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July 28, 2011
We’ve all seen the ever-changing demographics that drive our living patterns today: smaller households, higher gas prices, reduced income, higher rents, less land, more millennials.
The list goes on, but all these factors are now pushing Northwest populations to more in-city living. The result is ever more attention to the quality of exterior spaces.
What is it that really makes our outside urban spaces more livable? Most of us would rather hold to the edges and enjoy the views of the larger spaces and amenities, to sit in the sidewalk cafe and look out on the activities. So, in our world of design, our most scholarly work now goes into the edges where the buildings that surround the spaces meet the ground.
“Modulation,” a certain measure or proportion, and “articulation,” the manner in which something is joined together, are the tools of good design and can provide the appropriate scale between a building and the adjacent public spaces. Both are increasingly important as our communities are densified.
Street-level building articulations, integrated with its design sibling modulation, are necessary in creating a human scale that encourages and amplifies pedestrian activity. In combination, they can provide visual interest and a sense of community identity along with security and other human necessities.
Throughout the world, great street-level buildings, as well as the “common” architecture, have historically used increasing layers of detail as one comes closer to the structure. This urban layering is similar to the fractal structures found in nature: observable, similarly repeating structures found at every level of magnification, with the different levels of scale tightly linked by the design.
Traditional buildings, like fractals, have edges and interfaces that are not smooth. They are either creased or punched in repetition. And, like fractals, they have connective structure at different scales.
Further, and most importantly, they have no long, straight lines: a smooth flat plane has no substructure, and is totally non-fractal.
Rows of narrow buildings, colonnades and arcades with cross-paths all correspond to a permeable fabric with perforations to allow interchange. This is one type of humanistic streetscape.
A building edge, woven together with its adjoining open space, creates another type of streetscape. This articulation can arise spontaneously as a natural consequence of urban forces, as for example, portions of buildings that grow outwards towards the sidewalk.
Concurrent with creating a human scale that encourages and amplifies pedestrian activity, the building massing and shapes should articulate an expression of the building’s use.
In mixed-use buildings, for example, the different uses can be observable through the pattern or scale of building elements such as arcades, awnings, balconies, entries and windows.
Most familiar are the facades that are articulated in the three-part classical arrangement: the base, the body and the top. It is important that the base be proportionate to open space upon which it fronts AND that it transition to the more detailed human scale. This edge is also the place where the articulation and modulation will be encountered most repeatedly by the public.
The building top, as well as all architectural elements, should have a functional truthfulness, not simply to create an image or style.
Building articulation refers to the many street frontage design elements, both horizontal and vertical, that help create a streetscape of interest. The appropriate scale for articulation is often a function of the size of the building and the adjacent public spaces such as sidewalks, planting areas and roadways.
Ground-floor building articulation is critical in creating a great humanistic streetscape that welcomes and supports pedestrian activity by providing visual interest and a sense of security and community identity.
The importance of articulation on the upper stories of a building varies with the height of the building. It’s certainly appropriate that high-rise buildings often include important design elements on the top stories, but this type of articulation does not nor should it contribute to the streetscape or the pedestrian experience. However, articulation on the upper stories of low- and mid-rise buildings is important, as they frame the street and create visual interest.
The impact of building articulation is illustrated through the accompanying images, which demonstrate the pedestrian-scale design of the building edge and how that edge supports and encourages pedestrian activity. There is visual interest, and the engagement of pedestrians through the use of storefront windows keeps eyes on the street and supports a safer, friendlier pedestrian environment.
In conjunction with modulation, building articulation helps direct pedestrians, create spaces and frame views of the corridor. The greatest streets are ones that support the movement of pedestrians by extending a street wall with visual interest.
Creating a highly visible public realm through the use of storefront windows and public spaces for gathering also enhances safety and security for pedestrians.
The same design principles that create these elements also create identity for the neighborhood and the community.
Defining entries with visual cues, such as articulation, support navigability and mobility for pedestrians. Wayfinding and clearly defined uses along the ground floor are essential components of pedestrian activity. The use of awnings, canopies and overhangs provides visual interest, entry definition and protection from inclement weather, allowing the pedestrian to pause on the route.
The use of a variety of quality materials, particularly on the ground floor, translates to a sense of quality in the public realm. Quality materials also tend to last longer and wear better, preserving the pedestrian realm with less maintenance.
Natural materials, locally manufactured whenever possible, can help create timeless, indigenous and weather-resistant designs.
Variation in materials, particularly in partnership with facade modulation, can be an effective way to create a streetscape of interest.
Keeping the ground floor transparent contributes to a great street in several ways. Windows create visual interest for those on either side of the glass, make the street highly visible and thus safe, and engage the pedestrian in various activities along the street. Increasingly, there can be private uses of otherwise public rights of way and greater human presence in a traditional vehicular environment.
Building corners should respond to their surroundings as an intersection where destinations and natural systems meet in constructed space. As modes of perambulation interact, people watch and wait. Corners can be places for the performance of many community activities, both homogeneous and contrasting, and consequently become opportunities to unify design and land uses.
Putting ‘place’ in community
Using modulation, articulation, pattern and repetition to create and maintain visual interest are proven architectural tenets.
Converging the windows, entries, facade modulation, and design treatments occurring in patterns in ever shifting scales of the urban fractal help create great streets by providing visual appeal and helping activate the public realm. Patterns and materials that refer to the local context can help create a pleasant, cohesive environment that is easy to navigate and becomes identified as a community “place.”
Thomas Frye Jr., AIA, and Roger Oakdale, AIA, both focus on urban mixed-use residential project design. Frye is a principal and Oakdale a senior project manager at Baylis.
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