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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Architecture of Convenience - An Architectural Critique

Convenience ranks high in the "culture" of  retail chains. They first invaded cities with their suburban auto oriented design but adapted their approach recently. In response to a new trend towards urbanity one can find multi-story Walmarts without a single surface parking space or a McDonalds tucked into a mixed used building. However, sometimes trying hard to force the square peg of convenience into the round hole of urbanism leads to bizarre results. I wrote the below architectural critique  as regular contributor of the Baltimore Business Journal for their architectural column. It deals with a nuisance that rose recently under my nose near my office.

With chip bags already littering the sidewalks, it is no surprise that another convenience store selling almost nothing that anybody should ever eat or drink (except the token fruit in the basket near the check-out) creates little excitement in the surrounding community. Since this isn't a food or health column but one about urban design and architecture, I will write about the wrapper in which this convenience store is cloaked. 

Like tourists wearing sombreros in Mexico or lederhosen in Bavaria, retail buildings often masquerade in a garb inspired by local clichés - Mission Style, Colonial, or anything in between. What constitutes a mere laughable nuisance in suburban shopping centers, however, becomes architectural assault when located in an urban historic district.

At first, seeing the barren, un-landscaped, bumpy asphalt surface parking lot being dug up by heavy equipment in late winter instilled hope in this corner of Baltimore's Westside, an area largely unaccustomed to investment and construction. 
A substantial urban structure is needed at this important
urban corner
Old unearthed rowhouse cellars and foundations, briefly exposed when freed of the building rubble that had filled them for decades, gave a glimpse of a better past.  Truck after truck with compactable fill, neatly levelling everything off, quickly dashed expectations for a veritable structure since anything truly urban would need substantial foundations. Instead, the strip footing and tiny trenches for wastewater lines foreshadowed quickly-erected spindly steel columns, which confirmed that whatever was being erected here couldn't be of any substance.

Disappointment turned into disbelief once all the sticks and beams were connected with astounding speed, revealing the shape of a giant shoe-box with the lid hovering one story above it. That extra story mystified everybody around and became the talk at Trinacria's Delicatessen, an authentic, ethnic foodstore located nearby. No stairs led up to the lofty height even though steel decking seemed to indicate a real second floor. In quick succession, wall studs and window framing formed walls and horizontal punch-out openings on two levels, creating the overall appearance that a five year old had decorated a sideways milk carton to look like a house. 
What will happen on the second floor?

Many steel structures look promising when strutting their bones and only get ruined by ill-designed skin. This one, though, had no chance for a reverse salvation, as no skin could save its ridiculously disproportionate shape and openings. Not long enough to be comfortably horizontal, it was also  too tall for its shallow depth and too wide to be reasonably vertical. Horizontal (modern) or vertical (historic) were both options on display in the surroundings. This bastard was of neither parent.

Instead, what was seen rising here was a single-story convenience store that had been artificially inseminated with colonial seeds in order to grow to the heights of its rowhouse neighbors across the street; seeds that were duds, with blind windows and without the fruit of access, an entirely unsuccessful attempt at being contextual.
Even with a lot of fantasy it is hard to see this box
as contextual with the historic rownhouse type buildings
it faces (see background)

With the bones based on pretense, the skin could not provide authenticity either, no matter how hard it tried with pilasters, cornices and a "water table" on the ground level. Each component being, of course, as fake as it could be: photo thin brick veneer made from cement boards, pilasters shaped by flimsy studs, glue-on foam cornices; each material a mockery of its hundred year-old rowhouse neighbors across the street. As stunning as the audacity of whoever had designed this was the speed at which this abomination took its contorted shape. Indeed, fast food found an amazing equivalence in fast architecture here, the only honesty in this new building.
Like a sideways milk carton with windows cut out by a five
 year old

This suburban tourist now disfigures the gateway into historic Seton Hill, crashing the veritable black tie gathering of the Pratt Library, the Basilica of The Assumption, the Congress Hotel and the Mother Seton Chapel. Worst of all, this party crasher will strut its Lederhosen for some time to come, mocking its neighbors with an endless trail of empty chip bags and junk food advertising.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

proof-read by Helki Philipsen and Ben Groff
all photos copyright ArchPlan Inc.


Let the cosmetics begin


External Links:




Alas, the finished product, blind upper windows, unevenly
spaced pilasters, fake brick, styrofoam cornice, tiny
signs and all


Friday, July 11, 2014

Pride and Placemaking

If the Fourth of July were a test about place-making, American communities would pass with flying colors, so to speak.


When it comes to fireworks and gathering to watch them while grilling meat and having a drink, no suburb is too suburban and no town too small to have a space that serves as common ground for this display of local and national pride. Those who are lucky enough to have a Main Street in their midst can even
Allen Pond park, Bowie MD
throw in a real Independence Day parade as a plus.


No disruptive technology – not radio, television, the internet, or online social networks – has changed that, and neither did the Great Recession.  Americans love their fireworks and grilled burgers and hotdogs in towns big and small all across this great nation; they find places to celebrate the nation’s birth in metropolitan and rural towns alike, incorporated or not.


This is not a small feat since it takes considerable space to separate the spectators from the fireworks technicians, have good sight lines, and still have space for vendors and toilets, for positioning the fire trucks and ambulances – not to mention finding the volunteers to manage and sponsors to fund it all.

Even in what may well be one of the most confusing suburban incorporated towns in Maryland, Bowie, a town of non-contiguous subdivisions without a center, there is just the space for the Independence Day celebration: Allen Pond, a park-cum-lake that for lack of any other centricity functions as the common ground.

