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February 24, 2022

The evolution of hyper-local community spaces

  • More important than the objective beauty of a work of architecture is how people feel in a space.
    Johnston Architects


    For more than 30 years, Johnston Architects has been shaping Seattle’s small gathering spaces. Although how community spaces are being used is continually evolving, it hasn’t changed our firm’s approach or desire to create spaces to gather and enjoy being with other people at all scales. Because JA’s portfolio includes diverse typologies from public libraries, private community clubhouses, offices, multifamily, and private homes, the communal aspects of each infuse and inform one another. Great architecture forges connection between people and place in diverse, unique ways, becoming neighborhood treasures embedded into the fabric of their surroundings.

    Communal space means many things, from the proverbial central gathering table to small nooks and eddies around the periphery of a public space for people to see and be seen. More important than the objective beauty of a work of architecture is how people feel in a space. Places to pause and connect with nature, generate ad hoc run-ins with neighbors, or escape your private home space must be intentionally considered from the outset and nurtured throughout the design process.

    Image courtesy of Johnston Architects [enlarge]
    The master planning for Bryant Heights centered around maintaining numerous significant trees and developing walkways through the site to maintain the park-like setting neighbors had come to appreciate.

    Once absorbed more passively, today people are desiring a much more immersive connection with nature. Back in graduate school in the 1970s, JA Founding Partner Mary Johnston, FAIA, was harshly critiqued by her professor for an apartment design over retail space that included an outdoor rooftop entry court and stairs. The professor chose her design as an example of what not to do in Seattle because of the feared rain exposure. Knowing Seattleites are a hardier lot than understood by the errant professor, in the decades since, JA has applied the same outdoor circulation approach at several Seattle multifamily projects to great success.

    Bryant Heights, a whole-block community including condominiums, townhomes, and single-family houses in Seattle’s Bryant neighborhood, is a case study not only of the power of a stroll through the outdoors but in the concept of giving open space back both to residents and to the surrounding neighborhood. The site was once planned as part of Children’s Hospital’s satellite campus, but when the hospital consolidated all services to its Laurelhurst location, the site sat vacant.

    It didn’t take long for neighbors to reclaim the empty lot for an ad-hoc park. Recognizing the value of retaining this urban park-like setting, JA worked with the developer and city of Seattle arborists to retain significant trees and design a meandering pathway through the property that is open to the neighborhood. Design solutions like this are possible when architects and planners look beyond the minimum zoning requirements and instead look for opportunities and possibilities.

    The benefits of going outdoors for connection to nature and fresh air — a safer alternative to stale indoor air in our post-COVID world — has awakened a desire for outdoor retail-adjacent gathering spaces. In this way, JA has been a step ahead of its time. An example of this is Ballard Public, a mixed-use development built around a central courtyard facing the block interior but connected physically to the public sidewalk, presenting a courtyard and walkthrough space for residents and neighbors to enjoy and experience. This reflects an evolution of community space — from being designed just for the community who lives in the building to being for the community at-large. A decade later we are continuing to incorporate these welcoming pedestrian experiences and retail courtyards in projects such as Shared Roof, under construction in Phinney Ridge, and Alta Arlo, nearing completion in Columbia City.

    Looking beyond amenities such as rooftop decks and courtyards, the rise of work-from-home is another phenomenon infiltrating common spaces. Skipping the daily commute into the office affords welcome flexibility, but for many there remains a desire to connect with others and perform the ritual of “leaving” your home — shared co-working lounges offer a bridge between these realms allowing work to be hyper-local but still draw from the energy of others.

    JA-designed Alta Arlo in Columbia City, the mixed-use Mercer Island Lofts, and the Bay Bowl Apartments in Bremerton all include co-working lounges in their common area lobbies featuring a combination of communal tables and breakout pods for small group discussions or acoustic privacy. In the last two years, COVID has reinforced that our spaces must be flexible.

    Lastly, people are craving immersive, memorable places — the so-called “Instagram-able” moments that are unique and demonstrative of a particular place. Lobbies enhanced with distinctive installations, such as living green walls or the full-ceiling lighting piece JA designed for the recently completed Kirin Apartments in lower Queen Anne, are gaining momentum. The “Digital Sky” installation inside Kirin enlivens the lobby with 1,000 translucent flags fluttering above, glowing with remotely coordinated LEDs to mimic waves or clouds.

    Permanent installations like this reflect a new interactive direction that utilizes technology and innovation to create experiential places that have not been seen before and cannot be easily replicated; a rebuke of the placeless sameness of the development boom of the past decade.

    Open, welcoming, and flexible community spaces are essential elements of design in our region’s growing cities, where density drives a need for both respite and shared context. They offer places for rest, gathering, and entertainment as a benefit to the surrounding community — even, and especially for, people who do not live within the building. These spaces can be powerful sources of pause and reflection, creating moments for individuals to feel present and connected to others.

    Megan McKay is a partner at Johnston Architects.

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