The Devil is in the Detail

February 7, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Almost there.

We have embraced a degree of urbanism in our towns and cities. The planning, architecture and development communities have slowly adopted concepts of good urban design. It’s part of an ideological battle that the New Urbanists have won. But, we aren’t all the way there yet. We’ve only finished half the equation.

To illustrate my point, we’ll need to first visit to Troy, New York.

I saw this site plan on Facebook (via Duncan Crary) about two proposed buildings in downtown Troy.

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The buildings have a variety of uses, address the street and reacquaint the public to a waterfront park. These are all excellent things. Troy-aficionado, author and urbanist Duncan Crary agrees;

“The urbanism of the buildings … appears to be good. Apartments, yes. Retail, yes. Plaza, sure. Buildings that come up to and respect the “build-to” line, yes! Two buildings rather than one, the more the merrier.”

The problem with Troy’s redevelopment is that the architecture falls flatIt’s a victim of Modernist-Copy/Paste-ism; the act of copying failed designs from our past and blindly pasting them into our present, all with relative ease of computer-aided design. Crary cleverly charts how the buildings resemble some bad apples of local modernist and brutalist architecture [click to enlarge photos].

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Fellow New Yorker and author, James Howard Kunstler had this to say;

“The windows look like Mondrian paintings of just geometrical re-arrangements of orthogonal shapes. They’re boring. They’re monotonous. They look mechanical and industrial. They give the message that we don’t really care. And they resemble institutional design, in particular: prison design. They literally look like the balconies of the classic prison cell blocks … ”

He’s right. They are ugly buildings. It begs the question: maybe we shouldn’t be so architecturally agnostic?

Let me switch gears quickly.

We don’t have any New Urbanism communities in my home state of Minnesota. There are small infill projects that qualify, but we have run-of-the-mill suburbia. So, when I have an opportunity to visit a New Urbanist community, it’s a rare treat. I visited two such places recently and the importance of detail – fine-grained detail – has really stuck with me.

I was in Georgetown, Grand Cayman last week and had the opportunity to visit Camana Bay. The development is about three years old, but the character, complexity and detail as you stroll through on foot is already stunning. It’s as if the place has existed for decades.

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While in Louisville, Kentucky and I had the pleasure of golf-carting through Norton Commons with the developer. And again, it was a genuine pleasure to see a new community sprout out of a field and in such a short time have the complexity of a turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb. Walking through both of these places, you get the feeling that the architecture will age gracefully.

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The critique I hear is that these are over-priced products in green fields with nostalgic architecture. I disagree. I’d say they are a diverse range of market-rate housing in walkable neighborhoods with time-tested, human scale architecture. But, even if this critique is valid, it ignores the strength of the detail of the universal pattern language. Those important little details that can make you forget your standing in what were mangroves three years prior.

Now, let’s bring it back and take let’s look at the streetscape leading up to the new Troy’s new development.

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I mean, just look at that! There is an astonishing level of architectural detail. What Troy has is absolutely authentic. It grew incrementally from the ground up into something genuine, resilient and in my humble opinion, it’s beautiful. This is resilient. This is the pattern language of the city. This is what Troy needs to replicate.  History has informed us of what works and it is not modernism and brutalism. So, why are we continuing to replicate them?  Troy has a very easy decision here.

Now, I asked the question earlier, Maybe we shouldn’t be so architecturally agnostic?

As frustrating as it might be, we should be agnostic for architectural style. I believe the devil is always in the detail, and if you don’t have detail, your building will meet a quick demolition. Herein lies the problem. The Troy’s proposal’s architecture lacks the detail and ornament required by its urban design. The math is relatively simple: If you’re going to create a place that requires people to walk, you better give them something worthwhile to walk past. This is the second part of the equation.

Almost there. The urbanism is good. Now, it just needs to add those important little details. Troy is blessed. It has this level of detail all around. All it needs to do is take note.

Tags: New Urbanism, pattern language, Placemaking