Tag: Architecture (page 2 of 2)

Figure Ground Development Patterns

Figure-ground diagramming is an interesting and useful tool for analyzing spatial relationships in urban environments. It also provides a striking comparison of density and land use of older urban development compared to more contemporary suburban development. In older, urban places buildings typically took up the majority of space on a city block so even when diagramming built structure as figure (black) and space without structure (ground) the graphic would essentially depict the street grid. In more contemporary development however, auto-centricism has made for much more spread out buildings divorced from the street edge. Instead of relating to the street and sidewalk (if there even is one), these buildings related to their respective parking lots. Figure-ground diagrams of these sorts of places are often difficult to discern where roads actually go, but are very telling at the amount of open space wasted on the temporary storage of cars.

The figure-ground diagram above is an example of one of these suburban places that lack order and urban spatiality. They vast openness surrounding the buildings makes it hard to tell where roads go or even scale. The variety of building orientation in this case makes it even more difficult to decipher. In the image below, the roads are included, and we can begin to understand more about this space.

The diagram shown is of the Lindale Mall area in northeast Cedar Rapids, where First Avenue and Collins Road intersect. First Avenue is the road running diagonally from the lower left-hand corner up to the top right. I first decided to explore this area through figure-ground after noticing the actual corner of First Ave and Collins is very undefined. In fact, hardly any of the buildings in the study area relate in orientation or proximity to the street at all.

In the image below I stitched together multiple bird’s eye views from Bing Maps. The predominance of pavement stands in stark contrast with the lush green, tree-laden land to the south. The awkward angles at which big box stores were built, situated far from the street, combined with sloping terrain, makes for a very haphazard, almost disorienting, landscape. Driving along First Avenue, the only thing definite is that you are constantly surrounded by parking lot. Asphalt abuts the street the entire length, with only a few small outparcel structures even nominally close.

The area began developing in the 1960s, following the construction of Lindale Plaza, later enclosed as the indoor mall it is today. Besides Lindale, most of the larger scale retail developments there today were only built in the last ten years or so, as older properties were redeveloped. These recent redevelopment areas comprise a significant amount of the First Avenue corridor, and every single one disregards site context and has little relationship to the street. How unfortunate since these will ultimately remain for at least the next few decades.

So why is this a problem? The chaotic development pattern makes finding particular businesses – especially while driving – more difficult, and is very inconvenient for pedestrians. Even if the area had a complete sidewalk network, going from place to place would take much longer on foot than if buildings were closer to the road. I also don’t think massive parking lots make for a very attractive street environment.

Now I’m not advocating no parking, but what if the placements of all these buildings were simply switched with their respective parking areas? If buildings were located by the street and parking placed in the rear, it would be more accessible and equitable to those arriving on foot, bike, or bus – while still serving car customers just as well. With buildings all along the street, it would reduce the distance between places, making it easier for people to get to multiple stores and restaurants in the area on foot. In the current setup, it’s likely most people will get back in their cars just to drive over to the next store rather than walking.

Aesthetically, the street would be much more attractive with a well defined edge. This would provide the area a stronger sense of place and urbanity, instead of the anonymous suburban scape that exists now. Distance-wise, the mall and surrounding development is really quite close to a large residential area, just a few blocks down First Avenue, but right now there’s not even a sidewalk from around 40th Street up until the mall, where then, there is only a partial sidewalk along the south side in front of Home Depot. Even so, if a continuous sidewalk existed, psychologically the perceived distance from nearby homes would be quite long due to the spread out configuration of buildings. Built-up density makes walking distances seem shorter, while vast open space – like parking lots – makes distances seem longer.

If newer buildings like Home Depot and Marketplace on First had been built up to the street, this area would already look and feel more dense and closer together. With a more urban scale, nearby residents may find walking or catching the bus (pending improved transit service) to be more convenient than driving the five or six blocks to the mall. Unfortunately the current setup encourages and almost necessitates driving.