Independence Day at Laurel Lakes
In nearby Laurel, another Maryland town, Laurel Lakes is the party place and this town puts together a fine all-American parade on its Main Street. In suburban Columbia, a "planned community,” the lake was designed to be part of a town center and gathering space.  The fireworks always take place there along with many other community events.


Baltimore City created the ideal party grounds with the Inner Harbor, where tens of thousands ring the shorelines to watch the fireworks set off from barges. But even this large central event doesn’t sap the energy from surrounding Baltimore County which has no incorporated towns but boasts no less than thirteen fireworks and nine parades. In Catonsville, for example, an inner ring streetcar suburb, a much anticipated parade takes place on Frederick Road while the fireworks are set off on the grounds of the high school athletic fields, not an atypical arrangement where school grounds double as community space and park.
Catonsville, MD Fourth of July Parade (photo:
Baltimore Sun)

San Diego fires their rockets from barges in San Diego Bay, the event aptly dubbed the “Big Bay Boom.” It became famous when in 2012 the entire arsenal went off in about 15 seconds. As in Baltimore, the party area is spread out over a good length along the shore.  In Denver, the central Civic Center Park near the State Capitol is a great community gathering place. In the more hardscrabble Arvada near Denver, the somewhat remote Apex sports complex provides the necessary space to celebrate, the fireworks visible from the entire town. Blacksburg, Virginia, a place with more money in streetscaping than actual downtown businesses, a town park-cum-school near South Main Street provides space for stately fireworks which people watch scattered near band stages, picnic tables, and meadows.
Art, place and fireworks at the National Harbor development
near DC

So, what have the perpetual Fourth of July celebration and these examples have to do with urban design and "place making"?

One observation is that place making has a non physical component: programming and mindset. That these parties have not lost their luster is a non-physical expression of community and the desire to find common ground, be with others for showing pride in the community and the nation in an inclusive and diverse manner that even integrates immigrants. In that it is different from sport as a place maker,  where pride in the team usually includes hate against the other side.


The other conclusion is physical. With a convincing program and mindset even the most sprawling places manage to identify a place in their midst that can be recognized as some kind of “commons" and large enough to act as a meeting ground for a large part of the community is a hopeful sign. If those spaces have good spatial qualities they can serve as common ground throughout the year, whether as recreational parks, sports fields, fairgrounds, market space – all uses that make communities more than an agglomeration of houses and give "place making" meaning.

Maybe the most remarkable fact about the nation's urban, suburban, and rural Independence Day celebrations is their resilience against the erosion that seems to have befallen social cohesion for so long. Just think of the 
Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a great civic space for celebration
the turnout at elections which tumbles from one record low to another, and the famous "Bowling Alone" conclusions from social scientists who attested America’s steady social decline. 

We may be on the rebound: Parallel to the exploding virtual world, actual gathering spaces of every type and scale are thriving: coffee houses, brew pubs, farmers markets, art fests and street parties of many kinds.
Denver's pride takes place in an almost classical civic space
They, just like the Fourth of July parties, parades and fireworks are testimony to the fact, that as humans we need to get together in real time, in a real space, face to face and call out “oooh” and “ahhh” in a group that we know shares our own excitement, and at least some of our values.

Pride can best unfold in a physical space we can be proud of. Community cohesion, social capital, and good spaces go hand in hand; Independence Day proves it year after year.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

edited by Ben Groff

all pictures Creative Commons unless otherwise noted

Monday, July 7, 2014

Three Libraries - Seattle, Stuttgart and San Diego

The book is dead - long live the library

The more obituaries about the book get published, the bigger new libraries get. Will they, like Dinosaurs, collapse under their enormous weight  and go extinct due to their insatiable feeding needs or are these big bold libraries an example of adaptation, proof that the book itself may not be dead and the physical place for knowledge is thriving? The American Library Association certainly thinks the latter is true. To be sure to address future needs, ALA engaged in a "Libraries Transforming Communities" initiative with these goals:
LTC will help libraries become more reflective of and connected to their communities and achieve a domino effect of positive results, including stronger relationships with local civic agencies, non-profits, funders and corporations, and greater community investment in civility, collaboration, education, health and well-being. ALA also hopes to shift public discourse away from past themes about libraries in crisis and toward talk of libraries as agents of positive community change.
As a user of a splendid historic library, the Enoch Pratt in Baltimore, one of the oldest free and public systems in the US, I picked three grand new libraries in the second tier cities of Seattle, Stuttgart and San Diego to investigate how architects interpret the future of the library. Each responded to the library challenge with a grand new building, but each in a very different way. I visited all three; Seattle a few years back, Stuttgart and San Diego just recently. While the new Seattle library became famous the world over, the ones in Stuttgart and San Diego have mostly captured local attention. Looking at these three libraries should tell us something about libraries, books, knowledge organization, the cities that built them, their to approach a public project, and what the library of the future may look like.
Taken from Seattle Public Library Strategic Plan

Let's do a tour of those three manifestations of a modern library and find out  if these big, expensive cathedrals of books and knowledge are simply anachronisms fueled by misguided local pride, inflated by vain architects, or if those libraries are accurate expressions of a time that has been described as the age of knowledge.

(In spite of the urgency of resilience and energy I have omitted these aspects from the review because I could not access the necessary information except that the Seattle and San Diego Libraries are both rated LEED silver, based on German energy codes and the fact that the library uses geo-thermal energy, this would also apply for the Stuttgart library even if it apparently wasn't submitted to LEED). 

