Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Building a Sense of Place and Community

As Ellen Dunham Jones writes in her book “Retrofitting Suburbia”, we need to take a serious look at how to change the suburban, auto- oriented development pattern that most modern communities are not only defined by, but constrained by as well.  In addition to the New Urbanism movement and resulting Smart Code that has dominated planning of new development over the past decade, we need to examine how existing buildings can also play a role. Whether it’s giving new life to an underperforming shopping mall or finding ways to reuse an existing building, she believes that these structures represent opportunities for repurposing and restructuring suburbs to create more pedestrian friendly districts of connected uses. 
Can this really be accomplished?  Is it realistic to think that the disjointed, large scale development patterns of residential subdivisions, business parks and strip malls can be overcome through specific design interventions? While it is most likely not feasible to redo existing infrastructure and street patterns anytime soon, I do agree with Jones that renovation of existing buildings can play a pivotal role in how change can occur.
 As a part of this effort, Jones calls on architects to play a key role in the transformation of suburbia by raising the bar on design.   I couldn’t agree more.  For example, why is it that most suburban developments over the past decade, whether it be new or renovated buildings have defaulted to the neo-traditional style?  Are we letting nostalgia and mediocrity dictate what we can or can’t do?  As she points out, the younger generation chooses to live in urban environments for the excitement and energy expressed in the architecture as well as the close proximity to goods, services, and entertainment choices.   
Can suburbs emulate this type of environment with exciting buildings and public spaces that provide a backdrop for these activities?   I would suggest that most suburban buildings are, in fact, pretty mediocre, or outdated at best.   More importantly, they lack the qualities that define great buildings.  What would that be, you ask?  Louis Kahn defined a great building as follows:
” A great building, in my opinion, must begin with the immeasurable, must go though measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be immeasurable.  You must follow the laws of nature and use quantities of brick, methods of construction, and engineering.  But in the end, when the building becomes part of living, it evokes immeasurable qualities, and the spirit of its existence takes over.”
This is not only profound, but it is an important key to how both a sense of place and community will come about. 
 Your comments and ideas are welcomed…
Tony Battaglia, AIA (tony@archumana.com)

1 comment:

  1. When you ask "Is it realistic to think that the disjointed, large scale development patterns of residential subdivisions, business parks and strip malls can be overcome through specific design interventions?", I am reminded that as we dig through various aspects of this 1947 house, we keep finding reminders of how life was different in the '50s.

    One of those is that various appliances and installations, from the vintage Electrolux vacuum cleaner, to pieces of duct work, have labels on them that identify the vendors as having residential addresses. The neighborhood isn't old enough to have been rebuilt, we have pictures of our house going up in a field, and yet apparently five or ten doors down and around the corner from us there was a vacuum cleaner repair or sales shop, and within a few blocks were other vendors who gave their home addresses as their offices.

    I run a home-based business. I understand why the city has an interest in restricting what you can and can't do from your house. However, I'm also wondering why we insist that so many single-person businesses carry not only the additional overhead of a retail sales front, but we also crack down on the sense of intermediate space, between public and private, that home-based businesses encourage.

    And if the need existed again, then we'd start to see buildings evolve to support it.