional highways or interstates, with railroad lines, offers a great opportunity, based on the latent centrality of such intersections within the larger urban transportation system. Should we place big bets on such projects? Is this a future for the suburbs?
This was the last panel in a series of excellent presentations by world renowned and highly intellectual people from the field of architecture, politics, business, and economics. On this last panel, Alexander D’Hooghe (moderator and director of the CAU) asked the speakers (Marcel Smets, Petra Messick, Stephen Crosby, and Cino Zucchi) to simply state with a “yes” or a “no” whether they believe intermodal infrastructure is viable or not. From my understanding, only Smets had doubts while the remaining three unanimously agreed that it is viable.
Before I go further, I will summarize the content of each presentation to position each speaker on their thoughts and beliefs.
Marcel Smets presented the idea that intermodal infrastructure is a gathering point that connects a series of nodes. These nodes are indicated by population density. He then explains that on a diluted region where population is sparse, this model is certainly questionable.
Petra Messick, representing AMTRAK, spoke of future plans and projects that AMTRAK is going to do in terms of building infrastructures that allow for transit modes exchange (walking to train to car, etc).
Stephen Crosby spoke of intermodal transit through the lens of freight supply and distribution. He describes how imported goods come from a ship, transferred to an inter-region rail, to a local rail, and finally to a warehouse or trucks.
Cino Zucchi presented a few of his own works that relate to intermodal infrastructure.
During this presentation, I formulated my own thoughts. I found it funny that the majority of them find this idea to be viable. Perhaps it is because of their profession. Who they are, what they’ve done, what they’re doing, and what they will do. Let me elaborate.
I thought that intermodal transit, which requires a specific intermodal infrastructure, only seems viable as a freight supply chain not only because it is more cost effective (Crosby mentioned that shipping on water is the cheapest way of distributing goods, therefore containers tend to stay on ships for as long as they can), but also due to the nature of the subjects of transportation in terms of quantity, size, and weight. For a daily commute, switching transit modes is more than just and economic issue. It is inconvenient and very time consuming. Anyone who has lived through this as a daily routine knows what I’m talking about when they have to park and ride or walk to take a bus and transfer to the subway later on.
I think we need to clarify the question. What is intermodal infrastructure viable for? In the argument of connecting nodes of high population density, there is not enough people who commute over long distances daily to make it viable (e.g. not many people commute daily from Boston to NYC roundtrip). The only examples I know are probably the Metro North, PATH train, and the LIRR, both of which are heavily used daily. But they seem to be driven primarily by economic and real estate conditions (people are willing to live out in the suburbs of Long Island and work daily in Manhattan because their job is too good to abandon while living cost in Manhattan is too much to handle).
It seems to me then, that the goal of intermodal infrastructure and transportation is to increase the range of travel, which is counterproductive to urbanity as it facilitates sprawl. The Media Lab’s CityCar, for example, is meant to be a shared vehicle. As Kent Larson (director of the Changing Places group) explains, he envisions people jumping into this vehicle, driving into a subway station, leave the vehicle (a la Hubway Bike Share) and proceed to take the train. The target audience is clear: people who live out in the suburbs who are too far away from any subway station.
I raised my hand and asked this question to the panel speakers: “Don’t you guys think all the energy and resources we invest in advancing transit technology are counterproductive since it facilitates sprawl even more?” I also paraphrased what Smets said earlier during the discussion that he doesn’t think everyone wants to live in a dense environment and this isn’t something we can force.
To my disappointment, Stephen Crosby said to me,” Let me ask you then. What are we trying to do here?” and Alexander D’Hooghe said,” You (me) mentioned the spirit of urbanity and assume that it aims for dense cities. But why? Why do they have to be dense?” However, having been his student and knowing him personally, I understand why he said those things. Smets said that we need to be careful about this because it is partly a cultural issue. At the end, he suggested there are many ways such as densifying the nodes which these infrastructures connect. Oh, right. He was the only one who was skeptical on the viability of intermodal infrastructure.
Does that mean we need to try to facilitate Americans’ desires to live out in the suburbs? Let’s not kid ourselves here. We all know how detrimental it is to our environment in terms of pollution and energy consumption. Trying to facilitate something that some of us love, knowing that it’s not good, by making it less bad, isn’t really a viable solution. It is a question of lifestyle change and one that has been around for decades isn’t quick to transform.
Urban architecture design guidelines (cursory and basic).
The first image is a diagram that shows several basic rules for designing a building in an urban setting. Among other things, it suggests that architects can design the most elaborate shapes and still create a good building that contributes positively to the urban space.