The reinvented library: OMA in Seattle

The Seattle library the "oldest" of the three opened in 2004 with a cost of $169.2 million for 412,250 square feet. It sits downtown and occupies an entire city block. Designed by Rem Koolhaas' OMA, it was heralded worldwide as a trailblazer for innovation in library design. Indeed, there never was any library like it before on the entire planet. Koolhaas, like many visionaries, an enfant terrible and provocateur with a reach far beyond his architectural home territory, has a strong camp of disciples and believers and an equally strong field of adversaries who think Koolhaas is "all hat and no cattle". Muschamp, then architecture critic of the New York Times, is a believer. He wrote:
The folded rhombus glass facade of the Seattle
central library can appear overbearing at times even
while it makes the real mass of the building
 look considerably smaller than it is
(photos: ArchPlan Inc.)
In more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review.
No small praise. Muschamp describes the building exterior as "bling-bling" but is very positive about the project. (I let Muschamp do much of the description because he certainly does a better job at it than I ever could):
 "a big rock candy mountain of a building, twinkling in the middle of office buildings. He goes on to say that the library's exterior is an angular composition of folded planes. Walls are of glass, supported by a diagonal grid of light blue metal that covers almost the entire surface. At first glance, the irregular angles, folds and shapes seem arbitrary. The building's structure is hard to discern, and the overall grid pattern looks like a perverse exaggeration of the abstract geometries used by mid-20th-century architects for decorative relief." 
Later he explains: 
It is pointless, with this project, to separate formal and social organization. How people use a space is no less a matter of form than the most abstract visual composition. As such, a building program can be subject to aesthetic articulation. This is the meaning of the Central Library. It thinks its way beyond our dualistic tendency to polarize social and aesthetic values. 
One of the mixing levels with artistic floor  
 Koolhaas himself had explained to the Seattle Times that he thought the usual division of books into the standard fields like "humanities, art" etc was "sad" and continued:
the point was to create a kind of single, undivided sequence, because we felt that one of the points of a library was that there are accidents and that you find yourself in areas where you didn’t expect to be and where you kind of look at books that are not necessarily the books that you’re aiming for.
Key to understanding OMA's library design is the departure from standard floors for various departments in favor of specialized platforms, mixing areas and a continuous book spiral.  OMA's own project descriptions explain the approach this way:
While flexibility in the library is conventionally translated into the creation of generic floors without a segregation of programs, the Seattle Central Library cultivates a far more refined approach by organizing itself into spatial compartments, each dedicated to, and equipped for, specific duties. Tailored flexibility remains possible within each compartment without the threat of one section hindering the others. This was achieved by the "combing" and consolidation of the library's programs and media, thereafter identifying programmatic clusters-five of stability, and four of instability.Each platform is thus created as one cluster that is architecturally defined and equipped for maximum, dedicated performance. Because each platform is designed for a unique purpose, their size, flexibility, circulation, palette, structure, and MEP vary. The spaces in between the platforms function as trading floors where librarians inform and stimulate and where the interface between the different platforms is organized i.e. spaces for work, interaction, and play.
Diagram of main functional areas (section)
But it's not all just about the library organization, it is also about it as a public space. Koolhaas pays attention to the public realm especially on the inside. For example, the main entrance leads the visitor into a tall lobby which Muschamp describes this way:
Compared to the Central Library's soaring atrium lobby, the entrance pyramid at the Louvre looks like a gadget from the Sharper Image catalog. 
One would imagine that the Seattle library system would have used the success of this building as the base for its 2011 strategic plan which focuses on passion, access, community empowerment and partnerships; but that plan hardly mentions architecture as a tool to achieve these goals. They explain this with a "shift from buildings to services" when OMA had just shown that a library building can be all about service.

The pure form and Wesentlichkeit: Yi in Stuttgart

The Stuttgart Library by the South Korean Architect Eun Young Yi was with $107 million (2011) and an area of 345,000 square feet only slightly cheaper and smaller than the one in Seattle. But this architect took a very different approach. His project isn't developed from the program out but from the intellectual archetype of form inwards. Taking clues from ancient models such as the Pantheon and reportedly from an idea sketch of 18th century architect Boullee for an empty tomb for Isaac Newton (or was it from his design for a Parisian Library?), it is an exercise in rigor, austerity and one might say rigidity.
The Stuttgart book tower, a monument to order
(photo: ArchPlan Inc.)
Yi is trying to translate architectural essence (on his German website he calls it "Wesentlichkeit") from history into modernity. His temple for books includes an almost sacred interior atrium that is entirely empty, illuminated from an oculus above and decorated by a small water feature in the floor. The entire opus seems to be a shrine not only devoted to books but also to purity and abstraction of the cube, the square and the rectangle - a place for introspection. (The whole building is a cube, the interior atrium is a cube, windows inside into the atrium and outside on all four facades are nothing but squares or rectangles subdivided into squares). On the first level the book makes an appearance only as an object in  trays mounted to conveyor belts, a utility which forms the main attraction in the shallow function zone enveloping the naked core volume on all fours sides. If one selects the stairs in search of books, a five story climb around the atrium is in order. Via an elevator, hidden in the rear portion of the building, one may enter one of the top five floors which are devoted to the traditional department sections of libraries, each level widening a second atrium towards the skylight on the top. This upper atrium, stacked on top of the lower one, reveals
the inner cube, sparse and empty, a place of and
for introspection (photo: ArchPlan Inc.)
the top of the oculus and clearly is the actual library. Things look a bit more joyous here, there is some daylight and, thanks to the receding floors, a tad less angularity. But the wrapping function zone which made perfect sense around the spiritual void below, is now a confusing zone separating the gridded facade only occasionally visible far beyond the books in their orderly rows.  The nickname picked by a critical public comes readily to mind: "Book prison". Even when reaching the observation deck with its glorious views across Stuttgart, the term cannot easily be forgotten thanks to the relentless use of heavy steel grates that cover every horizontal and vertical surface in sight. The happiest space probably is a small cafe with full glass windows on both sides, allowing views of either the town or the book atrium.
In Yi's own words (written in German since he maintains  offices in Cologne and in Seoul and taught architecture in Aachen), he describes the library as a center of a modern society, a monolith that can be unpeeled from the inside like an onion in which the lower empty cube is a "negative monolith, an absolute geometrical and ordered white space for introspection" and the upper flared cube for opening to the world (knowledge).
the upper atrium with a department per floor is only
slightly less austere than the lower one (photo ArchPlan)
Ein monolithischer Bau, der einen neuen Mittelpunkt einer modernen Gesellschaft signalisiert, besteht zwar nicht aus einem Einzelstein, aber er gibt ein monolithisches Bild als solches wieder - bestehend aus Beton und mattem Glasbaustein. In dieser harten, äußeren Hülle verbirgt sich eine transparente, leichte Glashülle. So entschält sich das Gebäude räumlich nach innen wie eine Zwiebel. Und im tiefsten Inneren begegnet man einem negativen Monolithen – ein absolut geometrischer, geordneter, weißer Raum als vollkommener Kubus, der durch ein zentrales Oberlicht erhellt wird. Also ein Raum für die innere Einkehr.
Yi's cube sits in an entirely new quarter of Stuttgart, still under construction and rising on what used to be a train yard of the nearby central station. Even though this "Europa quarter" isn't complete, from what one can see to date,  it too is sadly sterile and suburban, so there is little hope that the surroundings will mitigate the rigor of Yi's book austerity cube any time soon. Meanwhile, the nighttime look, when the cube is glowing blue through all its little squares, gives a hint of what one yearns for when seeing the cube during the day.


