Where’s the Podium?


Seth and I visited Hartford, CT, last week and stumbled upon this poster child of urban renewal.  Given all of our current urban design work where we advocate (daily) for the merits of a consistent street wall and building podium, this extreme counter-example is perversely fascinating.  Its development logic is clear: If the lower stories of an office building do not collect sufficient rent, and ground floor retail is un-leasable, why build any?  Start your building at the fifth floor!  Of course the danger of this thinking is that it is likely to result in an urban design arms race of sorts, where retail, then sidewalks will be located on the fifth floor, eventually creating a kind of ground-floor nether world of cars, garbage and electrical transformers.


Perspective Manipulation and the Cross-Section

Although I have driven by the entrance to the Crane Estate hundreds of times on the way to the beach, I had never visited the gardens of the house until yesterday afternoon.  The best discovery was the axial lawn (the Grand Alleé) that runs from the garden side of the house out to the horizon line of the Atlantic Ocean.  The landscape and its effect were designed by landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff in 1914-1915.

Rather than create an illusion of a flat lawn that, through tricks of perspective, disguises hidden outdoor rooms and water features like Versailles, the view from the Crane Estate accentuates the roller-coaster-like rolling hills that are captured between the space-defining spruce trees.

The first slope of lawn terminates at a balustrade that provides an overlook to a formal open ended court below.  This hidden-drop off also disguises the entrance drive that moves right-to-left through the space.  The second dip in the lawn, closer to the water, hides a gravel service road and the final lawn edge, as it meets the water, is just a few feet from a perilous drop through dense shrubs down to the beach. 

While probably considered a cliché by our landscape architecture friends, the Crane Estate seems like the perfect site for introductory design students (both architects and landscape architects) to analyze in order to understand the relationship between the cross-section and perceptual effects. 



HPP Graphics Mock-ups

We’ve been prototyping the exhibit graphics, maps and signage for the Harbor Park Pavilion at full-scale for the last couple of months. Shown here are a couple of photos of the Harbor Islands map that will be located on a sliding glass panel on one of the kiosks.



Negotiating between Monument and the Fabric


Several churches along Newbury Street, and on other dense infill sites in Boston, do an excellent job of negotiating between the street wall condition and the desire for the mass of the church to stand out from the urban fabric.  The best example may be Emmanuel Church at 15 Newbury Street.  The wings that bookend the composition deftly reconcile the sculptural mass of the church with the mass and scale of the abutting buildings.  It would be useful and important to document and diagram this and similar conditions around the City since the problem of fitting big and fat contemporary building types into existing cities is one of the central urban design problems of 21st century urban revitalization.


Radical Localism


Aldo Rossi: an unlikely influence on Utile’s practice approach

Architecture business strategy guru Paul Nakazawa once pointed out that the self-conscious localism of our practice distinguished Utile from other progressive firms.  Rather than seek work across the country by answering RFPs, we have made a point to become experts within specific communities such as Downtown Boston, South Boston, the near South End, Chelsea, Worcester, Lawrence, and New Bedford and only expand our area of focus when we can coordinate several projects and planning assignments in one area. 

The consequence is that we can gain a full understanding of the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the local building fabric, real estate market, regulatory context, and political culture. The knowledge gained by successive projects cumulates in a comprehensive research project about a particular city or urban district.  Over time, we think less like designers and more like cultural anthropologists.

Few models for this kind of practice exist.  Eric Owen Moss’ work in a small area of Culver City, California is one example.  The work of South Boston-based Urban Designer David Neilson (an occasional Utile collaborator) is another.   

This approach has been discounted in the recent rush for forward-thinking design firms to establish global practices.  But as Also Rossi commented in The Architecture of the City:

No one who has been seriously occupied with urban science has failed to note how the most important conclusions have always emerged from the work of scholars who devote themselves exclusively to one city: Paris, London, and Berlin are indissolubly linked for the scholar with the names of Poete, Rasmussen, and Hegemann.

