Monday, April 16, 2012


At Uptown, a pair of mixed-use apartment and retail buildings under construction in University Circle, developer MRN and architect Stanley Saitowitz get the urbanism mostly right, and deserve credit for their efforts.  The project is being built at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 115th Street (just north of Mayfield Road) in collaboration with several institutions and non-profits, including University Circle, Inc., Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.

 Uptown North Building, looking south on Euclid Avenue.

The developer and the architect made two important decisions that contribute to the project’s success from an urban design standpoint. 
§     First, MRN chose to make the project mixed-use.  This is significant because, by including both retail and housing, the development will invigorate the neighborhood with both commerce and new inhabitants on the streets.  MRN went further to ensure success by pursuing leases with a good variety of retailers. These include magnet tenants like Barnes & Noble books and Constantino’s market.  MRN also made sure that there will be a mix of price points for the eateries that are going into the project.  Diversity enables success.


§     Second, MRN and Saitowitz decided to bring the building facades right up to the sidewalk and to place parking behind the north structure.  These moves give the street a sense of enclosure and definition, making it more comfortable and welcoming to pedestrians.  The buildings also frame a new gateway into the east side culture and arts district, strengthening the sense of arrival and lending identity to this stretch of Euclid Avenue.

Uptown gateway looking southwest on Euclid Avenue. 

The principle of building close to the street and considering the pedestrian experience seems to be lost on many Cleveland designers and city officials.  (As evidenced by much of what the Cleveland Clinic has built lately, as well as University Hospital’s recently completed Seidman Cancer Center—two blocks further south on Euclid—that is decidedly non-pedestrian friendly.)

Some of the credit for the positive urban design decisions made at Uptown also goes to CWRU and the Boston firm Chan Krieger, who created the original 2004 project master plan for the university.  These two significant urban design decisions—mixed use and building to sidewalk—are already contributing more to the street life of Cleveland than any other recent construction in the city.

I have been watching the progress of Uptown for some time, and had been planning to write a post about it when both buildings are complete in late fall.  But architecture critic Steven Litt wrote an article about the development in the Plain Dealer last week.  And while many of Litt’s comments are well-observed, he didn’t seem to go deeply enough in his analysis to look at the project with a truly critical eye.1

Two issues raise concern regarding the urban design of Uptown: 

Disposition of buildings at Uptown (Image: The Plain Dealer) 

§   First, the developers have included in the plan a pedestrian-only alley on the south side of the south building, an apparent effort to recreate the magic of their successful development on East 4th Street downtown.  The storefronts in Uptown’s south building will effectively have two faces, one on Euclid Avenue and the other on the pedestrian alley.  

    The concern arises over whether the activity of the shops and sidewalk cafes on the alley side will draw life away from Euclid.  Sometimes in dual-frontage shops, the street side ends up being a glorified service entry, leaving sidewalks there mostly deserted.  MRN is a savvy developer, so hopefully this concern is unfounded.  The verdict on the experiment will have to wait until Uptown is complete in October. 

Narrow sidewalk with inappropriate planting bed.

§   The other concern is that the sidewalks in front of the buildings on Euclid are only seven feet wide.  If the project is as successful as everyone hopes it will be, the sidewalks will be too narrow to handle the expected amount of foot traffic. Inappropriately designed shop entrances and planting beds will exacerbate the problem.  This concern merits its own discussion as a case study in sidewalk and storefront design, so it will be examined in a forthcoming post.


Uptown North Building, looking northeast on Euclid Avenue.

While Uptown gets most of the urbanism right, Saitowitz' chosen mode of architectural expression is more questionable.  His buildings are pleasant enough examples of Modernism.  But they are a generic Modernism.  Their visual language doesn’t have much to do with Cleveland or Northeast Ohio.  These buildings could be anywhere in the country—New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles.  No cues within Uptown’s imagery tell us that we are in Cleveland, Ohio. Generic buildings lead to the homogeneity of our cities, a sense of disorientation, and a loss of the uniqueness that makes each city the special place that it is.