Exuberance: Quigley in San Diego

Finally, the recently completed San Diego library, an entirely different animal than either of the previous examples. Not the result of a design competition but the design of one citizen architect, Rob Wellington Quigley, FAIA, who devoted more than a decade of his life to making the new library happen in his hometown (others spent about 30 years on this task).  With $184.9 million, and 492,495 square feet
the library is a jumble of shapes and materials that
even the large dome can't contain
(photo: ArchPlan)
(75,000 of which are used by a public highschool) the library is right up there with Seattle's library but unlike OMA who set out to reinvent the library, Quigley wanted to create an object of civic pride and went a long way to design what people wanted. As a result, according to the local newspaper, the library 
is compared 
"to a community center, it’s more like a village. There’s an outdoor square, bordered by a cafe and a 350-seat auditorium with concert hall-worthy acoustics.Patrons are encouraged to check out a small office for intensive studying — or lease the upstairs terrace for a rally (500 adults can stand here) or wedding reception (there’s room for 200 diners).
Poke around and you’ll find a sculpture garden, an art gallery, a shop with museum-quality items. Admire the views from the ninth floor, and don’t forget to inspect the dome, which is really eight overlapping metallic sails. The architect, Rob Wellington Quigley, wanted it to look unfinished.
“Always in a state of becoming,” Hubbard said, “just as we are as human beings.”
While the Stuttgart design is an example of extreme restraint in terms of the vocabulary of form, San Diego's library is the opposite. From whatever angle one looks, it boasts not only many materials but also a cacophony of shapes that even the gigantic dome (according to the local paper its diameter is 8 feet larger
The reading room overlooking Coronada Bridge
(Photo: ArchPlan)

than the nation's Capitol Dome) cannot unify. There are exterior stairs without railings mounted to the glass facade between upper floors that do nothing but express an idea of connection; there is a Romeo and Juliette balcony projecting into the reading hall; there are program areas for every taste including those quoted above but also quirky ones like a library board room on the roof level, a library of rare books next to it and bathrooms for the visitors on the viewing terrace. The most telling space, it too of almost sacred character, is the large reading room under the dome, four floors high. But unlike the interior cube of the Stuttgart library this space isn't meant for introspection through withdrawal. By contrast, this space bombards the user with impressions, particularly the fantastic views towards the Coronado Bridge and parts of downtown all laced with the busy interior view of the lattice cupola. As if this weren't enough, there is artistically treated junkyard furniture lined up along the panorama panes, inviting you to lounge and stare. Free WiFi throughout allows research or work (or rather dull explanations of the architect speaking on one's smart phone) but keybord clicks get strangely amplified in the large hard space. This forces everybody to a silent awe in a visually noisy space. 

Three libraries, three cultures and three ways to worship books and knowledge
The atrium of the Pratt Library, Baltimore

What does this comparison of three similarly ambitious libraries in midsize cities tell us? Foremost, I think, that the book isn't dead and certainly not the library as a place of knowledge and exchange for adults, students or children. The three solutions also tell us that there isn't only one way to present books, even though OMA's book spiral would want to you to believe that. The totally different approaches also tell us the difference between a design competition process versus one that includes the community in the programming and design. As well thought out as Seattle and as consistent as Yi's design, the early inclusion of the regular citizens in San Diego resulted  in a building which may draw the scorn of architectural purists, but offers delight to users. The joyfulness which is lacking in Yi's austerity exercise in the Suebian capital 
The OMA library in Seattle



 is offered in buckets in Southern California's surfer capital library of everything. 

