Sunday, August 29, 2010

Finding Peace Amidst Urban Chaos

Architecture serves many different functions by many different means. One of the functions of architecture is to provide a calm center when surrounded by noise and distractions. Examples are readily available: A home is a place for nurture and family activities. An office building protects the work environment from outside influences. A house of worship provides sanctuary for prayer and meditation. A theater totally and completely shuts out the distractions of everyday life to allow new worlds to emerge on stage.

Since most of us live in metropolitan areas, many of them with big, world-class problems, it may be useful to consider how the built environment can provide relief from urban stress.
1. Indoor/outdoor connections expand living space and
 connect with nature on an urban lot.
We can (and should) shape architecture to make life more efficient, more interesting, and more enjoyable. This also means architecture can provide a peaceful retreat amdist chaos. The consequences of world-wide urbanization are  noise, congestion, pollution, wasted time. Intense development spawns traffic jams, urban heat sinks, and personal irritations. These circumstances affect everyone living in cities. How we choose to live with this disarray directly affects our mood and wellbeing. Let’s look at different types of architecture and how we can shape them to improve our relationship to the urban environment.


It is tempting to design our homes as sealed environments that completely shut out the city and its problems. In fact, many of us do live in air-conditioned boxes with drawn drapes and no hint of nature. This is a failure of design. It means that windows are inadequately protected from direct sunlight, that shady outdoor spaces have not been provided, and that the physical structure treats the natural environment as an enemy. In reality, most places have delightful weather most of the time.   Given the proper architectural setting, we can enjoy both indoors and outdoors. The architecture of our homes should have spaces that embrace the natural environment while still sheltering us from the bad influences inherent in an urban setting.


For a variety of reasons, it is difficult to design commercial buildings without relying on mechanical air conditioning. However, one consequence of this condition is that even our “down time” (coffee breaks, lunch time, commuting, etc.) is divorced from a natural life. To compensate, office buildings ought to be woven into the urban fabric in a way that is integrated with nature wherever possible.  Most office buildings huddle
2. Roof terraces provide outdoor spaces for employees in
this office building in Denver, Colorado.
next to freeway exits, isolated by access roads and parking lots. We need to design communities where living, working, shopping, and relaxation are a unified experience.  Our commercial buildings also need places that invite us outside (terraces, balconies, courtyards) and interior rooms that utilize natural light.
3. A skylight and ample windows establish a
connection with the natural environment in
this conference room.

Retail architecture is dominated by big box stores and chain outlets. These corporate entities have formulas for facilities design that are determined in distant headquarters with little recognition of local conditions. That’s why everything tends to look the same wherever you go. This is a difficult circumstance to overcome. But small efforts can go a long way in improving our shopping experience.

Integrating residential, commercial, and retail design into user-friendly communities is a strategy for finding peace amidst urban chaos.  Retail environments should be conceived as neighborhoods rather than shopping centers.  Time and energy is saved for more productive and more enjoyable pursuits when neighborhoods integrate residential, commercial and retail functions.  This notion is a function of both urban planning and architectural design. It is not a new idea, but it is only a good idea if implemented everywhere throughout the urban fabric. There’s not much point in providing nice places to escape urban chaos if you have to drive twenty miles to get there.
4. European sidewalk cafe.
The solution lies in providing nodes of activity that interweave work, entertainment, recreation, and living.  Every new project is an opportunity to employ this strategy as a means to a brighter future.

5. Integrating residential, commercial and retail is a strategy
for finding peace amidst urban chaos. (Paris cafe.)
1. Photography Rob Munger. Architecture by Michael Knorr & Associates.
2.-3. Architecture by Michael Knorr & Associates.
4. Photography Shawn Lipowski.
5. Photography Arnaud25.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mr. Governor, Tear Down These Walls

There is lots of conversation recently about the dire condition of the Colorado state capitol dome.  It is crumbling away as you read this.  Something must be done -- soon. However, more than just the dome is in bad shape.   This would be a good time to question the viability of the entire building.  

The Colorado state capitol building in Denver.

The golden dome is a familiar fixture in downtown Denver. It has been around longer than our oldest legislators.  With its prominent location and its august function, we tend to think of the building as something truly significant.  Take a closer look.  The state capitol building has never been good architecture.  Not only is it structurally vulnerable, it is esthetically and functionally inept.  Thus, it fails on all three legs upon which architecture should rest: commodity, firmness, and delight (in the words of Vitruvius).
A brassy interior.
Underneath: crumbing structure.

E.E. Myers designed the building in 1886.  The Illinois-based architect devised an ungainly Victorian pastiche of meaningless Greco-Roman details.  Mr. Myers specialized in the design of government buildings, none of them remarkable.  Other architects designed state capitols in the classical style with much greater effect.  Wisconsin’s, for example, has exterior gravitas and interior grandeur that far exceeds our state’s meager effort.  Some capitols have followed a more adventuresome path, as with Nebraska’s art deco departure from conventionality.   However, Colorado’s grey granite edifice has neither style nor panache.   Its labyrinthine interior looks like an explosion in a Corinthian column factory.  The drear halls are dead, except for unexpected reflections due to an excessive use of polished brass.  Offices are inadequate, with some legislators doubling up. Secretaries and clerks labor in miserly square footage. Over the years, the various rooms have become makeshift and make-do.  Whatever is meant by state of the art, this building’s heating, air conditioning, and lighting are the opposite of. 
Upper dome structure.
What could we accomplish by starting fresh?  The possibilities are thrilling to contemplate.   Perhaps we could have a design that retains parts of the lower structure (to commemorate the past) but replaces the existing dome and roof with a glass dome that allows visitors to peer into the chambers of government.  Architect Norman Foster did exactly that with his design for the new Reichstag in Berlin.  This triumph of architecture symbolizes the transparency of democracy.   Another approach might draw inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1957 proposal for a new Arizona state capitol.  His design was a hexagonal tracery of trellises and atriums intended as an oasis in the desert.  Colorado deserves a building as symbolic of our unique environment as Wright’s would have been for Arizona’s.  
Why do we assume something is good just because it is old?  Of course, we should recycle everything of intrinsic or historic value.  Reuse some of the stone.  Save the beautiful artwork.   Reinstall the existing paneling in a creative new way.   However, let’s admit this fussy old relic is simply not up to the task of serving a state whose population has increased 900 percent since it was built.  Let’s build something new and fresh and important.  One additional benefit of creating a new capitol:  we can get all the parking underground, where it belongs.  Currently, legislators’ vehicles encircle the capitol like wagons under siege.  This situation is one of the most unsightly pedestrian approaches to any capitol in the country. 
Rooftop of the renewed Reichstag in Berlin.
Of course, this radical idea inevitably faces a wall of economic reality.  Under current conditions, this proposal does not seem feasible or possible.  No doubt, most readers were raising financial objections after the first paragraph.  However, this is an idea to develop over several years, not right this moment.  Consider how a population of only 500,000 Coloradans was able to conceive and finance a structure that has served for over a century.  We would honor their can do spirit by creating a greater state capitol for the next one hundred years.  Perhaps for the next thousand.  Why should it be difficult for this generation to conceive of a truly great building that is a fiting symbol for this state?  We can buy some time with minimal stabilization of the dome and then consider a long-term solution.  
Our state capitol has outlived its usefulness.  Now we are presented with an opportunity to do better.    


Reichstag by Bjorn Laczay.
All others by Knorr.