The second one shows an example (not the worst one at it, but a more common occurrence) of possible space created by the design attitude of the “X”s or the “?”.
Notice on the third photograph, a continuous urban plane is maintained immediately across the street from the disrupted one.
Images © Dessen Hillman (The Architect/Urbanist Experience “dessenhillman.tumblr.com”)
The following is an excellent article written by Vat Jaiswal about the irony and tragedy of Rossi’s architecture properly titled “Aldo Rossi - Poetry Gone Too Far”. A sobering read for many of architects and designers indeed.
Aldo Rossi was an Italian architect, writer and theorist around mid 1960′s – early 90′s. Called “a poet who happens to be an architect” by the Pritzker prize juror, his strong theoretical background started with his writing “Architecture of the city“. He then started practicing architecture based on his theories reflected in his writing. There is not much to be said about his buildings itself but there is a lot to be said about his writing and it’s theoretical influence on his buildings. Let’s see what his beliefs were.
ARCHITECTURE OF THE CITY
To summarize his design philosophy, we must first understand the concept of urban artifact. These are elements of built architecture that define our ‘memory’ of a city. For example – Empire state building or Guggenheim museum in New York. According to Rossi, these urban artifacts must be reflected in new buildings to continue our collective memory of the city. So much so that, literal representation of shapes and forms must take precedence over function of the building. Function follows form. To draw an analogy- instead of a making new artwork, he wants you to collage from famous pieces of work to pay homage to other artists.
This philosophy tells you to not only ignore the function of the building to achieve ‘collective memory’, it also supports complete ignorance of the architectural style in the neighbourhood (see the first image below of his hotel in Japan). I think of cities as collection of neighbourhoods rather than a large board with repeated units that must be similar.
A PERFECT BACKDROP FOR HORROR FILMS
While all his peers around the world believed in progressive architecture, Rossi was caught up in his own poetry- designing of out of context cemeteries and theatres. His architecture comprises of minimalist bold shapes and colours with hauntingly small windows. Generally lifeless and eerie, his buildings seem inspired by classical architecture stripped of all ornamentation and painted in strange colours.
POETRY GONE TOO FAR
Unlike engineering which is strictly functional, architecture involves art which gives it beauty and life. But architecture is also not exclusively art. Rossi had completely ignored that fact that buildings are built for a purpose and that some forms of the building might be reflective of the function. As an example he deliberately bricked the entire ocean facing side of a hotel providing no windows to satisfy his poetic inspirations. Maybe people want to see the ocean?!!
It seems he always wrote a justification (as opposed to explanation) of his work. Why depend on it? While explaining your work and inspirations might help architects and curators to appreciate your design, architecture is truly is for its habitants to appreciate. Therefore, producing architecture that strikes a balance between art and functionalism that is legible to the layman’s eye is more worthy of appreciation than winning an award for making an artistic statement in architecture which is mostly conveyed with architectural jargon.
If you are interested in reading about Rossi, I recommend reading“Aldo Rossi Architecture 1981-1991″ by Morris Adjmi. Credit for all images goes to original photographers mentioned in this book. This article is a part of my SMA project, don’t forget to check out the other architects!
It frustrates me that many of us are tremendously misinformed about “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly” architecture. The LEED system criteria, for example, are highly distorted currently (but improving), giving “eco-points” for adding trivial matters to a building such as high-performance glazing, eco-friendly faucets and water-conservative toilet bowls. This illusion blankets otherwise environmentally aggressive buildings in a cloud of endorphin. In Green Metropolis, David Owen remarks:
The crucial fact about sustainability is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a “sustainable” house, office building, or household appliance…
Sustainability is a context, not a gadget or technology.
This is partially true. One may be able to argue that sustainable buildings, if proliferated, create a more sustainable society, relatively speaking of course. However, it seems that Owen is not so much opposed to green gadgets or technology as much as he despises the misinformed perception of green living.
I sympathize with his standpoint especially when I see things like this labeled as champions of “sustainability” almost everywhere:
The title for the article promoting this project reads as follows: “Double-Helix Skyscraper Aims To Give Residents An Eco-Friendly Lifestyle.”
Place this building in the middle of the suburbs and you’d still have an environmentally aggressive building regardless of all the green design and technologies that go into it because of many things, including the carbon footprint required for people to commute pretty much everywhere (which requires some kind of fuel i.e. it doesn’t matter if they drive hybrid electric cars) and the spaces paved to create road access to the buildings as well as parking, not only in the building, but in all the destinations of its dwellers (for approximately each parking space in the apartment, there needs to be one in the supermarket, cinema, office, etc).
Or how about this one?
