Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Decline of urban architecture?

Architecture and urbanism, and the idea that recently-built urban areas are lacking the charm and care in design of pre-war areas, has been getting a bit of a go round on the blog circuit lately. Andrew Spicer recounts a trip to the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant (located about a kilometre from my apartment, and incidentally the location of the Beach near-shootout a month or so ago), and bemoans that municipal infrastructure was more highly regarded before WWII than it is today. He notes that "it is natural when visiting a place like that to ask yourself why the whole city can't be as beautiful."

Andrew brings up cost as a possible major factor, and I agree that this is one major area. But his argument appears to be that, if you're going to have to design Municipal Building X, it shouldn't be that much more expensive to get a reasonably interesting and aesthetically-pleasing design.

Where I think we should instead be looking is at non-municipal infrastructure and architecture, in particular commercial buildings (retail and office). I find that architecture in these areas often is arguably a worse offender than in the municipal area. Much of that stems from cost-efficiency, in this case from standardization. Leaving behind the big-box vs. local retail debate for a moment, it's usually the path of least resistance for Wal-Mart or Loblaw's to come to a large site and plunk down Standard Retail Store Design D-2; the building is already designed, and all that needs to be done is a little tweaking here and there to fit the specific site. Then they'll surround it by a thousand-space parking lot, which again is a least-resistance path that doesn't require appealing municipal parking codes, justifying reduced parking standards, or design of an expensive parking garage. Likely due to public pressure, Tim Hortons introduced a special, uniquely designed building when they opened a store on the historic village main street of Ancaster, Ontario, but for the most part they'll pick one of a dozen or so site layouts out of their computer files (layouts that often are distinguishable by minor differences). This has the added effect of making every suburb look rather similar to the next (of course, it has the benefit to the retailers of increasing brand recognition).

People have complained for years that residential areas suffer from the same problem — that all suburban residential areas look the same. Coming down Pharmacy Avenue in western Scarborough the other day, through a typical post-war housing development, I noted that I might as well have been coming down West 5th Street in Hamilton, through another similar post-war development. (I half expected to see a white, yellow and blue HSR bus come down the road!) Here too you're looking at standardization, with a number of standard house plans drawn up for a subdivision, not too different from those in another subdivision being built by the same developer a few miles down the road. There's a little more difference, partly in an attempt to dispel the idea that all the houses look the same ("but this one's built with yellow brick!"), but also more possible because of the number of buildings involved (e.g. a 500-unit subdivision). However, over the entire subdivision (and the suburban region) the effect of the subtle changes is lost. There are streets heading down to the lake in the central Beach area where there'll be a block consisting of almost entirely the same duplex design repeated over and over — yet you don't get the feeling of sameness here because each street has a different architectural scale and character to it. (Likely each street has a different age and a different builder, if there was even a central builder at all.)

I guess where I'm going with this is somewhere along the lines of a Reid, who commented on David Sucher's discussion of the topic in his City Comforts blog:

My observation is that good urbanism can make up for bad architecture. At least, bad architecture seems more fixable than bad urbanism.

Putting it another way, give me an overly busy, cheaply-built, EFIS laden piece of crap properly sited (built up to the street) with wide sidewalks and street trees / parking vs. an architectural masterpiece with a massive parking-lot setback any day.

The Mississauga City Centre is an interesting example of this. It features the usual big-box suspects on Rathburn Road, but they're situated (at least the buildings themselves) in a more urban fashion, right up to the road right-of-way, and I find the buildings a little smaller and less imposing. However, they're clearly designed to the letter of the City Centre design guidelines, which state that buildings must project a solid frontage to the street, but probably doesn't specify building entrances (which end up being out back where the parking is).

And perhaps that's another point: there's too much microanalysis on ensuring that buildings and developments meet a plethora of building and design codes — as Andres Duany put it, that the parking spaces are the right dimensions, that they're marked with the right shade of yellow paint, that there's just enough illumination, that there's enough of them to meet parking by-law requirements — that designers aren't taking a step back and seeing how the big picture looks.

Or, maybe it all just comes down to money, profitability, and self-interest again, and I don't know how we get around that.


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