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Already Great: Successful Civic Architecture Begins at the Municipal Level
Source: Metropolis Magazine
5-15-2020 | News
By Matt Shaw
In February, a draft executive order from the White House surfaced, which threatened to mandate that all new federal buildings be designed in neoclassical or traditional regional styles. Titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” the order proposed a revision of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1962 “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” and a possible ban on Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles, which were specifically noted. While it’s unclear whether the order will ever be implemented, it predictably ruffled feathers in the architecture world and was denounced by a slew of professional organizations, including the National Organization of Minority Architects, the American Institute of Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the American Society of Landscape Architects.
But the most exciting by-product of the controversy wasn’t the advancement of a compelling argument against a mandated style: It was a realization that individual states and cities are already commissioning buildings that reflect their constituents’ expectations of pluralistic and progressive architecture—regardless of the Trump administration’s mood in Washington, D.C.
For proof, look to current practice and consider what is being built. Public buildings can tell a region’s story. A good analogy might be politics: Local elections are often less susceptible to the political theater of the national news cycle and ideological grandstanding at the federal level, which nonetheless captures our attention and imagination; and local results have a greater impact on our daily lives. Likewise, local architecture must chart a realistic, pragmatic course to serve the specific needs of its community.
So where can we discern government projects that represent their local communities and lead the march toward a more progressive architecture? Consider those designs that speak to prevailing ideals of our time, such as community, social justice, government transparency, sustainability, and cultural sensitivity.
Police community relations are one national issue with intensely local consequences. And justice-reform experts suggest that building a community-led policing strategy (one that addresses public safety concerns, advances social equity, and fosters trust and familiarity between officers and residents) should extend to the design of the station itself. To that end, Minneapolis-based firm Snow Kreilich designed the local Metro Transit Police Department to serve as an expression of the community-policing philosophy.
Completed in 2019, the project included a renovation of and an extension to an existing building, fronted by a parking lot and flanked by a main entrance. Rather than design a defensive, fortified station with clerestory windows, as is often the case, the architects opted for floor-to-ceiling glass and conceived an inviting main entrance on a street-facing elevation, now used by both the officers and the public.
“How do you make a building that is safe and secure, but doesn’t feel like a bunker?” Matt Kreilich, a founder of Snow Kreilich, asked rhetorically. Then he added: “The vast majority of interactions at this building are positive, so how do we make it a pleasant experience?” Rather than bulletproof glass, a receptionist in a welcoming lobby greets visitors, with layers of security beyond. Establishing a common entrance and incorporating a view of the lively social scene, including neighborhood breweries, music venues, and public transit, helped the station assert a message of trust through its building connections.
That approach has precedent. The search for open and inviting municipal architecture propelled the great Brutalist government buildings of the 1960s and ’70s, most notably Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center in Boston, where a mostly glass facade signifies openness and transparency. While the metaphor of transparency does not necessarily carry over into government, such features can offer clearer wayfinding and more accessible navigation.
Another inclusive design is that of the East County Office & Archives in Santee, California, where architecture firm Miller Hull devised what it calls “the public street.” It is basically a main corridor—covered by a folded roof and daylit from above by a long clerestory—that was built to provide a friendly link between the entrance and services inside. Like storefronts on a familiar main street, the county clerk, tax assessor, and county archives are all arranged along the corridor for intuitive navigation. “Transparency and clarity are attributes critical to wayfinding, but also represent the ideals of an accessible government in service to its community,” says Ben Dalton, a principal at Miller Hull.