I don’t expect this area to ever drastically change, especially since many of these developments are relatively new, but I do hope that other new large and small scale commercial developments will be more respectful of the street and accommodate customers arriving by all different modes equally. Urban design is not only about how the environment looks, but about how it is organized, oriented, scaled and proportioned. Good urban design can have a profound impact on the accessibility, usability, and sustainability of new developments.

About New York

About five weeks ago, now, I went to New York City for a third year arch studio field trip. Now that it’s spring break I believe I have some time to write about it in more detail. The trip was Thursday, February 5 – Monday, Feb 9th.

We flew out of Des Moines at 6am, Thursday with a quick layover at O’Hare, arriving at LaGuardia in NYC shortly after 11am Eastern. Flying in over the city was amazing. Once on the ground we went outside on the frigid, but sunny day and waited for our shuttle buses to the Westside YMCA – our quality lodging for the trip. The ride took probably around a half an hour and was a sensory overload – so many little buildings, big buildings, different people, hundreds of side streets to peer down. I ended up dozing off briefly once we arrived in Manhattan as I got very little sleep that night before.

After the charade of checking in and assigning rooms to sixty plus arch students and profs we headed down to our project site in SoHo at the corner of Broome and Crosby streets, just east of Broadway. This project, that we are currently working on now in studio, is for a 24-unit residential development with a public / community / commercial component at ground level. The site is currently a double stacked auto park operation in an open lot about 110 by 70 feet. As individual studios we took about an hour to document the site and surroundings through observation and photos (later turned into photo stitches used to size and build four separate 1/8″ scale physical site models – one for each studio). Unfortunately it was extremely cold this first day, despite the sun, so I don’t believe the site visit was as effective as it could’ve been.

Following documentation we broke into studios and went on a walking tour of the area with our respective profs. This area was near the convergence of Little Italy and Chinatown. Along Broadway there are trendy retailers at the ground floor of older buildings with upper floors generally residential.

That evening after finally regrouping, some friends and I walked down Broadway from the Y (only about 15 blocks from Times Square) to find something for supper. We went through Rockefeller Center on our way and ended up eating at a pizza joint nearby that I had eaten at previously when Spencer and I went for a day two spring breaks ago. Big slices for cheap, can’t argue with that. After we ate we kept on toward Times Square – pretty sterile, predictable, not much to say. One thing to make note of, however, the recently opened red tkts stairs held up by structural glass. I was very tired so I ended up calling it a night by around 10, which I felt was a little unfortunate for my first night in New York, but was glad I did the next day.

Day 2, Friday, I went on an option tour / trip to New Haven, Connecticut, to see some significant buildings at Yale University. We took the Metro North commuter line from Grand Central – an enjoyable hour and a half ride, passing through upper Manhattan and New York and various stops in Connecticut. I really enjoyed New Haven, the first smaller, established city I’ve visited on the east coast (all the others have been large – DC, New York, etc.). I will go in more detail about New Haven and Yale in an addition post.

We arrived back in NYC sometime around 7pm – our train was absolutely packed due to the train ahead of us breaking down so we had to make room for all of its passengers. For dinner a group of friends and I went to the Heidelberg restaurant where we enjoyed some Wiener Schnitzel, German beer, and a charming old man in lederhosen playing the keyboard and singing along. We requested “Roll Out the Barrel” and he continued with some more good ones: “Sweet Caroline” (an ISU favorite), and appropriately “YMCA.” Good times had by all.

Saturday started out with prof-lead walking tour around Midtown Manhattan and a visit to the Folk Art Museum. We walked by Paley Park, which was closed for maintenance, and the Lever House, among other recognizable buildings. After lunch we regrouped around Greenwich Village to see some residential high rise precedents. We walked past the new Gansevoort Plaza in the Meatpacking District, which I recognized from PPS, and the High Line, a new public park / greenway being developed on a 1.5 mile long elevated railway. The High Line influenced one of my 2nd year studio projects in Hyde Park in Chicago.