Although it is hard to predict the future, I would guess that even Suebians, who are known for their practical frugality, will eventually tire of the monoculture of the cube in cube, while Californians will probably never tire of their fun palace as long as they can afford its upkeep.   OMA's fishnet stocking in the rainy IT world of Seattle is a more difficult case. The endless rhomboids of its folded facade may have struck many as worn even when constructed. Filling a full city block, the shape and texture, entirely defined by its inside workings, was never all that successful as an urban design contribution to Seattle's downtown. But ten years after opening, the surprising and multi-faceted inside still has all the tension and innovation of the first day and will likely continue to inspire users for a long time to come - just as my historic hometown library, Baltimore's Pratt, which is still a gem at age 80.
Boulee, Bibilotheque Nationale


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

updated for minor edits: 7/7/14

External Links:

2009 review of the Seattle Library by ArchDaily
Prince Ramus (OMA project architect) explains Seattle library design in a TED talk
NYT Architectural Review Seattle Library (Muschamp)

Stuttgart: Project Info from LibraryBuildingsInfo
Dwell: 15 unique libraries
Yi, atrium in Stuttgart

Posi+tive Magazine: Stuttgart Library
Stuttgarter Zeitung Architekturkritik

UT San Diego review of the new library
San Diego Library fact sheet
ULI Urban Land Magazine about the SD Library

The largest libraries in the US (by volumes of books)
State of the American Libraries 2014 Report (PDF)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Branding the Skyline - More than Shapes and Letters?

Skylines

US cities pride themselves in their skylines. Tall buildings are part of the branding, and the shapes of the tops of buildings play a particular role. The skyline is one of the American contributions to urban design. After the Great War, "skyline" became an internationally recognized term and cities around the world began to shape their own cities under its dictum.
Selected simplified city skylines  (not properly scaled, though)
Before that, height was traditionally reserved for places of worship with some notable exceptions like the towers of San Gimignano in Italy's Tuscany region. The French had their Eiffel Tower and many places erected TV towers with revolving restaurants, but none of those exceptions amounted to something akin to a skyline.
San Gimignano, Italy
(photo from the travelingnomad blog)

So now that even third rate cities boast skyscrapers and an assortment of tops, mostly the modernist flat-top, sometimes a post-modern one like Philip Johnson's ATT building in New York, what can set cities apart? What is the next big thing in branding? Would skylines be enhanced by signs, for example?

I hadn't put much thought into that until the National Public Relations Manager of Maryland's State Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) contacted me and asked if I could contribute to a blog article he planned to write about building signs. "My premise is that those prominent signs around the waterfront tell the story of the economic makeup of the region and how it evolves"  he stated in an e-mail to me. When I indicated a desire to examine urban signs in a broader context, including not only economic development but also sign regulations and the technological options we have today to brand buildings and cities, our communication stalled a bit.  The DBED blog isn't a place for essays.  I will try to develop some of these thoughts here.
San Diego skyline seen from the air
(photo: ArchPlan Inc.)

Branding is a commercial term that can only be applied loosely to something societal as a city. Cities are more than products, the whole notion of branding a city, while popular, should remain suspect. Western society has become quite comfortable with the idea that everything is a product in a market, so that quality of life, lifestyle, value expression and branding all overlap and can have synergistic relations (to avoid the terms symbiotic or parasitic or the question who, in the case of a city, is the host organism and who the parasite). First the Chrysler Building and later the Apple Cube illustrate quite well how intertwined the image of the city has become with commercial products and how the role of host and parasite may have flipped over time. (First Chrysler benefits from having an icon in Manhattan, then Manhattan benefits from having an iconic building. The highrise debate has long been decided for New York but is in full swing in contemporary London. I won't try to sort this out here, but instead investigate what it takes to differentiate a place and what role the skyline and signage may play. But I can't resist to insert a quote from Will Self of the  British Guardian newspaper and to use one of his photo captions as the title for that next chapter:
These buildings are childlike in their aspiration to impose their crude shapes on the city as a form of advertising. Their investors wish us to be drawn to their giant handbags not because they’re particularly well-designed or capacious, but simply because they’re identifiable.
The Baltimore landmark sign at the Inner Harbor
‘Icons-cum-logos

One of the current trends in branding gets us back to the literal meaning of the term. Putting a brand on something meant originally the iron mark on cattle but quickly morphed to the manufacturers label on his product. What, then, would be a more obvious way to brand a building than a label, i.e. a sign?

Companies for a long time have stuck their names on top of their factories or office headquarters. Baltimore's huge Domino Sugar sign has been up so long and has survived so many companies with other names that it is now a symbol signifying more "Baltimore" than a sugar brand. 

The new trend with signs on buildings is that they show up on buildings that do not belong to the brand that is advertised. Sometimes the company whose sign graces the top of a building doesn’t have any more to do with the building than leasing of a few floors, and sometimes, as in the case of sports arenas, the relationship is entirely arbitrary.
Baltimore M&T football stadium

From Minneapolis to Seattle and from New York to Chicago, big signs are popping up on tall buildings, whether on roof tops or on facades, and with them debates about aesthetics. Long banned by sign regulations and zoning codes in favor of a clean and uncluttered look, the neon or otherwise illuminated sign is making a comeback and cities are beginning to relax their codes. Is that a good thing?
This sign is a tricky kind of branding. A former Montgomery
Ward distribution warehouse repurposed as an office park
(Photo: Ziger Snead Architects)

One after the other the tall Baltimore buildings lining up along the infamous 95 corridor have received their label: From the now auctioned-off First Mariner Bank in the east to the Montgomery Park in the West. There is the blue, purple, or red Bromo Seltzer Tower, the new Lupin sign, and the Association for the Blind, Marriott Hotel and Legg Mason signs in Harbor East. The planned Exelon sign which will mark its territory on the yet unbuilt HarborPoint site was the subject of much debate in the Baltimore Design Review Panel. After a long period of restraint in signage, even residential properties are now getting into the act. The Silo Point condominiums advertise themselves with big letters high up and others can't be far behind.

