Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Nine: Valuing Form over Initial Use

As the calendar turns to February, it’s time to wind up my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”.  Today’s part nine will visit the role of buildings in an urban setting.  A week from now, part ten will offer a summing up.  (For new readers, earlier parts at are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight.)

Urbanism thinking on buildings was foreshadowed a few posts earlier when I quoted Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban designer.  His approach to urban design is “First life, then spaces, then buildings.  The other way around never works.”

In well-conceived urban places, buildings are intended to facilitate meaningful and productive urban lives, not to be the stars themselves.

Admittedly, this is counter to the current infatuation with “starchitects” or WFAs (world famous architects), but it doesn’t marginalize architects.  Indeed, it assigns a more difficult role to them.  Rather than designing a building that looks like a giant shaving brush, they must instead create buildings that draw people into and through an urban setting, while also functioning well once the user is inside the building.

Just last evening, over beer and nachos, I listened as a long-time architect chatted with a pair of recent architectural graduates about the need to conceive buildings so that people are enticed to explore the full extent of an urban setting.  In the final report on the Petaluma Station Area Plan, the project architects, Opticos Design of Berkeley, described this intention as designing a series of “theatrical settings”.

But also in urbanism, it’s not enough to design a building that works well on the day it opens.  It’s also essential to take a longer perspective.

It has long been observed that many buildings outlive their initial uses.  Here in Petaluma, a one-time train depot is now the visitors’ center, a former mortuary is now the police station, and a downtown gym occupies a space that was once part of a grain mill.

And even if the use remains the same, the share and detailing of a building can change greatly over time.  My wife and I live in a home that was originally built in 1920 as the twin of the 1918 home next door.  (Subdivision construction proceeded at slower pace a century ago.)  But over the intervening years, the two homes have taken very different paths.  Being on a larger lot, a garage was added to the home next door, a space that now serves as an art studio.

But our home, being on a smaller lot, didn’t have space for a garage, so a former owner instead took it upward, slightly expanding the footprint before adding a second story and an attic.

With different windows, siding, and roofing materials, only someone in the crawl space of the two homes could recognize their common heritage.  But both have changed logically in response to their settings and to the needs of their owners and both fit well within the neighborhood.

Recognizing the reality of the uses and physical form of buildings evolving over time, many zoning codes, particularly for urban areas, have begun taking a different structure than the zoning codes that governed the growth of suburbia.  In past zoning codes, the primary factor on which the code was based was use.  Building aesthetics, site planning, etc., all mattered, but use was the initial criterion.  These codes were described as use-based codes.

Many contemporary codes take an alternative approach, looking first at the form of the building.  Use still matters, a developer can’t put a rendering plan downtown no matter how attractive the building, but form is the first criterion to be considered.  Form-based codes might require buildings to remain close to the street, demand that parking be shielded from the street, or mandate features to enliven a sidewalk.

Under a form-based code, even if the use of a building changes multiple times during its useful life, it continues to be an element that supports the urban life of the community.

Putting urban life before buildings and imposing a form-based code on new buildings changes how we view new buildings and how our urban places expand and evolve.  But the value of good architecture remains.

In my next post, there’s an evolving situation in Minnesota involving an attempt to stifle an urbanist proponent.  The facts of the situation have a personal relevance to me, so I’m awaiting the promised updates and will then offer my thoughts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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