That evening I met up with my friend Spencer and some people he was in town visiting at a Sushi bar near Astor Place. Later that night I met back up with a bunch of people from studio at Dive 75 on 75th Street.

Sunday, two others and I went over to Brooklyn to visit the New York Transit Museum, underground in a former subway station. It included an extensive exhibit on the subway system’s history and day to day operations of the nation’s largest transit agency. At track level were a number of retired subway cars. Definitely a fun afternoon for me. That evening after regrouping with some others we went to see STOMP – quite the show.

Monday morning I got up early so I had about an hour to walk in Central Park. Even though we were staying a block away, I had yet to go inside the park on this trip. As I walked out of the Y, I could tell the city was bustling; the work week had begun. Around the corner was a school. I passed parents dropping off their children, some in SUVs, some in taxis. I saw other children walking. I thought to myself how profoundly different those kid’s lives are from mine as a kid.

I didn’t have a lot of time to go deep in to the park but walked over to the Mall and made it to the Bethesda Fountain. I stopped and sketched a moment along the Mall. A lot of people were out with their dogs. Soon enough it was time to head back and go to the airport. I got some breakfast at the terminal while we had about an hour to wait for departure. Our layover in Chicago was much longer this time, nearly three hours, so I walked through most of terminals – no small feat. We arrived back in Des Moines around 7pm, and carpooled back to Ames.

New York was a great trip. I got to do and see a lot, but missed a lot too. Certainly a city that warrants multiple return visits, but I have no desire to reside there. See all my photos on Flickr.


I’m flying out of Des Moines in the morning for the spring studio field trip to New York City.  We will visit our project site first tomorrow – for a mixed use residential high rise in SoHo.  The rest of the time we have prof-lead tours to chose from and quite a bit of free time.  Friday I plan to go on a tour to New Haven to see numerous buildings at Yale.  Personally I’m excited more just to see the city – I’ve never really been to smaller east coast cities, just the large ones, such as New York.  I’m also looking forward to the NYC Transit Museum in Brooklyn, which I plan to visit on my own time with anyone else I can convince to go.

It should be a good trip.  We’re there through Monday; coming back to Iowa mid afternoon.  I won’t be bringing my laptop, so I probably won’t have any posts about the trip until I get back.  I’ll have my ipod touch so you can check the Twitter feed for more timely and frequent updates.

Libeskind’s Sculptural Approach

Today at FORUM I went to a seminar by Maria Cole, who worked with Daniel Libeskind (most famous for the Jewish Museum Berlin) on the addition to the Denver Art Museum. Coming from a very pragmatic, program-based approach to building design, it was a contrast to Libeskind’s more sculptural approach. Instead of producing a design through space programming, his first compulsion is to develop a sculpture that can address urban forces and implement the program later.

In the case of the Denver Art Museum, a large, triangular form extends to the north, gesturing, but not quite touching the original museum building (like God’s finger extending to Adam’s, but not touching, in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”). On the south side the museum steps down to a more human, pedestrian scale to relate to the Golden Triangle mixed neighborhood that is adjacent.

The structure of the addition is not aesthetically significant to the design and is mostly hidden. Libeskind considers the building as sculpture, so the structure inconsequential. Therefor the structural design of the building was made as simple and efficient as possible with the complex design.

Interesting presentation. The art museum addition is quite an intrigue from the outside…I will need to check out the inside sometime. There are numerous examples of modern galleries of art building new additions that are as fantastic as the art itself. It raises the question: are these new spaces buildings for holding artwork, or are they their own piece of art? The addition to the Denver Art Museum is not only a building expansion, but an addition to their art collection.

