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Wednesday
Feb052014

The Devil is in the Detail

Almost there.

We have embraced a degree of urbanism in our towns and cities. The planning, architecture and development communities have slowly adopted concepts of good urban design. It’s part of an ideological battle that the New Urbanists have won. But, we aren’t all the way there yet. We’ve only finished half the equation.

To illustrate my point, we’ll need to first visit to Troy, New York.

I saw this site plan on Facebook (via Duncan Crary) about two proposed buildings in downtown Troy.

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The buildings have a variety of uses, address the street and reacquaint the public to a waterfront park. These are all excellent things. Troy-aficionado, author and urbanist Duncan Crary agrees;

“The urbanism of the buildings … appears to be good. Apartments, yes. Retail, yes. Plaza, sure. Buildings that come up to and respect the “build-to” line, yes! Two buildings rather than one, the more the merrier.”

The problem with Troy’s redevelopment is that the architecture falls flatIt’s a victim of Modernist-Copy/Paste-ism; the act of copying failed designs from our past and blindly pasting them into our present, all with relative ease of computer-aided design. Crary cleverly charts how the buildings resemble some bad apples of local modernist and brutalist architecture [click to enlarge photos].

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Fellow New Yorker and author, James Howard Kunstler had this to say;

“The windows look like Mondrian paintings of just geometrical re-arrangements of orthogonal shapes. They’re boring. They’re monotonous. They look mechanical and industrial. They give the message that we don’t really care. And they resemble institutional design, in particular: prison design. They literally look like the balconies of the classic prison cell blocks … ”

He’s right. They are ugly buildings. It begs the question: maybe we shouldn’t be so architecturally agnostic?

Let me switch gears quickly.

We don’t have any New Urbanism communities in my home state of Minnesota. There are small infill projects that qualify, but we have run-of-the-mill suburbia. So, when I have an opportunity to visit a New Urbanist community, it’s a rare treat. I visited two such places recently and the importance of detail – fine-grained detail – has really stuck with me.

I was in Georgetown, Grand Cayman last week and had the opportunity to visit Camana Bay. The development is about three years old, but the character, complexity and detail as you stroll through on foot is already stunning. It’s as if the place has existed for decades.

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While in Louisville, Kentucky and I had the pleasure of golf-carting through Norton Commons with the developer. And again, it was a genuine pleasure to see a new community sprout out of a field and in such a short time have the complexity of a turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb. Walking through both of these places, you get the feeling that the architecture will age gracefully.

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The critique I hear is that these are over-priced products in green fields with nostalgic architecture. I disagree. I’d say they are a diverse range of market-rate housing in walkable neighborhoods with time-tested, human scale architecture. But, even if this critique is valid, it ignores the strength of the detail of the universal pattern language. Those important little details that can make you forget your standing in what were mangroves three years prior.

Now, let’s bring it back and take let’s look at the streetscape leading up to the new Troy’s new development.

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I mean, just look at that! There is an astonishing level of architectural detail. What Troy has is absolutely authentic. It grew incrementally from the ground up into something genuine, resilient and in my humble opinion, it’s beautiful. This is resilient. This is the pattern language of the city. This is what Troy needs to replicate.  History has informed us of what works and it is not modernism and brutalism. So, why are we continuing to replicate them?  Troy has a very easy decision here.

Now, I asked the question earlier, Maybe we shouldn’t be so architecturally agnostic?

As frustrating as it might be, we should be agnostic for architectural style. I believe the devil is always in the detail, and if you don’t have detail, your building will meet a quick demolition. Herein lies the problem. The Troy’s proposal’s architecture lacks the detail and ornament required by its urban design. The math is relatively simple: If you’re going to create a place that requires people to walk, you better give them something worthwhile to walk past. This is the second part of the equation.

Almost there. The urbanism is good. Now, it just needs to add those important little details. Troy is blessed. It has this level of detail all around. All it needs to do is take note.

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Reader Comments (16)

You make so many good comments, and I wholeheartedly agree! I hope that those who have the influence and ability can begin to understand... Troy is beautiful but it is being patched up with these buildings that stick out like sore thumbs rather than blend in!

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKaitlyn

Grammar police here.

"Those important little details that can make you forget your you're standing in what were mangroves three years prior."

Other than that, your point is spot on! I can't stand such disrespectful and thoughtless architecture.

-Shane in Spokane

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterShane

Great piece, Nate!

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

I’m totally with you here… but… I don’t understand the need or reason for the gratuitous Mondrian bashing. The Mondrian piece you included shows variety, color, balance and interest. It has much more of these than the newly proposed Troy building or other buildings shown on that panel of photos. I think a big part of the problem is the brick material proposed is monotonous.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpeter from Boston

Kaitlyn - Thanks!

Shane - Your right!

Erik - Thanks!

Peter from Boston - You're right. A little harsh on Mondrian.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood

Are we living in the "dark ages" of architecture? Never before has so much design knowledge and history been purposefully and institutionally lost. It's time for a renaissance in architecture that puts people and nature back in the center of design.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWalter Chambers

So, what is the Strong Towns stance on a refurbishment like this:

http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/pei/louvre_rfo.jpg

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSophia Katt

Walter - Dark Ages? I don't know. That's a good question. I'm curious to see if suburban architecture of today ever comes back. I feel that people in their 30s buying homes now have a fondest for 50s architecture, which had fallen out of favor with Baby Boomers. Will there be a 90s / 00s suburban architecture revival? Maybe, but I think details at the pedestrian level matter most.