But are a bunch of illuminated letters near the top of a building really the most effective way of making a statement? Isn't this as static as sending a postcard in the age of Instagram? Or as old fashioned as dragging a banner behind a plane above the beach? After all, an iconic product like an i-Mac, a BMW or in the case of architecture, a Gehry, Hadid or Libeskind wouldn't need letters spelling out the product or a name. A small emblem would be enough. So are the letters only a sign for the lack of architecture? While this conclusion may apply to some Baltimore structures, it certainly doesn't apply to the iconic shape of Silo Point.
Trump Tower in Chicago with its new sign that was blasted
by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as ugly.

The Trump letters on Donald Trump's tower in Chicago lack imagination just like the Legg Mason sign in Baltimore's Harbor East. They exhibit neither the flair of the Domino Sugar sign nor the flourish of the Coca-Cola sign at Piccadilly Circus in London, nor the flexibility of the Samsung sign boards at Times Square. The most remarkable thing about these signs may well be that they exist at all after decades of cleansing through sign regulations and zoning.

The incredible jungle of signs and brands that make up the garishness and crudeness of the American highway strip ("Learning from Las Vegas") taught designers and regulators the value of sparsity. A pristine skyline – made memorable by the iconic shape of individual structures forming a composition – doesn't need stickers and labels. That, at least, was the thinking until now. Should the floodgates be opened? Learning from Las Vegas thirty floors up? Is it a blessing that Baltimore's Lupin, Legg Mason and Silo Point signs are simple white letters and don’t blink or include animations?
Legg Mason Tower at Harbor East, Baltimore

With LED lighting the options are endless.  One can use the full façade for creating branding, use room lighting and windows like pixels on a screen, or use opaque walls as laser projection screens. Holograms can even create 3D effects on walls and turn a flat wall into a virtual sculpture. We entered a whole new era of signage with new, potentially very creative, applications far beyond placing a few letters on top of buildings. (Somebody recently played Ping Pong on a building in Philadelphia).  For an extreme example of what can be projected on a façade click here

What can architecture and urban design teach us?

What would urban design advise about signage or the use of entire building surfaces for messaging? As in building design it may be useful to distinguish between landmark and "fabric buildings", i.e. those that are supposed to stand out and those that are meant to blend in. One might argue that skyline buildings and high rises are all supposed to be landmarks and thus wind up very quickly at the arguments against high rises per se, arguing that skyscrapers  are a somehow inappropriate means of standing out. These arguments have been made in DC, Paris, Berlin or London, all cities with a successful history of many background buildings and just a few tall landmarks. (The Capitol, St. Paul, the Arc de Triomphe).

By contrast, cities like New York, Chicago or lately Frankfurt and London have seen a succession of standout landmarks which eventually got crowded out by taller, newer and sometimes fancier architecture which made the utility of the landmark/fabric division of labor obsolete because what was one day a landmark became a background and context building the next. Most of Baltimore's high rises are pretty bland and create little in terms of a memorable skyline, so maybe they do benefit from a sprucing up with signs. The few iconic landmarks we have, like the Nations Bank building with its golden top and the Bromo Seltzer Tower, work at night with lighting instead of letters and signs, an effective and tasteful solution, even though the color changes that the Bromo Tower is subjected to are based on football games. 

From an architectural design perspective, signs should be part of architecture and not simply applied. A Chicago tour guide told the local TV station when it reported about the ruckus about the big Trump sign on his tower on the loop that "the sign was inappropriate because the building doesn't need it, putting the sign on it is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa".  

The winking Natty Boh logo on what
used to be a brewery
While the parallel to the Mona Lisa may not be obvious, the statement is pretty good nevertheless. It identifies the sign as a potential intruder to the design language of the building that never intended the sign to be installed. Applying this lesson, the most iconic buildings should probably be most careful with signs.

By contrast, Libeskind's Tangent I-Park Tower in Seoul (Hyundai) turns the whole building into a symbol, a logical extension of architecture as a tool of marketing.  This approach, though, has the obvious disadvantage that there is little flexibility for future users.  The Natty Boh logo on top of the rather bland original brewery tower seems to be a nod in the right direction even without the pun (the icon winks): a sign that has meaning and enhances the building instead of distracting from it.

The upshot? While the simple, often white letters on the upper edges of tall buildings are somewhat boring, they are also not intrusive and distract little from architecture or skyline. Anything more colorful, creative and potentially animated needs to be carefully reviewed for consistency with the building architecture, its impact on the surroundings and its effects during day and night. Design guidelines for signs, much loved by design reviewers and zoning officials, are of little help. A complex, effective, and tasteful lighting, graphic sign, or branding system cannot be ordained by guideline. It can only be the result of good design which considers all variables of a specific location. Such creatively crafted sign and lighting proposals can easily be simulated and placed into their context with today's rendering software and should be subjected to a thorough review by the community and the review bodies on a case-by-case basis.
  1 Park Tower, Seoul (Libeskind). The whole building
as a sign and icon


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

edited by Ben Groff

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why a Manual is Needed for Visiting Poor Neighborhoods


Newcomers,  visitors, students, and tourists are warned about unsafe urban areas in many cities. Sometimes invisible and sometimes physical lines separate areas that are safe to travel, walk and visit from those to avoid. While these lines are confusing to the newbie, they become deeply ingrained into the mental landscape of permanent residents and the city itself. Bus lines that traverse the no-go areas, are avoided by anybody than the residents of the areas themselves. Express Bus lines shuttle suburbanites into downtown by hop-skipping the "bad" areas.  Grocery stores don't invest there, banks don't have branches there, it is even hard to get a taxi to go there. In some cities even the police is said to have no-go areas. Planning or housing departments often tried to eliminate the zones of concentrated poverty themselves through demolition. 
Occupied rowhouses near the Hunanim headquarters
in East Baltimore (photo: ArchPlan)



