Tag Archives: architecture

Wayfinding And Preservation In A Small Town

Over the weekend I visited Price for work. While I was there saw some interesting examples of urban development in a small town.

Perhaps most notably, Price has some wayfinding in its downtown:

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

This map isn’t fancy or professionally sourced, but it’s better than what many cities have — including currently Provo, for some reason.

This isn’t to say Price is a walkability or tourist paradise. In reality, I saw almost no one walking around while I was there. But it’s nice to see the city make the effort, and this map really was all I needed to orient myself. In the end something is always better than nothing.

Another thing that stood out from Price was this ornate building:

A building in downtown Price.

A building in downtown Price.

This building is fancier and more interesting than most, maybe even all, of Provo’s comparable historic structures. It needs some new paint in a few places (ironically) but the faces in particular are quite impressive.

From this I glean two lessons: first, that small towns sometimes have the most impressive old buildings and, second, that growing towns experiencing relative prosperity (e.g. Provo) are often the ones that lose their historic buildings.

As I’ve written many times before, European tourist towns are a good example of this phenomenon; the old medieval villages we all love to visit today stayed the same for centuries because they experienced hundreds of years of decline, even poverty. During that time there was low demand for land and new development, so the old buildings remained untouched. On the other hand, a place like Manhattan — which was filled with smaller but still substantial historic structures before Provo even existed — prospered and eventually replaced most of it’s little buildings from 18th and early 19th century.

Comparing Price and Provo offers a similar, if accelerated and smaller example. In terms of infrastructure and architecture, Price’s downtown is very similar to Provo’s but more complete and unified. Despite it’s considerably small size, it has nearly as many old buildings and fewer appear to have been torn down. There are no big, ugly newer buildings in the mix, as there are in Provo.

But Price is smaller and not experiencing the kind of growth Provo gets. Hence, the better preserved downtown.

There are ways make sure historic preservation and growth don’t become mutually exclusive, but in the end greater prosperity almost always means changes to the built environment.

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Filed under Downtown, economics, travel, utah

Grace, History and the Role of Buildings

I’m currently reading John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and last night I came to several passages that bear on the discussion about the importance of building durable, beautiful buildings generally.

In Chapter 2 of Volume 1, Ruskin sets out to explain how to see which architecture is good and which is bad. He presents two criteria:

…we require from buildings, as from men, two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it; which last is itself another form of duty.

This is a simple even obvious set of criteria, and yet so many buildings fail it. I’m thinking of this idea in the context of a building like Provo’s city hall, which after a mere 40 years is completely falling apart. Clearly, it has failed in it’s “practical duty” if it can’t outlive a pair of Toyotas.

But entire cities of modern buildings also fail this test. My parents suburban tract home, for example, is sliding off a hill along with the rest of their city. I will almost certainly outlive their house. And how many suburbs of Las Vegas or Phoenix  are both poorly built and entirely graceless?

In any case, Ruskin goes on to argue that buildings also have another function:

…talking, as the duty of monuments or tombs, to record facts and express feelings; or of churches, temples, public edifices, treated as books of history, to tell such history clearly and forcibly.

In other words, buildings record the past and “speak” a story.

The Zion's Bank Building in Provo.

The Zion’s Bank Building in Provo.

This seems to be one of the things we have forgotten in many of our modern buildings. What story are we trying to tell with any of the buildings that have been built in Provo in the last generation? When I look at something like the Zion’s Bank Building, I can only assume we’re trying to tell the world that we’re cheap and tasteless.

Ruskin’s point is especially important because it offers a reason to build that isn’t rooted in the cold economics of post-recession America; in the end (and as a comment pointed out on yesterday’s post) buildings shouldn’t always have to make money.

If they did, or if that was what mattered most, we wouldn’t have inspiring places like St. Peter’s Square or the Berlin Wall art installation.

St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. This is designed to "speak"  well.

St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. This is designed to “speak” well.

The Berlin Wall isn't a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it "speaks" than with economic concerns.

The Berlin Wall isn’t a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it “speaks” than with economic concerns.

These are spaces that tell stories rather than generate revenue. And that’s a much higher calling.

A few paragraphs later, Ruskin brings his various criteria into a convenient, three-point list:

1. That it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.
2. That it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.
3. That it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.

Ruskin offers these points as evaluation tools; he’s trying to establish a way to judge existing buildings.

But for growing cities in Utah and elsewhere, they also offer a kind of very basic checklist or starting point. As we consider which buildings are worth saving and how to begin new ones, these are some of the first issues we should be bringing up.