  Modernism makes for dramatic pictures though.

Modernism can be a fine and dynamic language. But Saitowitz’s Modernist interpretation misses the opportunity to draw upon the architectural legacy that exists here.  A richer kind of architecture responds to the specific climate, history, and building practices of a region. It can express this response through its form, materials, construction methods, and details.

Good architecture takes at least some of its cues from the local precedents.  In this way it can “resonate with the landscape and the cultural context” of its setting, as Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa puts it.2 This approach embeds a building more fully within a place.

For example, Saitowitz expresses the rhythm of Uptown's structural bays by leaving their gray concrete columns exposed—a standard, anywhere expression of the Modernist idiom.  Imagine if the designer had chosen instead to sheath the columns with a sleek roman brick and a simple buff sandstone base.  Still tastefully modern, but a respectful acknowledgement of Uptown’s neighbors one block south, at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield. If cost was an issue, or more subtlety desired, the designer could simply have mixed bit of Ohio clay into the concrete for color.  Small, thoughtful gestures could have made the new buildings feel more like they belong in Northeast Ohio 

Mixed-use building at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield.

The appropriateness of the designer’s material selections for Ohio’s harsh climate also causes concern.  One assumes that the aluminum siding material and the projecting sunshades have been engineered to withstand our weather.  But when looking at these materials and their detailing, one wonders about their durability.  How will they look fifty years from now, seventy-five years from now?

Will the siding details and the underlying polypropylene membrane keep out the moisture of fifty rainy springs?  Will the sunshades remain straight and unbent under the burden of heavy snow and icicles that seventy-five winters bring?

The architect demonstrates his Modernist virtuosity by punching crisp window openings through the aluminum siding material on his buildings.  No question the lack of window trim gives the structures a streamlined appearance.  But window trim and sills are not just decorative affectations.  The window casings serve a very real and functional purpose:  They keep water away from the building face, protecting it from deterioration and infiltration at a vulnerable location. 


Some architects rely on technology—a polypropylene membrane, heavy sealants around windows—to keep weather and water out of the building. But more durable design solutions can often be found in local building practices that have been tested over time. 


Shadowlines don't lie.
Finally, the shading devices above the window openings are problematic for another reason:  they will not really be effective at keeping the sun off of the glass.  Saitowitz chose to make all of the sunshades the same depth, regardless of whether the windows are three feet tall and horizontal or eight feet tall and vertical. It is clear that these metal projections will not accomplish the goal of shading the tall windows.  Apparently, the architect was not really serious about reducing heat gain and increasing energy efficiency. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that these eyebrows are mere aesthetic flourishes.

Time will reveal whether the material choices and detailing decisions made by the architect will endure.  And despite Uptown’s shortcomings, MRN, Saitowitz, and their institutional partners earn high praise for setting a good urban design precedent. If the project proves to be economically successful, Cleveland developers may take notice and follow Uptown’s urbanistic lead.  And, hopefully, government leaders will push them to do just that.  If so, Uptown will serve as a positive step forward towards better urbanism for the city and its people.

1 Steven Litt,Modern-style buildings by architect Stanley Saitowitz give University Circle's Uptown development new sense of place,” The Plain Dealer, 8 April  2012:
2 Juhani Pallasmaa, “Place and Image,” from An Architecture of the Ozarks, The Works of Marlon Blackwell, by Marlon Blackwell (New York:  Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), p.30.

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis. The sidewalk looks so very narrow and bleak, as though it was an afterthought instead of the most important item. The sunshades are gratuitous and have little if any ability for controlling sunlight or heat gain. Also the metal siding appears to be reflective. That alone, if it reflects both sun and heat will make the sidewalk oppressive in summer months. Just like Dan infers, I'm also not sure if the building is durable enough to withstand the harsh winter conditions that Cleveland certainly provides. Is there no overhead protection at the retail entranceways, in the off chance that Cleveland has a rainstorm? Wait till the individual shop owners call the local awning company for some relief. The painstaking work to acquire architectural conformity will get lost quick.