Aside from the obvious material differences revealed in the June 22nd article, Architecture is Too Expensive, I thought it noteworthy how the spatial proportions and contextual relationships contrasted one another in the Walgreens and Mission Santa Barbara “arcade” examples. A diagrammatic cross section through both conditions reveals differing priorities toward daylight access, views, and threshold.
Let’s look at the Walgreens store first. The bench is located over 15 ft. past the roof overhang – a point at which daylight noticeably decreases. Though the setback enables shoppers to conveniently pass by without tripping over the legs of those seated, sitters are left in the dark without much to admire. When resting at the bench one is confronted by cars – aligned at the same height as a driver seated in their vehicle. There is no spatial sense of separation aside from the curb and occasional appearance of the column / bollard grid, thus the “arcade” is as much a dull attempt at pedestrian-izing a parking lot as it is store front circulation. It straightforwardly states, “get me in and get me out” by funneling patrons from the expansive parking lot along its hard edges toward the barely distinguishable front door. The passage through this sort of threshold (parking – sidewalk – store wall) is as easily forgotten as the search for an open parking stall.
The horizontal proportions of Walgreen’s funnel (~16’ wide by ~10’ tall) are practically flipped at the Mission Santa Barbara. The less deep and more vertical space allows daylight to stream through the arcade to the exterior wall where a variety of benches are shaded, but not left in the dark. The height of the space offers a sense of lightness with expansive skyward views; however, it does so while maintaining a sense of safety and separation from the parking area. Level changes and a variety of architectural and vegetative layers create a stage-like setting that oscillates between foreground and background – containment and permeability. Notions of threshold extend beyond that of a curb and front door to include exterior sidewalk, planter, stairs, balustrade, and archway.
Such a layering offers sensorial choices – varied, but clear – to the action of entering/exiting and does so within defensible space – simultaneously offering both prospect of possibilities (ranging from “stopping to smell the flowers” to racing for the front door) and refuge from undesirable interaction (e.g. facing windshields head-on). The proportion of the arcade works together with the entire system of aforementioned elements to achieve this experiential richness. Had the height been halved, the crescendo effect of climbing the stairs would have been lost, not to mention the expansive view. Conversely, had Walgreens raised the height of the ceiling, the spatial experience might be less claustrophobic, but not necessarily more desirable given its immediate adjacencies. Climatic conditions aside, the Mission succeeds because of the attention put toward threshold and reminds us that enjoyable space doesn’t occur from materiality, proportion, or context alone. Rather, it requires a deep understanding of these interrelationships.
On July 1, the Walker Art Center will be screening Citizen Architect, a film about Auburn University’s Rural Studio and its creator, the late Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee. It’s a glimpse into a program that has brought architecture to a group of people who typically aren’t served by our profession – the poorest of the poor in rural Alabama. For architects, or those about to enter the profession, Sambo’s vision and ambition can be an inspiration to us all. It certainly has been for us at Locus, both in our teaching experiences as well as in our business.
The course we led in Biloxi, MS three years ago closely resembles the work of the Rural Studio. It had all the ingredients of the messy, “get-your-hands-dirty” kind of architecture that combines a highly creative learning environment with meaningful results. Working in the shadows of multi-billion dollar casinos, our students designed and built a pavilion for folks with little means, many of whom had lost nearly everything in Katrina.
Our work at Locus has also been somewhat non-typical for many architects. Recently, when we looked back over our firm’s history, we realized over 80% of our clients spent less than $4,000 in fees with us. While this doesn’t represent the poorest of the poor in our country, it does suggest a wider range of clients than what the public perceives as the norm for those purchasing architectural design services. We take pride in the work we have done for clients of all shapes and sizes and we continue to look for ways to bring the benefits of architectural design – inspiring spaces and outstanding functionality, among others – to as many people as possible.
Paul Neseth, Locus principal and co-founder, will be a panelist at the post-screening discussion, where he will talk about the Rural Studio’s impact on Locus, as well as the newly formed RAW – Real Architecture Workshop.
Waiting for a prescription, I escaped the overstuffed aisles of my neighborhood pharmacy only to end up outside on an overly sturdy and uncomfortable park bench, confronted with asphalt. With unidentifiable stains on the beige plastic slats, I’m guessing most people pass on the implied invitation to sit here. Small metal angles at the ends deter even urban skateboarders from enjoying it. Useful to nobody, this seat is an ill-conceived sculpture, ugly in all deployments.
A vast overhang of EIFS looms over the bench. EIFS, pronounced EE-fiss, stands for Exterior Insulation Finishing System, one of many inexpensive manufactured siding materials textured to look like something else, in this case stucco (see also: vinyl siding, aluminum siding, Hardie siding, cultured stone, manufactured stone, asphalt shingles, etc.). Sitting there, I could imagine this awful space being labeled “ARCADE” on some architect’s set of drawings, which is a little bit like serving Budweiser as an “APERITIF”.
How many times have I heard a variation of one of the following phrases? 1. Architects are too expensive. 2. Architects tend to overdesign and spend money frivolously. 3. I can’t afford an architect. 4. I don’t think I need an architect. While I don’t deny these statements may be true at times, I hesitate to condemn the profession of medicine simply because health care is costly.
We believe there is value to design, yet we admit it is not easily quantified in a market influenced by realtors, appraisers, home inspectors, and bankers who have understandably tried to rationalize the monetary value of property. I can’t imagine how one could analytically measure experience in dollars; yet I think most would agree taking a coffee in Piazza San Marco, Venice is more enjoyable than an outdoor corral adjacent to the parking lot of a neighborhood Starbucks.
Consider the photo above with the one here.
An arcade worthy of the name
I could spend a week sitting in this space, considering the sunlight, the collage of colors, attention to detail and proportion, the curve of the arches, and the visual weight of materials. They all contribute to giving my visual senses a feast that can be consumed slowly or enjoyed while napping on an ancient chunk of timber.
Is it more expensive to build? Yes. Over designed? Frivolous? The arcade at Mission Santa Barbara has been embraced as worth saving for over 150 years, despite its mud-brick construction in an active seismic zone. Noone would lament the loss of my neighborhood Walgreen’s, built cheaply with ample understanding of market forces, yet this structure might stand for centuries.
Did the Greeks protest the expenditure of state funds for the Acropolis of Athens? Romans for the Coliseum? Parisians for the Louvre? No doubt they did, the same way I bristle at the sales tax for the construction of the new (beautiful!) Twins Stadium. Are we better off for them? Ticket sales and summer travel itineraries suggest many people think so. All four sites would not be what they are without talented designers, breathtaking architecture. That’s unquestionable value.
From small scales, say a bench, to that at the scale of a city, design affects our experiences. If our culture expects richness in those experiences, we should expect commensurate investment in thoughtful public and personal spaces. The returns may or may not be financial, but what is the worth of satisfaction?