To talk about no-go zones is like stepping on landmines or touching the third rail. It involves many taboos. Cities aren't supposed to be like that and so people like to pretend they aren't. Writing about them, it is very easy to slip or be misunderstood. But it is worth a try because the "no-go zones" are the tip of many problems that bedevil American citiesThe ugly history that lead to the poverty and disinvestment which lies underneath is long and well described by Antero Pietila's "Not in my Neighborhood"; astute research of a Finnish immigrant. This article is about how odd it is to have metro areas with several million residents, where most have never stepped into even one of these areas. Our cities are so segregated and compartmentalized that most of the better-off population would need instructions should they ever decide to leave their comfort zone and venture into what commonly, and with a certain accuracy is called "the ghetto". 
The small alley streets of East Baltimore are now mostly
vacant with a few occupied units left. The area is
under redevelopment as part of the EBDI masterplan
(photo: ArchPlan Archive)

People can name their favorite restaurants in cities around the world and feel comfortable among all kinds of cultures,  spend their vacations among strangers without fear, but they would never set foot into the poorest sections of their own cities. For many the least known territories of the globe may lie right at our doorsteps. For a long time even famous research departments like Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health knew more about some far African countries than about McElderry Park or Middle East, communities within view of their offices. (This has changed now and the alarming public health deficits in poor urban communities have become a focus of organizations like Johns Hopkins and the Colorado Health Foundation).
Bad urban planning like this highway to nowhere in
West Baltimore destroyed thousands of homes
and with it the social fabric of entire communities.
This area has been recently reconstructed
(ArchPlan Archive)



The idea of an instruction manual to visit poor neighborhoods is no hyperbole. It happened recently when the Congress of New Urbanism met in Buffalo for their annual conference. An organized bicycle "tour de neglect" through disinvested East Buffalo to see a struggling part of the city was a program option. According to the Atlantic Cities, a person which was not affiliated to the event, distributed fliers spelling out that the poor neighborhood was "not a zoo" and that "real people lived there" that called the area home and that participants "should neither demonize nor romanticize what they see". All good advice, but it made me wonder what it says about the state of our cities.

The comments to the Atlantic Cities story about the bike tour were as I illuminating as the article itself. The online section lit up immediately with dozens of readers criticizing the callous insensitivity of "elitist bicycle-riding planners" who had the audacity to venture into a place that is a no-go zone for most. Derision was heaped upon the new urbanist adventurers and the semi French title of the tour. Shouldn't the tour organizers have been commended for enabling conventioneers to check out first-hand how a disinvested community really looks? Much has been written about  racial and economic segregation, urban poverty, ghettos, crime, food deserts and third world health conditions. But not much is said about how poor neighborhoods have become white spots in the mental geography of the rest of the population and even less about real life there.
Former live work arrangement having
fallen into a state of abandonment
(East Baltimore. ArchPlan Archive)

The lack of first hand experience is replaced by virtual reality. Even though most suburbanites would not even drive through Sandtown Winchester, Harlem Park or most of East Baltimore, a colorful kaleidoscope of images populates the collective psyche: yellow police tape strung across trash strewn streets, balloons and teddy bears that mark the spots where the young were slain, rows of boarded up houses, kids that roam the streets at all hours of the day,  young men hanging out on the street corners unable to find a job, liquor stores with bullet proof Plexiglas partitions, weeds and broken alleys; these images flicker across the nation's TV screens night after night, what else is there to know? Why do a bike tour?

James Bond, the one that runs the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore, can tell the stories of the youth his organization teaches to fix boats and sail them. How so many participants have never been on the Chesapeake before, have never left their neighborhoods, let alone Baltimore or Maryland. While this neatly feeds into the stereotypes most have cultivated about disadvantaged communities, it shows that the isolation goes both ways. Some rich enclaves such as the heart of Guilford in Baltimore may, indeed and by design, be as isolated from the rest of the city as Harlem Park. However, most residents of the poor communities are far more likely to have been in better-off neighborhoods than residents of rich communities to have been in poor ones.   
Demolition is a frequent weapon against neglect but
does not always yield good long term outcomes
(photo: ArchPlan Archive)


The bicycle has been used as a tool for breaking down these geographic islands in Baltimore as well. Not by studious new urbanists but by participants of the annual Tour dem Parks and the monthly Bike Party, both events that routinely design routes through posh and poor neighborhoods alike. Initially I had been skeptical about how a bunch of bicycle enthusiasts would be received in the poor communities, but each time people waived, neighborhood kids joined the rides and popped wheelies and some bystanders even gave the thumbs-up sign. No animosity at all.  

When my office designed the rehabilitation of a dozen or so dilapidated rowhouses for a resident of Sandtown who was the general contractor together with his sons, I found myself in this community quite frequently, the one which the late Jim Rouse(the developer of Columbia, MD) had selected for a turn-around on the basis "if we can turn Sandtown, one of the poorest in America,  we can turn any community." (He couldn't).  When I emerged from my parked car there one day, work-folders in hand, I found myself surrounded by young man who eyed me suspiciously.  I felt the need to invoke the name of my client who, also known as the "prophet noble", seemed to have special power. (He led a small Moorish congregation in the area). That gave me initial passage and when the tall and lean prophet himself walked along the street with me, he hollered "this is my architect" and everybody went back to doing whatever they had been doing before, and from the little I understood, it wasn't dealing drugs. (Am I romanticising?).
The "Amazing Port Street" project, a church led community
garden in the McElderry Park area of Baltimore
(Photo:ArchPlan Archive)