> Denver Art Museum
> Studio Daniel Libeskind
> Wikipedia: Denver Art Museum

Constraint Based Architecture

A few weeks ago (Thursday, Oct. 9), I attended Iowa State’s Architecture Advisory Council Lecture Series with Joshua Prince-Ramus, president of REX Architecture and founding partner of OMA New York (REX’s predecessor). He was partner-in-charge of the Seattle Public Library at OMA New York and current projects under construction include the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, and Museum Plaza in Louisville.

While presenting these major projects his lecture focused on constraint-based design and judging architecture on performance rather than subjective aesthetic taste. He was also critical of the current profession of architecture and contemporary architecture education system. Josh’s arguments were certainly interesting and compelling.

His critique of the profession concentrated on liability and the contract for architectural services provided. He explained that architects used to be master builders, but now most tasks of building are carried out by engineers and construction contractors. Architects bear less liability, but also have less authority. They are also underpaid and, according to Josh, are the laughingstock of other professionals because they essentially do not stand up for themselves. He argued architects should be demanding higher compensation for their services like other professions do (example, lawyers). Likewise intern architects should also be paid and paid decently – why should even an intern provide architectural services for little or no compensation?

Josh’s critique on architectural education was similar. Instead of focusing on representational design and the idea of individual creativity, he promoted knowledge of writing a good contract and designing around constraints. He sees the conflict of form verses function as juvenile and nonexistent. Instead judge a building by its performance. Likewise, he asked why we talk so much about what an architectural design supposedly represents? Instead, talk about what it does. This really hit home with me, especially going into a new studio project at that time to design a chapel to “engage nature.” Representing or symbolizing nature would be easy, but creating a space to engage nature and have a meaningful experience would be a challenge.

I found his methodology interesting. He is very adamant about design coming out of constraints – “because of this constraint, this has to happen, so this has to be this way, etc, etc” – almost as if there is no aesthetic design decisions or “creativity” involved. His buildings are clearly the kind that you either love or hate, but unlike starchitect buildings such as Frank Gehry – which he cited a number of times – I believe his buildings perform very well for its users, despite varying aesthetic appreciation. So while I don’t necesarrily like his designs, I do respect them as good architecture. One concern I might have with some of his buildings is their seemingly lack of human scale (Seattle Public Library, Museum Plaza, I’m looking at you) and relationship to the street and pedestrians. His buildings are good individually but I don’t know that they could create a community.

One very intriguing project Josh talked about was Museum Plaza, currently under construction in downtown Louisville. In this project Josh claimed to prove how architecture can solve development issues. Philanthropists wanted to build a new art museum but wanted it to be profitable, therefor this needed to be a mixed-use development. The site specified was very awkward, adjacent to the riverfront freeway and on the wet side of the Ohio River flood wall.

To keep the project up to date with volatile market demands, the whole thing was designed like a stereo equalizer – each tower (each use) could be adjusted at any time. A “bucket” was put in the middle of all the towers to contain the gallery, retail, and public space that would normally be at street level – since this building is outside the flood wall, the lower floors can only be used for parking only. To stay on schedule, details of the bucket space could be designed after construction began.

Groundbreaking took place in October 2007, with the world’s highest shovel drop, five stories high. When completed this will forever change the look of Louisville’s skyline. Half of Kentuckiana might love it and at least half will surely hate it. See the links below for more info and make sure to check out the amazing Museum Plaza proposal animation on YouTube.

> REX – Architecture PC
> Museum Plaza – official site
> YouTube – Museum Plaza proposal

Fall field trip to MSP

Leaving tomorrow morning for Minneapolis – St. Paul, for the fall ’08, third year architecture studio field trip. Tomorrow we’ll be stopping in Owatonna to see Louis Sullivan’s Farmers Merchants Bank building, and visiting the Saarinen-designed Christ Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, as well as Minenehaha Park. On the side I plan to check out some neighborhoods like Highland Park in St. Paul, Dinkytown by the UM, and Minneapolis’ Uptown. It should be a fun weekend to explore the Cities more intensely beyond just Mall of America or driving through on the way to Fargo. Look for some posts about the trip in the coming days…

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