Thursday, February 16, 2012

LESSONS TO LEARN: A TALE OF TWO TOWNHOUSES

Buildings do not exist in isolation.  They are part of a larger community, and have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to the health and life of the street.

After traveling to many beautiful cities in the U.S., I have often wondered why Cleveland doesn’t have more of the interesting townhouses and brownstones that can be found in places like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, and San Francisco

Townhouses are good for a city because they allow for more dense development than single family detached dwellings do.  This in turn means more inhabitants per acre, which can increase the viability of local retail, and also of transit, such as bus lines or streetcars.

I’m sure there is a historical reason that they are not more common in Cleveland, perhaps having to do with when the city was growing most rapidly, or the way lots were platted in Cleveland, or simply regional building traditions.  As I continue to study the city, I eventually may learn the answer to this question.

In the meantime though, I have found that if one looks hard enough, many great townhouse examples do indeed exist in Cleveland.

OLDER TOWNHOUSE EXAMPLE

Detroit-Shoreway Townhouses-West 65th Street Elevation

Here’s a townhouse type that merits further study.  It is located on Bridge Avenue, at the corner of West 65th Street, in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood on the near west side of Cleveland.  
Detroit-Shoreway Townhouses-Bridge Avenue Elevation
Its massing, materials, and detailing are pleasing to the eye.  The porches, steps, and bay windows make for an interesting elevation, animating the street.  The details are simple and well-crafted, without being particularly extravagant.
  

The corner tower element punctuates the street intersection well, bringing distinction to this row of townhouses.  No doubt the tower’s octagonal form makes for some nice interior spaces in this unit as well.



The porches are fairly small—6’ deep by 9’ wide—but they are still useful.  Their shape and design, with an angled portion adjacent to the bay windows, allows just enough room for a chair or a bench for sitting.  Addressing the street with small, inhabitable porches brings life, interest, and activity to the street.  In addition, when residents sit on their porches, they can make connections with passersby, strengthening connections in the community. Having people out on the porches also increases security in the neighborhood, by sending the message that residents are paying attention to what is happening on the streets. 

NEWER TOWNHOUSES

Newer Townhouses-Bridge Avenue Elevation
This group of newer townhouses was constructed several years ago on Bridge Avenue, at the corner of West 52nd Street, just a few blocks east of the older townhouse group.  These newer units have some good things going for them.  The developers can be commended for choosing to build in the city, helping to fill in the gaps in the existing urban fabric.  These townhouses also feature interesting bay windows with brackets supporting them, and a nice tower element that makes an effort to address the street corner. 

The biggest problem with these units is the battery of garage doors that face the street, and the wide swaths of concrete driveway that accompany them.  The driveways interrupt the sidewalk in numerous places, and prevent the planting of street trees for shading and aesthetics. 


In addition, the garage doors present a blank and uninviting face to the street.  They also limit the width of the front porches, making them not very useful as actual outdoor ‘rooms’ that can accommodate chairs for sitting.  And finally, the wide concrete driveways mean there are no front gardens or other elements that could be a source of interest or pleasure to the pedestrian. 

In terms of character, life, and security, these newer units do not give as much back to the street as the older townhouses do.

And it didn’t have to be this way.  That is the frustrating aspect of this newer construction.   The lot where these units are located is deep enough to allow access to the garages form behind the units.  If the garages were in the back, the front fa├žade of the building could have been unmarred by the garage doors, and could instead have had more interesting elements facing the street, such as larger porches.

Detroit-Shoreway Townhouses-Bridge Avenue Elevation, looking west. 
Which sidewalk would be more interesting to stroll along?

Much can be learned from the existing architecture in Cleveland, and applied to new construction in order to yield more positive outcomes.  Following some simple design strategies, like “porches in front, garage doors behind”, can make a big difference.  By making more thoughtful choices, we can bring strength and vitality to our neighborhoods, and consequently improve the quality of life for all city residents.

Monday, February 13, 2012

SOME CORE PRINCIPLES


Epworth-Euclid Church
Bertram Goodhue with Walker & Weeks, c. 1928
§ Every place in the world is unique culturally, historically, and climatically.  Its architecture and  urbanism should support, protect, and reflect these qualities.
§ Our cities should be environmentally sustainable.
§ A neighborhood should have vitality, stability, and should encourage a sense of community.
§ Neighborhoods should be diverse in all aspects, including age, race, and economic level.
§ The structure of a city should help foster the realization of social and economic justice in a society.
§ The structure of a city should encourage the maintenance of physical health by its inhabitants.
§The form of a city should foster independence for all, including children, the disabled, the aged, and those of less means.
§ Public institutions, such as schools, churches, and libraries, are centers of neighborhood life.
§ Streets and public spaces within the urban fabric are the physical manifestation of the spirit of the community.

(Thank you to Professor Oscar Machado of the University of Miami for requiring that his students articulate their ideals in writing.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

FIRST POST

Fine Arts Garden Fountain

Why start a blog? 
I admit that I have been resistant to starting a blog.  I don’t even like the sound of the word.  It doesn’t sound like a place for thoughtful and enlightened discourse. And isn’t there enough noise and chatter on the internet, and in the world, already? 

But I am concerned about the state of Architecture and Urbanism in the City of Cleveland and throughout Northeast Ohio.  And I believe there is a need for more community discussion on the issues of what we build, what we preserve, what we destroy, and how we inhabit the land on which we live.

I write a lot of letters about these issues.  I write to the Plain Dealer editorial page, and to the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, and to the Mayor, and to . . . you get the idea.  And I figure, if I am making the effort to write these mini-treatises, then the world may as well hear my voice too.  I can try to do that through this forum.

Why “The Civic Art: Cleveland Architecture and Urbanism”?
I have a true passion for vibrant cities and neighborhoods.  I love that feeling of strolling down a great shopping or residential street in Philadelphia, or Madison, WI, or even in Ohio City or Cleveland Heights, and feeling the history of the place mixed with the vitality of the present.  These great streets have been inhabited over time, and they are still beloved by their residents.  It is a pleasure to just be in an authentic, thriving neighborhood.  I would like to be able to experience that more often in Cleveland, and in more parts of the City.

As an Architect and Town Planner, I try to make the world better by using the tools that I possess.  Namely, by trying to create or preserve good architecture and good neighborhoods.  By reclaiming and reviving our neighborhoods, we not only gain a place where people want to be and want to live; we can also begin to address many of the pressing issues that face our city and nation: sustainability, global warming, resource conservation and stewardship, energy independence, social justice, intolerance, public safety, access to local food, and health and wellness.  More about how better, more pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods can address these issues is to come in future posts.

What to Expect to Find Here
§   Commentaries, critiques, essays on timely and significant topics in Cleveland Architecture and Urban Design.
§      Copies of the aforementioned Letters to the Editor on such issues.
§      Links to important articles about Architecture, Urbanism, and City Life.
§     Photo studies of notable architectural and urban typologies to be found in the City of Cleveland and beyond.

The Way Forward
Cleveland is a great and beautiful city, yet it also faces many challenges.  By leveraging its many great assets, Cleveland has the potential to create a more sustainable, more vital built environment.  This city can be a harbinger for the rebirth of older rust-belt cities, demonstrating the way forward to long-term urban rebirth and re-vitalization.

Those in the design professions have both a significant role to play and a real responsibility to help make our world and our communities into better places to live. I intend to engage in this endeavor as well, through my work and through these words.