Sophia - I'm all for it. That looks great. You have modernism (which is modest - 2 to 3 stories high) and it is surrounded by excellent architecture. That is a good blend, and it's still at the human scale. It's big enough to be noticed, but small enough not to be obnoxious.

Here's another pyramid (notice the difference):

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d8/Pyramid_Arena_from_Main_Street_2010-10-02_Downtown_Memphis_TN_01.jpg

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood

Good essay. Detail matters!

I've seen some awful buildings "fixed" just by being reskinned.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanael

Of all the battles, this is the one I'm happiest to put on the back burner. I can see the beauty in west-coast modern's concrete, glass & wood townhouses, and I can also see the argument that style is all in the eye of the beholder. As a commenter noted, you can skin bad buildings as fashion changes.

I'd love to see a modernist transect definition. I'm sure it's possible: single-family west-coast modern, T4 rowhouses and Main Streets also easily done in a 'mechanical' modernist style, T5 as you say would need more attention.

An app I dream of seeing or even making would allow you to apply Transect Definitions and example buildings to Regulating Plans, to generate 3D scenes. So you could take the Regulating Plan from a neo-traditional development, and then 'skin' it with all modernist buildings, with their flat roofs, and different articulations. As far as I know, there isn't such a town anywhere.

I also enjoy trying to abstract away design features that are independent of architectural style, and that might be important for sidewalk comfort. For example, what do you think of this juxtaposition: http://midrisemixeduse.tumblr.com/post/70715674929/i-love-this-juxtaposition-on-rue-de-la-republique

I love your optimism, Nate: "the NUists have won". And yet a hop and a skip from world-reknowned Vancouver we're stlll churning out freeways and single-use pods like it's 1972.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterneil21

I’m afraid you are missing the boat on architectural criticism. This commentary and the follow-up comments sound like an old ladies’ garden club complaining of Jensen’s landscape plan for the Martin Estate; like the stroad enthusiasts asking why we have to make accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Here you have a stretch of old buildings with their backs turned on the water. Finally there is a development (and all of those old buildings were just developer projects themselves, one way or the other) that makes a public access link between the water and the street and all you can do is complain of window details? The traditionalist skin of the yellow building in the background you point out is about as tired looking as it can be. There is one or more like it in almost every older city. Fine for their time, but their contribution to urbanism is an accident (a crash(?)) of epoch and building more than philosophical treatise on art and life. In the new building facades you criticize, the things you don’t see are the blank, lifeless back walls of the, oh, so charming buildings you are fawning over. The architect has certainly improved and humanized the modernist examples you reference and that is to be expected as we reassess whether we have answered the real need leading to the design.
Personally, I find the new buildings a refreshing foil to the strip of punched opening facades, demonstrating there is something more important about urban context than Neo-Classical-Copy/Paste-ism. Architecture is more than window ornament and projecting cornices. Architecture is the synthesis of structure and urban form to free human endeavors in perceiving and enjoying nature and relationships. Architecture will not turn its back on the land, the river or the street.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRRBike

More important than any of the stylistic debate is the climate debate. Compare this plan to Camana Bay (natural breezes captured) and to KY (air-conditioned). The prevailing winds off the Hudson are from the SWest, so this plan creates a wind tunnel. The buildings have a flat facade toward the setting sun. Etc. How do these buildings adapt to the local weather, conserve energy, use local resources, and qualify for Platinum LEED? It's not enough to provide a steep staircase for access to a skinny "urban park"

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersusan blandy

I also find all this fascinating, but I hate to think of even a wonderful new development replacing a mangrove swamp. Was this just a flippant comment to make a point about good design quickly looking "just right", or did they really fill a mangrove swamp to build this? (Do mangrove swamps occur in this area?) Buildings and streetscapes need to be thoughtfully designed and they need to be thoughtfully located as well.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Ann - The comment was flippant. They did not destroy Mangroves to build there. But, yes, there are tons of Mangroves in the area. Recently, the government has taken measures to curb development outward (protecting the small wildlife population and Mangroves) in lieu of building upwards.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood

"To approach a city ... as if it were [an] ... architectural problem ... is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life.... The results ... are neither life nor art. They are taxidermy." - Jane Jacobs

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWalter Chambers

It seems every time a criticism is heaped on the modern monstrosities that have made our towns so hostile to human beings and their needs, some person is sure to run in with scorn for all those rubes who prefer the time tested stuff that has worked so well. The ego-out-of-control elitists have taken over, and that's why these monstrosities continue to be built without a perceptible slowdown. And towns continue spending money on them, because the runaway egos of the politicians go hand in hand with the runaway egos of the architects. Bah humbug. Maybe one of these days people will do more than make polite objections, and mob the planning commissions and building departments and make such a fuss that these dyed in the wool destroyers of loveliness get for once shouted down. These towns are ours, not the elitists'! Sick of their creations' holier than thou ugliness and incompetence. (For folks who don't know, most of these people have no idea how to build. All they know is how to make abstract designs, and if the roof leaks or tenants get the sick building syndrome, hey, that's not my problem!)

February 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commentervera
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