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Central Bank Update

Last week I wrote about the need for aesthetic diversity in a city and gave an example of old and new architecture mixing in a Salt Lake neighborhood. One curious example of this phenomenon that’s playing out right now in Provo is the Central Bank remodel on the corner of University Ave and 100 North.

As of about a week ago, this is what it looked like:

Central Bank is renovating the facades of it's buildings in Provo.

Central Bank is renovating the facades of it’s buildings in Provo.

Eventually, this group of buildings will have a historically-influenced look.

Eventually, this group of buildings will have a historically-influenced look.

One of the most interesting things about this project is the historic brick that has been uncovered on this building.

One of the most interesting things about this project is the historic brick that has been uncovered on this building.

This post shows the project at an earlier stage, and this post includes a sketch of the final product.

The interesting thing about this project is that it’s taking a hodgepodge of older buildings and uniting them with one single facade. My impression is that reaction in the community to this project is positive, though I know a number of people who lament the fact that the modern building on the corner will become something less firmly rooted in any particular architectural style.

I’m grateful that Central Bank is investing in the community, though I also wonder at the faux-historical final product. The great thing about downtown Provo, or most genuinely interesting places, is that they’re not knockoffs or replicas of something else, historical or otherwise. That’s why downtown Provo is better than, say, “lifestyle” suburbs like Daybreak that merely imitate an organic city. It’s why visiting Paris or New Orleans is vastly more rewarding, to say the least, than going to Las Vegas or Disneyland, respectively.

All of this is to say that perhaps we should more critically consider the wisdom of mixing pseudo-historical buildings into  actually-old architecture that embodies our heritage. The Central Bank project — which is not terrible by any means and may be quite nice in the end — offers an occasion to reflect on whether or not we want our city to be a living, evolving record of each generation’s greatest works, or a generic version of the past that could have been built anywhere.

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One Reason To Oppose Aesthetic Regulation

Yesterday I wrote that Provo could use more row houses, but I made a point to say that I’m not advocating aesthetic regulations. My feeling is that while a lack of aesthetic regulations can produce a lot of ugly buildings, it also allows for the creativity and diversity that are essential for a vibrant city. And in the end, a strong market should get rid of undesirable buildings over the long term.

Here’s an example of why I don’t want aesthetic regulation:

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This home is located in Salt Lake City. It’s clearly a historic structure and even bears more than a passing resemblance to the Reed Smoot House and the Hines Mansion.

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This contemporary building, which I think is quite charming in its own way, sits just down the street from the historic home in the first picture.

The pictures above show that old and new architecture can coexist. In fact, really great neighborhoods are usually filled with this sort of thing. Provo doesn’t have a lot of cool modern buildings, but even “historic” homes in the city cover a surprisingly wide time span; at least at one point we were trying to build an architecturally diverse city.

Another good example of this is Barcelona, which mandates how structures use space but not the exact look of the facades.

But if we start rolling out aesthetic rules this can’t happen. Instead, we’ll end up with a bunch of pointlessly nostalgic, lesser buildings.

I didn’t always have this opinion of aesthetic regulation. In the not too distant past I wished we had some way of preventing the kind of buildings that proliferated in Provo in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

But as I started to critically consider the idea of forcing buildings to look quaint I began to change my mind. In the end there’s a lot to lose by only allowing a knockoff version of the past.

The solution, as I indicated yesterday, is spatial regulation. This is a concept that broadly falls under the umbrella of “form-based code.” The idea is that builders have to work with certain setbacks or heights or sidwalk sizes or whatever, for example, but can work creatively within those confines.

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Filed under building, construction, Development

How to do Stairs Right

Last year, I argued that we’re designing buildings that promote obesity. The problem is that our buildings fail to encourage physical activity — specifically taking the stairs — even when it would be easy to do so. More specifically, the problem is that so many buildings tuck their stairs out of sight while making elevators very prominent. It wastes energy and it eliminates the opportunity for little bursts of activity.

When I wrote that post, one of my examples was Provo’s Fourth District Courthouse in downtown. In that building, the elevators are the obvious choice, while the stairs are kind of hard to find.

But a few days ago I visited West Jordan’s courthouse and was surprised to see a good example of stairs featured prominently in the front of the building:

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The entryway of the West Jordan courthouse.

In this picture, the front door of the building is to the right by the windows. The elevators are behind the stairs. That means visitors see the stairs first and are never in doubt about their location or availability. In other words, the architects have designed the building to prioritize stair usage; the structure literally communicates more effectively to its audience.

Not coincidentally, while I was in this building the stairs were used at least as often as the elevators.

