Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Low Hanging Fruit isn't necessarily the best to pick.

A friend sent me a link to the NY Times book review of a new book by David Owen: Going Green: What Cities can Teach the Country. Owen's main point is that the huge metropolis of New York City is actually the greenest, most environmentally responsible place in the US, due in large part to its density, walkability and infrastructure.

Although I'm not sure I'm buying his entire argument (especially since I've only read the book review), I completely agree that to be truly green, cities must be densely populated rather than spread out across the horizon, and they must be correctly laid out to take advantage of urban density. This is where New York, and many other cities, beat Indianapolis hands down. There are few places in Indianapolis where one can walk or even bike to the grocery, dry cleaner, drugstore, doctor, bus stops, and other consumer needs. Within the Milesquare downtown, Broad Ripple and Fountain Square, where I live, are the only areas where that's possible in this city. In these few spots we have smart growth left over from the era before that name had a meaning. It's here in these innercity neighborhoods where we can and must proselytize our lifestyles. Developers can talk about New Urbanisim all they want, but West Clay will never be as smart as Fountain Square.

Going green is the best argument for innercity development that could be made. If we reopen the shopping nodes that once offered up goods and wares on neighborhood street corners, then we are being smart. When we put money into our urban areas we are also meeting all three of the greenies "R"s: reduce, reuse, recycle by filling up existing homes, not by building new ones on the city edges.

The review of Owen's book makes note of something that dovetails nicely with a message I've been preaching for the last few years. It says that Owen critizes those "who waste money on "inappropriate technology" such as solar panels while failing to beef up roof insulation, drive less, downsize or purchase more efficient HVAC systems." This is a mirror of how I feel about those who insist that to be "green" and not waste energy they must put new, Energy Star windows in their old house. When what they really need to do is insulate their roofs, recaulk their beautiful old windows, buy some insulated drapes which they close to keep out the sun in summer and open for solar gain in winter, and plant a tree in front of the window to create shade in the hot months.

Windows in old homes appear to be the low-hanging fruit which seems ripe for the picking. And it's true that those old windows may never be exactly as efficient as the hyped new ones. But if they are made to be as efficient as they can be, where they already exist, they are also preventing the need for manufacturing and shipping a new set of windows and for landfilling the old ones. Again: all three Rs.

And a P. Preservation.

I hope that as we environmentalists think about the future world we want to leave in good shape for our children's children, we also consider the architectural legacy we can leave for them. Pulling out the old windows from your Victorian or even your Mid-Century home means that it can no longer convey its history at a glance. It isn't the historic home anymore. And it may not have gained much in the way of conservation, either. It certainly doesn't gain you as much conserved energy as spraying cellulose insulation into your attic would have, or installing a new HVAC, or insulating your foundation.

So if you live in the city, and particularly if you live in an old home, be Smart. Be Green. Old house owners who live in a walkable community can be the greenest of all the citizens. We are triple R-ers!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Downtown gets Some Good Design

It's easy to complain about architecture I don't like (see the preceding post). There is a fair amount of uninteresting or downright awful architecture in Indianapolis. The good news is that there are also a few, mostly smaller-scale projects in the city that are both pleasing to look at and a good fit as infill projects within historic neighborhoods.

It's probably easier to reach a consensus about what's bad than about what's good, but these are three relatively recent (within the last 5 years or so) projects that hit on all cylinders in terms of scale, proportion, context and design. I know the design firm of only one of these projects but this isn't an advertisement so I'm not mentioning them nor seeking to find out who designed the other two.

The condo development at 10th and Park is my favorite newish residential building in the city. It's been finished for just a few years, within the last 3, I believe. I love this building. For once an Indianapolis architect/builder has taken a chance with materials other than red brick and clapboard. This is also a very modern design that manages to fit perfectly into the locally designated Chatham Arch Historic District. Matching the setback of the exisitng buildings on the street, the designer also managed a building of similar proportions and scale as those already existing in the district. It doesn't hurt that this building abuts another new development, but this one also plays well off of the turn-of-the-century four-squares to the west. The dark brown and tan brick sections are juxtaposed against luminous glazed block. The material changes make the exterior interesting and modern; a flat roof also adds to the modern feel. And the huge plate glass windows lend an interesting commercial feel to the facade, which fits nicely into this mixed- use neighborhood. This is good design that, unlike the 3 Mass building, for instance, pays attention to its neighborhood and manages to fit perfectly into a historic district.

Another new residential development I like is the shed-roof building in Holy Rosary District just west of Virginia Avenue. Until the terrible Villagio building went up in front of these condos this would have been a great place to live. The shed roof and quirky color choices on the balconies make this a very modern design and even the landscaping around the building is fun and modern. At the same time, the proportions, scale, set-back and that shed-roof (a common element found on additions and outbuildings in the historic buildings of the area) help the building fit perfectly within the historic neighborhood.

Finally, the newest residential development in the Fletcher Place area is also shaping up to be a winner. This group of buildings, facing both College and Fletcher Avenue, are the most traditional of the three developments I've talked about, but given their location, right in the middle of Fletcher Place, and the lack of other new buildings around them, the choice of a more traditional gabled design seems like a good one here. And the developers have made a nod to modern in their funky orange and chartreuse siding and irregular windows openings on the College Avenue facades, while taking a more traditional approach with dark blue clapboard and double-hung windows along Fletcher Avenue. The development looks fresh and new and not just because it is. But it also fits well within a historic district that has a collection of some of the finest old homes in the city.

Kudos to the developers of these three sites who found ways to be modern without overwhelming the historic architecture that they are joining. I hope to see more of this type approach in our city, which has allowed far too much suburban type development right downtown. We don't want the suburbs in Indianapolis. A city should be a showplace of URBAN development and architecture. We don't have much to show, but these three developments are a start.

