Details in the Urban Façade
I’ve written about street texture before, but a recent trip to Brooklyn provided an excellent example of the importance of getting that texture just right.
State Street, Brooklyn, New York
I took Sunday morning stroll in the Boerum Hill neighborhood and happened upon a block of State Street that had one side lined with brownstones on the historic register and the other with recently constructed townhomes. In general, the new homes complement the historic buildings well. They are of a similar height, they have nice front stoops, and use the same material palette. You can tell the architect of the new townhomes was trying hard to balance the style of old brownstones with a modern aesthetic based on clean lines and an honesty about the materials. For instance, the new townhomes don’t have lintels above the windows because their brick façades aren’t load-bearing like the historic façades. The brick is just a veneer and is detailed accordingly.
A close-up look at the two sets of façades
All of this honesty and modernity creates stark façades when compared to their historic neighbors. The historic homes aren’t even as richly detailed as some townhomes of the same period, but simple elements like a decorative cornice, lintels, divided lites in the windows, and a rusticated base add human-scale texture that creates a charm and warmth modern structures of a similar type haven’t been able to match. Modern architecture is in many ways about stripping away the artifice that makes these historic buildings so successful. Ornament isn’t useless, it helps us feel comfortable in an urban environment that could easily feel monolithic and cold. Such ornament can be eschewed in buildings like skyscrapers, where the primary vantage point for viewing the building is often miles away. But when a building is up close and serves as a residence, modern architecture isn’t as successful as its traditional counterpart.
Eugene’s EmX service in 2062?
Click here for a full-sized PDF of the map.
Eugene’s bus rapid transit system, EmX, is at a fork in the road. In one direction, a new west Eugene extension of the system is killed by vocal opponents. In the other, the extension is built. I believe that if the first path is chosen, bus rapid transit in Eugene will see little to no future expansion. Lane Transit District (LTD) will be approaching any future expansion from a weak position, where any neighborhood or business groups can organize and defeat it because they have seen how it can be done.
LTD’s current vision for EmX map. Not very attractive.
My map is a glimpse 50 years into the future if the west Eugene extension is built. Down this path, future expansion efforts are successful and residents begin to see the benefits of a strong network of frequent bus service. I think LTD has a problem explaining their vision for EmX, and how it will eventually serve all major corridors in the area. Residents now don’t see how the west Eugene extension fits into the vision of an expansive network. My map gives Eugene and Springfield residents that vision into the future in an attractive, exciting (for a map) way.
Notes on the map
All of the new routes on my map came from LTD’s future EmX corridor map above. I simplified a few routes and didn’t include the “perimeter” route that would follow the beltline highway. I just couldn’t figure how BRT on that highway route would work and connect with other lines. Also, LTD’s map just shows corridors, so in some cases it was clear what would constitute a route, but in other cases (like Coburg/Harlow/Gateway) I had to guess. I placed stations on the new routes at significant intersections at roughly the same distance apart as the existing EmX stations.
Detail of downtown Eugene and the UO
Downtown Eugene was the trickiest part of the map due to the concentration of routes. For the most part, the stations on all of the routes make sense relative to each other, though I drastically simplified the area around Eugene Station by creating one large dot.
My hope is that this map won’t be taken as a literal set-in-stone plan for the future of EmX, but a possible scenario for a vast, connected network of frequent transit service in 50 years. While I probably won’t be in Eugene to ride it, I hope something like this gets built! To learn more about the efforts to support EmX visit West EmX Yes!
Thanks to Transit Maps for the inspiration and instruction that made my map possible!
Compare the Squares: New Portland and Old Siena
The square on the left was built in 1984 in the era of cars, Reagan, and Styx, and the square on the left was built roughly 700 years before that, in the era of knights, the Crusades, and the plague. What do Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square and Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy have in common? Both are recognized as excellent public spaces; in fact the Project for Public Spaces ranked these squares in the top five in the world. How did each become great people places, given their different beginnings? Are there universal principles that govern good public spaces?
Before drawing parallels between the two squares, it’s important to acknowledge the differences. As the quick-and-dirty figure ground diagram shows below, the cities themselves are quite different. Portland is a traditional American grid city, with 200 foot squares checkering downtown. Siena is typical of all very old cities in Europe built before the car, with winding, narrow streets and a dense urban fabric. Pioneer Courthouse square looks like it was formed from an omission from the grid, while Piazza del Campo looks like it was carved out of the dense fabric.
Figure ground diagram of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square and Siena’s Piazza del Campo
Whenever comparing anything in the urban United States with urban Europe, the big difference is the car. While the figure ground diagram shows the squares at roughly the same size, Pioneer Courthouse Square’s edge is dominated streets and traffic. Siena’s edge is given over to pedestrians, so the square comes to the buildings and the buildings are more incorporated into the façade of the square. Portland, to their credit, has tried to fix this problem in their newest downtown square Director Park, where the paving treatment of the streets around the edge match the square.
The single most important ingredient to any successful public square is people, and both of these squares have them in spades. As the renowned urbanist William H. Whyte said:
What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.
In Siena, the Piazza del Campo was and is a public market, the center for trading and commerce in the city. One of the reasons Pioneer Courthouse Square exists is because TriMet, the transit agency, insisted. The square has a transit information center and is almost entirely ringed with light rail and bus lines and stops. No matter what else is happening around it, Pioneer Courthouse Square will always remain lively as a sort of open-air Grand Central Station for Portland commuters.
Great squares typically have anchors, buildings or institutions that serve as a focal point. Siena’s gorgeous city hall and bell tower serve that role for the Piazza del Campo, and the Pioneer Courthouse serves that role in Portland. The Pioneer Courthouse is one of the oldest existing federal buildings in the West and actively serves as a courthouse for the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Siena’s city hall has the advantage of presence, however. All of the buildings around the square are roughly the same height or shorter, so the city hall and it’s tall bell tower stand out more than the pint-size courthouse amongst all of the taller downtown buildings. In fact, Siena’s bell tower was the tallest building in Italy when built.
The Palio di Siena
Both Siena and Portland’s squares benefit from their perceived centrality. If you were to ask a citizen of Siena where the “center of town” was, they would likely point you to the Piazza del Campo. The same would happen in Portland and Pioneer Courthouse Square, even though the square is nowhere near the actual geographic center of the city. There’s something important about a city’s center of perceptual gravity, and the public space that occupies that space will be more successful than one toward the periphery. Downtowns and town centers are places people want to be because that’s where everyone and everything else is. Both squares take advantage of this by hosting high-profile city events that cement their center-of-gravity status. Pioneer Courthouse Square seems to be in almost continuous use by various organizations and city functions, and twice a year the Piazza del Campo plays host to the famous Palio di Siena, a horse race around the edge of the square (right).
Siena (above) and Portland (below).
Photos via the Project for Public Spaces.
Simple design moves also enliven the squares. Both squares are located on slightly sloped sites. In Siena, the entire square itself is sloped toward city hall, giving the square directionality and making the ground more comfortable to sit on. Portland’s square uses a series of steps to give people a place to sit, enjoy lunch from a nearby food cart, and watch other people on the square. Both squares use brick paving, a material that is of a human scale. Can you imagine if the Piazza del Campo was paved in asphalt? A fine textured surface signals that people are welcome, not cars.
From these examples, it is clear that the ingredients to a successful public space are simple and timeless. People, institutional anchors, location, and person-sensitve design, when done right can come together to create a world-class space.