Stairs and better-designed buildings aren’t going to completely solve the obesity epidemic. But they will help in some small way. And in the end, this is perhaps how we should approach much of our urban design: by slowly fixing the spaces that discourage any kind of physical activity.

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Goodbye Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, the modernist master architect responsible in part for Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, died Wednesday at the age of 104. The New York Times states that he died of a respiratory infection while at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro.

Though this blog is about Provo, Utah, it takes its cues from many other cities around the world. And perhaps no city that I’ve visited is as remarkable or as bizarre as Brasilia, which was built from scratch in the middle of nowhere in the 1960s. The Times article (link above) has a great rundown on Niemeyer’s career, including his role in creating Brasilia:

His curvaceous, lyrical, hedonistic forms helped shape a distinct national architecture and a modern identity for Brazil that broke with its colonial and baroque past. Yet his influence extended far beyond his country. Even his lesser works were a counterpoint to reductive notions of Modernist architecture as blandly functional.

However, once Brasilia was completed, it was largely considered a failure:

Brasília soon became a symbol of Modernism’s failure to deliver on its utopian promises. The vast empty plazas seemed to sum up the social alienation of modern society; surrounded by slums, the monumental government buildings of its center exemplified Brazil’s deeply rooted social inequalities.

Though the article claims Niemeyer’s reputation was eventually restored, Brasilia remains, in my opinion and that of many urbanists I’ve read or talked to, a spectacular failure.

The problem is that it’s devoid of people in a haunting, almost sublime way. The last time I visited, for example, I remarked to Laura that walking in the center of Brasilia was like walking through a post-apocalyptic film; the infrastructure was all there but the people were conspicuously absent.

One of the problems is that Brasilia was designed almost exclusively for the car. It has big, wide highways curving around Niemeyer’s striking buildings, but few useful sidewalks connecting destinations. And because it’s a car-centric city, the distances are extraordinarily. In 2010, Laura and I tried to walk from the main government buildings to a well-known pizza restaurant. In Provo, the walk would have taken us maybe 30 minutes. In Brasilia, it took three hours and required repeatedly climbing through bushes, over highways, and through tangles of modernist housing projects. It was a disaster.

One of Brasilia’s other main problems is that it was designed for a finite population size that was long surpassed. The result is that the glittering city has been surrounded by ever more distant slums (which coincidentally are more vibrant in many cases).

Many of these problems can be traced to Brasilia’s planner, Lucio Costa, rather than specifically to Niemeyer. And some of Niemeyer’s buildings are unquestionably interesting, especially in cities — Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, etc. — that grew up more organically.

But regardless of the problems the city remains noteworthy and fascinating. In some pockets — near that pizza place, for example — remarkable examples of vibrancy have popped up despite the design flaws. And whatever its faults, I like Brasilia for the boldness of its vision and experimentation; its an emotionally unsettling city, but in the end I probably wouldn’t be writing (Pro(vo)cation) if I hadn’t spent time there.

The National Museum.

The National Museum.

Walking away from the museum.

Walking away from the museum.

The National Congress Buildings.

The National Congress Buildings.

The TV Tower in the distance.

The TV Tower in the distance.

One of Brasilia's ultra modern churches.

The Don Bosco Sanctuary, one of Brasilia’s ultra modern churches.

Interior of the Cathedral of Brasilia.

Interior of the Cathedral of Brasilia.

The National Theater.

The National Theater.

This is the center of Brasilia, with the National Congress in the distance. It's not pleasant to walk through that area down below.

The Monumental Axis. This is the center of Brasilia, with the National Congress in the distance. It’s not pleasant to walk through that area down below.

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One Problem With Big Box Buildings

Someone pulled a gun at a Utah Kmart over the weekend. But what surprised me most was that when I saw the picture below, I had absolutely no idea where the incident happened:

From a news perspective, this ambiguous picture was great because it forced me to read the rest of the article.

But from a building and architecture perspective, it illustrates one of the primary problems with big box retailers: they’re so utterly generic that even a photo reveals nothing about their setting. Though the incident happened in West Valley City (no surprise there), this picture could easily depict the Kmart in Provo’s East Bay. In reality, it could probably depict most of the Kmarts in America. I don’t even know if this picture actually shows the Kmart where the crime happened; it could just be a stock photo owned by the news agency.

Ultimately, the most telling thing in this photo is the hill behind the store and even that is mostly obscured by the ugly building.

The point here is that the best places are unique. They create a one-of-a-kind sense of identity and people appreciate them for that. Downtown Provo is one such place. Many of the destinations people spend money traveling to similarly create settings that emphasize their uniqueness. But locations like the one in the picture above aren’t just ugly, they also deny communities their inherent sense of individuality. And that’s a problem.

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