This isn’t something we usually dabble in but it absolutely hit a nerve when I read this article on CHS Seattle last week. As someone who loves old buildings in Seattle (I live in one of the buildings used in the post) and aboard as well as modern European architecture particularly in The Netherlands, Germany and all of Scandinavia I get extremely frustrated when people insist that every build must have “modulation” to look good. Modulation does not necessarily equal good design and in this post John Feit does a great job of unpacking this issue, using old and new buildings from around Capitol Hill as examples.
Contrary to what you might hear, boxy buildings are okay. Even relatively big ones. What is not okay, however, is anti-box propaganda founded upon misrepresentation. There was a time, we are told, that there were no boxy buildings, that buildings were neither massive nor unarticulated, and that in order to have new buildings be good urban neighbors, they need to acknowledge this pre-box precedent. Living in a world of make believe, these Tinkerbells of design (to include architects, Design Review Boards, developers, and concerned citizens) spread their anti-box fairy dust, hoping to achieve the kinder, gentler architecture which existed before big, boxy (i.e. modern) buildings desecrated Neverland.
The fact is many (most?) of Capitol Hill’s best heritage buildings are boxes, with barely a change in massing or material, and elevations that remain remarkably the same from one corner to another. These best buildings are in fact, about as boxy as a box can be.
Despite ample, recent built examples to the contrary, the Tinkerbells continue to believe that the modulation of a building’s mass, both horizontally and vertically, and composing it of as many distinct materials and colors as possible, leads to good design. This has not worked, and it is definitely not precedent-based. What this modulation and material mayhem is, is design by check-list. As long as each box is checked, the final result seems to be irrelevant. What is lost in this paint-by-numbers approach is the detail — literally. For it was (and is) in the details of a window opening or in a material transition that human scale and texture of our heritage (and modern) buildings was achieved. It was (and is) those elements of a building that can be held in one’s hand, that can be understood at eye level while passing by, that add scale and ‘humanity’. Not design approaches that, due to their grand gestures, can only be comprehended from across the street or down the block. While it is true that color, material differentiation, and expressive massing can add interest to a building, it is no substitute for the richness added by detail and craft. In fact, I would be more than happy to see buildings such as the one below (designed by pb elemental, on 12th Ave and John) that have some nice detail and are volumetrically and materially expressive. But let’s stick to basics first before we venture into more adventurous design, and have a look at a range of Capitol Hill boxes.
Go here to read the entire post.