Churches (official lingo: the "faith based community") play a big role in disinvested neighborhoods. The big stately churches as vestiges of better times with their congregation drawing from across the larger metro area. This causes intermittent parking problems for those who still live in the community. The endless small "storefront churches"  serving a diverse local constituency, like the one of the Moorish congregation. Pastors, reverends, apostles and prophets play a leading role in community meetings, starting with the opening prayer, often continuing with political guidance. But leadership comes from many places within the community: there was the retired worker who lived upstairs in a community center and took care of the building in which some of the meetings were held and that also accommodated a day care center. There was the elementary school teacher who could aspire adults as effectively as her young students. The woman who started a farmers market on a commuter parking lot sitting empty on Saturdays. The transportation planner who worked for the city, the program administrator of a community development corporation and many others who would have blended into almost any community but had chosen to live in this disinvested and poverty stricken area. I note this to emphasize that even poor neighborhoods are still economically and educationally diverse, although, racially they are not. In all of Sandtown Winchester there was for some time only one white resident, the late Allan Tibbles who had moved to Sandtown to serve and set an example that one can go where "no-go" was the rule, even if one is white and wheelchair bound.
Churches play a vital role in disinvested
areas (Baker Street, West Baltimore)

There is also physical diversity. What the TV news don't  show are the well kept houses that sprinkle throughout areas of neglect, the community gardens tended by collaboratives, the local stores that occasionally exist and the children that read, paint and sing in the neighborhood schools.

There is a fabric of community in even the most dire areas. This is why those simplistic solutions of shrinkage as they are batted around among planners and suburbanites can't work, not in Detroit, not in Buffalo and not in Baltimore.  Ideas like declaring entire zones uninhabitable, fencing them off or turning them into urban farms or parks. Even the suggestions of levelling entire blocks to get rid of vacant houses don't work without uprooting dozens of families, destroying the remaining "social capital" and erasing the heritage and history embedded in each of the houses. 

Successful revitalization in cities like Boston, Philadelphia and in come-back neighborhoods in Baltimore show that slowly refilling communities through investment is a more sustainable and successful approach than than erasing what is left or subtracting further from it.
The typical rowhouse stoops are alive
and well in any neighborhood. Sandtown.
(photo: ArchPlan Archive)

It's not that anybody  has a patent answer for how American cities can be made so that they don't have ghettos and pervasive disinvestment anymore. Unlike what the commenters in the Atlantic City suggested, this isn't a Buffalo problem, not one of climate and not one of elitism either. The pervasive disinvestment and poverty of inner city communities is the result of a multitude of issues. Overarching all these may be America's silent resolve of giving up on a social compact in which most members of society participate in growth, productivity and innovation, a compact that had existed at least as an ideal for many decades even while it specifically excluded a good number of "minorities".

Urban form, the main tenet of New Urbanists and a thematic topic of this blog, has little to do with it. However,  the fact that the poor have been left behind in exactly those quarters that the CNU likes to re-create in suburbia does not lack irony. The physical desirability of many of those disinvested neighborhoods with their parks and squares, their brownstone homes and granite churches is also the reason, why these areas can come back and when they do may open a new problem, the one of gentrification. Mostly an issue in cities with hot markets, not yet really an issue in Baltimore. But booming cities like Washington still have their East Buffalos, their no-go zones and their concentrations of poverty, because gentrification displaced many of the poor instead of integrating them in the improved community or lifting them out of poverty altogether. 
A West Baltimore shoe repair shop is a community
asset (ArchPlan Archive)


Internationally there are plenty of cities in rich countries that have a homeless problem, poor sections of town, and the chronically unemployed. But they don't have those defined areas of pervasive abandonment with thousands of boarded buildings, lack of services and general dysfunction as in, what is known as the big American city ghetto, (ok, some of the Parisian banlieues are becoming no-go areas in their own right just like some East London neighborhoods were in the late seventies). We can go to almost any city in Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, New Zealand or Japan and find them to have lots more social cohesion and being generally safe throughout. Of course, we can also go to Lagos,  Calcutta or São Paulo and find ghettos that may be worse than ours. As Americans we should decide which places we rather emulate. 

As an aside, most of the noted countries don't know "New Urbanism" as a movement. Maybe they don't need it because they treated what they have with more care and didn't need to recreate it in new places.
Community organized small farmers market in
West Baltimore "Community Harvest"
(photo: ArchPlan Archive)


As we declare the world to be a global village, feel at home in many foreign places, and communicate around the globe in split seconds, the fierce segregation in so many of our US cities is a stark contrast flying in the face of the professed openness and connectivity. Segregation, entrenched poverty, racism and the related world-record incarceration rates hold the US back both at home and in international competitiveness. They are an albatross around our neck and not only disenfranchise way too many of our own citizens, but make them strangers in their cities. To overcome this will take more than a few bike-rides, but local cultural "exchange visits" seem to be a good start. Maybe we need neighborhood cultural embassies who enable the dialogue with city hall. Urban design can create "commons", public spaces for all. True public spaces and art and culture might be the best common denominator we can create.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for an additional link (New York) and for language and punctuation 6/23/14

Related blog articles on Community Architect:
Preservation as Economic Development
Is Innovation Bringing Back the Public Space?
Artists, the Pawns in Gentrification?
Building from Strength: Johns Hopkins and the Middle East
What it Retakes to Rebuild a Neighborhood- Example Druid Heights
Anchor Institutions Taking on Ailing Neighborhoods

External Links related to the topic:

Bicycle riding in poor neighborhoods with New Urbanists
the 25 most racially segregated metro areas in the US (2013)
US Cities where the poor are most segregated from everyone else (CityLab). Baltimore/Towson ranks #10
Brookings: Economic Segregation between Cities and Suburbs
Chicago: A Tale of two Cities
25 most dangerous neighborhoods in the US
Poverty and Progress in New York