After a close reading of Rossi’s book, first published in 1966, I realized that Rossi’s recommendations are more closely aligned with the preoccupations and practice of Utile than Rossi’s own subsequent projects, which aimed for a generalized language and approach that was equally applicable in Milan, Modena, Berlin, and New York’s Soho. Perhaps Rossi never had the opportunity to work as an architect in one locale long enough to work through the hypothesis of his book. Utile, on the other hand, has had a chance to apply a similar fine-grained approach in several communties; and as a result, we can see strategies emerging that have a wider relevance. Rossi’s book verifies certain intuitions and gives us confidence that our practice model can have applications outside of our exiting orbit of subject-cities.


Boston’s first BID?


By my assessment, Boston is the only major city in the US without a BID, or Business Improvement District. New York City has 64. Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC all have them. A brief history lesson shows you that Boston has tried on multiple occasions, but that the infamous Boston politic machine has had a big hand in the failed attempts.

That being said, Downtown Boston (see attached image for a map of the BID area) is giving it another run. The BID campaign has started and needs our support.

A BID is a public-private partnership in which property owners in a defined area (the BID district) pay an additional tax or fee to fund improvements within the district’s boundaries. The fee is initially used to provide basic services such as cleaning streets and sidewalks, emptying trash cans in a timely manner, and performing social outreach (particularly to homeless populations). Once basic advances are made (it usually takes 2 or 3 years to really power wash all the sidewalks and remove all the graffiti), the BID looks to capital improvements, beautification efforts like flower boxes, and large scale marketing efforts to help sell the area to businesses, residents and tourists alike. The services provided by BIDs are supplemental to those already provided by the City. Successful BIDs have great teamwork between the public and private entities.

Reasons for BIDs are many, but increased property value is high on the list, particularly for property owners who are being asked to pay out of pocket. Take the owner of a retail space; nicer streets and a destination district not only mean the value of the property stands to increase, but that they now operate in a place customers want to visit (a destination) and that is associated with shopping (the neighborhood has a brand).

The rules of play for BID’s are fairly straightforward. In Massachusetts, 60+% of property owners in the BID area must sign a petition in support of the BID. Those signatures must in turn represent 50+% of proposed revenue production within the BID. Once in place, the Boston BID will be good for 5 years, at which point the process starts over.

The actual formula for calculating the BID tax doesn’t appear to be set yet, but looking at other cities, think along the lines of either 1/3 of 1% of assessed property value or in the range of $0.15 – $0.20 per gross square foot. For example, if your building is worth $1.5M, you’ll be looking at an annual BID tax in the neighborhood of $1,500.

Up to this point, this all seems nice and good. A little bit of money from a lot of people goes a long way toward improving the public realm. I’ll take a page from Tim (Love’s) humor book and say that being against BIDs would be like being against pizza and rainbows. Who wouldn’t sign up for this? The return value is clear and the risk minimal.

This is where Massachusetts politics once again rears its ugly head, however. Unlike the other 49 states in the country, Massachusetts has included an “opt out” clause for its property owners. Put simply, if the BID legislation passes based on the signature and revenue requirements outlined above, the state is required to send a letter to all property owners in the BID area, giving them 30 days to opt out of paying the BID fee. Any reason counts; it could be that they don’t like BIDs, that they’ve had a rough financial year, or that they would prefer to reap the benefits of other peoples assessments. Should I pay or should I get a free ride?

The fact that Massachusetts is the 1 state in the country with an opt out clause makes the Downtown Boston BID campaign so important. Property owners need to buy into the cause, both literally and figuratively. I expect to see increased education on and campaigning around the BID through the winter, so keep your eyes and ears open and lend your support.

– Billy

Designing the Problem


An interest of mine (and several fellow Utilians) is the application of our design-oriented, problem-solving skills to defining and setting the rules of problems themselves. In part, I suspect this interest is what has led several of us from designing buildings to the challenges of designing urban codes, guidelines, policies, etc.

If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, you’ll find a number of essays dealing with these topics on Hugh Dubberly’s website. Although Dubberly’s focus is on service design and the relationships between products, services and experiences – much of his work is applicable to what we do. A couple of my recent favorites:

On using models, maps and diagrams in order to design complex systems:
Models of Models

Overview of Horst Rittel, part of the Design Methods Group at Berkeley in the 1960’s along with Christopher Alexander:
Why Horst W.J. Rittel Matters


– Ryan