This project is listed under “10 examples of sustainable architecture for the future” in ecofriend.com. It is called Egyptian Fine Arts Center.
The list title itself is laughable. Without having to really know how jam-packed with sustainable technologies this project is, I can almost be certain it is not environmentally friendly. Visitors must drive there, which uses fuel and create pollution. Once there, they must be provided with parking space - a space that would otherwise be vacant for the most part unless the museum is packed with visitors all the time. Compare this to the Guggenheim, MoMA, or the Met in NYC. They do not boast themselves as uniquely sustainable buildings the way these previous two examples do but think about the system in which they belong: the tightly woven fabric of Manhattan.
I am not trying to slander these projects. I am merely trying to help elucidate a better definition and attitude towards environmental friendliness. In no way do I deeply know the previous projects, but I question the alacrity at which these are stamped “eco-friendly”.
To elaborate a common mistake that environmentalists make, Owen writes:
Environmentalists tend to focus on a handful of ways in which the city might be made to seem somewhat less oppressively man-made; by easing the intensity of development; by creating or enlarging open spaces around structures; by relieving traffic congestion and reducing the time that drivers spend aimlessly searching for parking spaces; by increasing the area devoted to parks, greenery, and gardening; by incorporating vegetation into building themselves.
But such discussions miss the point…
…making automobile traffic move more efficiently enhances the allure of owning cars…
The question remains: amidst all the confusion and obstacles (cultural, political, economic, geographic, etc), how can we transform cities into better dense settlements which bring many more benefits than they do harm? Perhaps even more difficult: How can we start to think and make it into a common belief that sustainable life as we generally understand it now is not sustainable at all?
Recently, I did a series of exercises to design an urban facade. Let us first clarify what that means. At its simplest, an urban facade is the facade of a building in an urban setting. When lined up along a street, they define the spatial qualities of the street itself. Of course, there are good urban facades and there are bad ones. Generally, a good urban facade creates a continuous plane on the street level. This may mean that building facades are built party wall to party wall and lined up to the street edge, as in the case of Manhattan, New York. However, they are not required to physically share party walls. In places like Tokyo or Venice, many of the buildings do not ‘touch’ each other but they are very close to it. This allows them to still maintain a continuous reading of the urban wall.
However, as I investigate further, for now at least, I have come to the conclusion that this continuous plane must only be maintained on the first few building stories. The most important clientele in this case are pedestrians. From their point of view, usually only the first five to six stories of a building really matter. Try it out for yourself. Walk along the streets of a city like New York. You will realize that towers don’t affect you so much as long as their ‘feet’ (first few stories) are designed well for the streets. Take the Empire State Building or the Hearst tower for example. Unless you actually tilt your head upwards, you wouldn’t even know you are walking next to a skyscraper. This is not the case with towers like 30 St. Mary Axe in London. The ‘Gherkin’ is a terrific example of a non-urban building in an urban setting.
Here is a quick study of contemporary buildings collage that comprise a fictional street:
You can see that this is a totally possible situation in today’s cities. Each architect is eager to show their creativity and originality, which is terrific. With the exception of IAMZ Design Studio’s L’Oreal office building, all the other buildings have a definitive way of interacting with the ground level area. The shape of the building does not matter. It can be as sculptural as the Cooper Union or the New Museum, or as simple as the Bowery Gallery. If you imagine walking along this street, it is still a fine experience.
In this simple perspective study using the collage created previously, you can see that it is quite a fine street. The buildings all have different design languages but they have a few things in common: they are built party wall to party wall, they are built to the street edge, and most of them have a definitive treatment of the ground level, which is the most important in defining the experience of the urban space.
As architects, we should set our minds into thinking that the exterior space is an extension of our private living rooms. This way, we will treat our own individual designs differently. Many of us are usually focused on our design project as a separate entity. When one talks about the relationship between exterior and interior, it is usually degraded into simply creating a visual transparency between inside and outside, often by simply glazing the building facade floor slab to floor slab with some kind of curtain wall and call it a day. There is no relationship in that.
Images © Dessen Hillman (The Architect/Urbanist Experience “dessenhillman.tumblr.com”)
An urban building in Kanazawa without its counterparts, looking somewhat out of context. Notice the circular window on the side facing the street, exemplifying its specific design response to the site.
Images © Dessen Hillman (The Architect/Urbanist Experience “dessenhillman.tumblr.com”)
Various cities across the globe. All pictures are on the same scale. Juxtaposing the pictures reveal the different sizes of city blocks and urban cells (in a city fabric). Among many other things, this delineates the age of the city and the primary mode of transportation used when the city came into existence.