Downtown Deserves Better Design

Downtown Indianapolis has a housing problem. I am not referring to the abandoned and foreclosed homes that blight many of our neighborhoods. This is a problem of new, prominent construction projects that are a visual blight in our built environment. I work as an architectural historian and am keenly aware that buildings have a huge and lasting impact on a city. I am also an aficionado of good modern design who thinks that new buildings should be stylish and well-designed avatars of the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, two of downtown’s recent, large-scale residential projects, the Villagio and 3 Mass condos, will represent our times to future historians as unattractive architectural mistakes completely out of context, scale and proportion with their neighborhoods. Massive buildings don’t dissipate like a bad smell over time. They can stink up a city for centuries, and these two are real stinkers.

If you haven’t seen the enormous nine-story box called the Villagio, you should. Drive south on Virginia Avenue as you pass it so that you get the full effect of the off-kilter concrete parking garage at the rear, as well. And if you think the front of the building is unattractive, take a gander at the rear. The developers snubbed their noses at three historic neighborhoods: Fletcher Place, Holy Rosary and Fountain Square with this manila-colored blank wall blocking the view of downtown.

A building that looks like a timeshare on the beach of Panama City, Florida, is inappropriate at this prominent gateway to the beautiful residential architecture of Fletcher Place and the Bohemian-tinged Fountain Square. This is not just an unattractive building, it is a monstrous clunky cube plunked awkwardly on a triangular tract of land. The square footprint defies the logic of the flatiron shape that our clever ancestors fit so perfectly onto city lots such as this one. Worst of all, the Villagio’s massiveness ensures that it’s here to stay. And the city is worse off for it.

Another residential project still under construction is also shaping up as a sad architectural blunder. The 3 Mass condos in the 300 block of Massachusetts Avenue are a good idea gone badly wrong. While the concept of filling a surface parking lot with a mixed-use condo/commercial unit is commendable, the actual building isn’t. From the corner of New York and Delaware, the disturbing juxtaposition of its hulking hugeness pushed up against the beautiful flatiron building in front of it conjures up the image of a whale about to swallow a tuna.

On Massachusetts Avenue, the heavy brick fa├žade overwhelms the comparatively small-scaled and elegant historic buildings that are its neighbors. 3 Mass is out of context in this charming historic district. An attractive modern design of appropriate scale and proportion could have worked well at this spot, but this isn’t attractive and it doesn’t work.

Thankfully there is reason to be hopeful that there won’t be other Villagios or 3 Masses in our future. The latter rushed into construction before Massachusetts Avenue was designated part of a local historic district, which would now require design review by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission. And in 2008, after Villagio and 3 Mass had been approved, the city instituted new Urban Design Guidelines. These new guidelines are intended to “set standards that will produce a more thoughtful design response to Regional Center development projects.” That thoughtful design response was sorely needed in these two projects.

Buildings are important in how we view ourselves as a people and a city. If Indianapolis is to become the “world class” city that we hear so much about we can only hope that these new guidelines will prevent such monumental mistakes in the future.

Note: a slightly softened version of this piece appeared in the September 5, 2009 IBJ as an Op-Ed.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Out the 9th floor window

I've spent this week on the 9th floor of what's now the Flagstar bank building at Penn and Washington streets, in downtown Indianapolis. Great view of the city out the windows of that old building. Some amazing old buildings that I normally see from the street up please me even more from the top down. I love all the terra cotta and carved limestone decorations at rooftop level on so many of the downtown buildings. Sweet details easily missed in passing. And it'sreally great to see the Soldiers and Sailors monument from its level.

What I didn't enjoy seeing were the two recently reskinned buildings just south of Washington Street, the Broadmoor Building and whatever they are calling the building now housing Scotty's Brewhouse.

I absolutely hate what they did to the quirky but interesting zipper building (a former Merchant's Drive-in Bank constructed in 1961) when they morphed it into the Broadmoor. Ick. Although I didn't think the Zipper was a particularly significant building, it was at least fun. Kind of like a big set of dentures smiling out at the street. Its new incarnation, with its bland marble walls and that ridiculous central clock, looks like it belongs on a fake street at Disneyland. It's a sort of poor man's contemporary-Americana style. The only good thing about the view down at that building is the occasional appearance of a man in full gaucho outfit emerging from the Fogo de Chao steakhouse inside it. Only when these employees come outside to take a smoke in their puffy shirts and knickers does the building provide something to smile about.

The other recently altered building, where Scotty's Brewhouse takes up the entire first floor, has also been reskinned. This building now has walls of windows with a sort of oil slick variation in color and a weird plexiglass appearance. Are those actually glass windows? They sure don't look like it. And the mullions and muntins dividing the panes are fat and clunky, eliminating any chance that it might have had at appearing appealingly "modern." This building, which was constructed in the early 20th century, was previously altered in the 1960s into an unremarkable streamlined concrete and glass structure. Although it was unremarkable before, now it has the appearance of a Schaumburg chain store.

Not surprisingly, I prefered the old building facades of both these buildings. I wish the Zipper's new owners would have expanded the building vertically, so that it would make better use of its prime downtown real estate, making our city smarter. This blah renovation is worse than the amusing original.

As for the brewhouse building. What was was late 1960s-early 70s generic is now 2009 generic.

Not all old buildings are significant pieces of architecture. Healthy cities change; old buildings get replaced or redone. Sometimes that's ok. It seems unlikely that either of these buildings would have been candidates for the National Register before they were altered. But, changes could have made them both much more attractive and modern. But these two buildings are now suburban mall-generic, sad juxtapositions to the stylishly detailed Italianate, Art Deco, and Chicago Style buildings that surround them.