Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Design for maintenance:or what to do when award-winning architecture makes for a suboptimal user experience

Photo: WAMU/Tayla Burney.

The Commission on Fine Arts and the American Institute of Architects have criticized WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, for painting the "ceiling" walls of the transit station in Union Station ("Why Painting the Union Station Metro Cheapens an Architectural Masterpiece," Washington City Paper; "Metro’s Effort To Create A Brighter Station Is Met With ‘Brutal’ Opposition," WAMU/NPR).

The internal structure of the underground sections of the WMATA Metrorail system was designed so that each part--the station vault and platform area--was designed as one element of an integrated whole constructed from unpainted, patterned concrete.

The design, by the architect Harry Weese, is heralded. But the material used, concrete, doesn't age well, and especially from the standpoint of the perception of safety within the station, t makes it hard to properly light the stations (because the concrete "absorbs" much of the light).

I've written ("Transit, stations and placemaking: Stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods") about the Weese design before, focusing more on how it is designed to put distance between riders and the system and this distance shapes WMATA's attitude toward placemaking:
The key issue is that architecturally, the WMATA system evinces all the problems I excoriate in writing about starchitecture.

For the most part, starchitecture are more like art and sculpturein that the design of the site(s) and building(s) purposely disconnects and holds at arms length the community and the built environment that lies beyond the boundaries of the site.

-- Docomo webpage on the architectural design of the WMATA system
-- the section of this WMATA case study on architecture covers the issues too, from Metro Cincinnati

Yes, Harry Weese designed the station interiors to be very specific and with a design consistent across the system, with vaulted tunnels, etc. ("Harry Weese, 83, Designer Of Metro System in Washington," obituary, Washington Post).  But the stations were never designed to connect to and enhance neighborhoods or the community outside of the station.  Inside, despite the vaulting they are dark, the concrete looks dingy, etc.

Still, this self-referential internally-focused architectural attitude shapes WMATA's placemaking culture to this day.  In short, there isn't much of a placemaking culture, a recognition that transit stops and stations have a role to play in quality of life.
But the design is also problematic from the standpoint of what I call"design for maintenance."

Not unlike Dan Kiley's famous park space in Tampa, which was overdesigned to a point beyond the capability in expertise and funding typical for a local government agency ("The Life and Death of a Masterpiece: What went wrong with a 1988 park by the late Dan Kiley, and what can we learn from its imminent demolition?), the stations are dark, often dank, and dingy," Landscape Architecture, April 2004).

Not to mention, the vaulting ended up costing more money to build because a much greater volume needed to be excavated to enable the effect.

Note that the WCP article disagrees with my take.  From the article:
On a more visceral level, what can beat the sensation of descending into the cool, dim Metro on a blazing 100-degree day? The white tiles of the New York subway try to distract us from the knowledge of being underground, but D.C.’s Metro wants us to embrace that and enjoy it as a subterranean place apart. There is a reason that Instagram and Flickr are full of moody black-and-white photos of Metro stations: People love them as they are. (More frequent trains would be nice, however.)

Yes, WMATA needs to fix dark spots and general light levels in many stations—but slapping on some paint is a crude way to do it. Smart architectural lighting designers armed with LEDs can solve this problem. Metro leaders: Stop whitewashing Harry Weese’s masterpiece.
Maybe LED lighting can solve the problem, but it will end up having the same effect of eliminating the "moodiness," as can be seen in examples of stations that are well lit, such as the Farragut West Station pictured at right (Wikipedia photo).

OTOH, it is easier and cheaper to replace lighting than it is to constantly repaint the ceiling, which becomes necessary once the surface is painted.

Design for maintenance installs materials and creates process designs that minimize the cost and time required to maintain places to a "state of good repair."

In any case, as with the Kiley Garden in Tampa, I think it's reasonable for design professionals to evaluate the effectiveness and relative success of the Weese design.

I find the Weese design wanting on practical dimensions--the slippery surface of the platform tiles when wet is another major flaw-- even if it works as sculptural architecture and at a distance--not unlike how City Beautiful era architecture and public sculpture was designed to exalt the power and authority of the state.

It would be useful for the professions to acknowledge this and make some recommendations for improvements, although the lighting point as made by the City Paper's new architecture critic, .Amanda Kolson Hurley, who already appears to be a great addition to the city's corps of cultural critics.

Bergen Street Station, Brooklyn.  Photo: Subway Nut.

Tile.  Note that there is a reason that subterranean spaces put a premium on high quality lighting and why highly reflective tile -- "subway tile" -- is used in many subway systems.  DC's going a different direction hasn't proven to be a superior practice by comparison.

Some examples include prevalent use of tile in stations on the New York, London, Hamburg, Seoul, and Berlin subway systems.

Use of tile as an artistic medium and light reflective surface on both the walls and floors of the Barcelona Metro system.

The need for design oversight in transportation agencies. I have written for some time that transportation agencies need to have a "chief urban design architect," to address how transportation infrastructure functions as architecture and urban design, and should be a positive contribution to civic architecture.

Relatedly, I have mentioned recently how Transport for London has "design managers" for various "lines of business," such as the "London buses."

And how VIA, the transit agency in San Antonio, has an urban design unit and manager ("VIA urban planner wants to build a better San Antonio," San Antonio Express-News). It definitely shows. Compare VIA's Centro Transit Station to either the Silver Spring Transit Center or the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center.

It comes to me that I have never come across a WMATA official tasked with such responsibilities.
Bill FitzGibbons, _Centro_Chroma_Tower_image_5mb-960x640
Artist Bill FitzGibbons designed the "tower of light," called "Chroma Tower," at the Centro Transit Station in San Antonio.  While FitzGibbons has executed many public art commissions across North America, he happens to live in San Antonio.

Relevant previous entries

-- "DC's bad urban design as it relates to trnasportation inrastructure"
-- "Transportation Infrastructure and Civic Architecture #3: Rhode Island Avenue Pedestrian Bridge to the Metrorail station"
-- "Transit stations as an element of civic architecture/commerce as an engine of urbanism"
-- "Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center: A Critical Evaluation"

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At 9:04 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, that is the constant cultural challenge of DC. How to take the very formal, almost bland government culture and use the creative energy of a city to turn it into something interesting.

(The hotel monaco and the Trump Hotels are decent examples).

And again it more the failure of the locals to take that ownership stake and demand better.

(Or the example of Dupont circle from a statue to a fountain).

I've been thinking about this in terms of high end furniture. Very little of it in the area. Almost everyone just treats the place like a box and doesn't put the customization in. You can bump it out (ala Cleveland Park) but you don't make it world class.

I mean we still have Boffi and Bulthaup, but that is kitchens, which have to be kept fresh up.

Given the wealth of the area, we are miles behind NYC, Boston, LA, Atlanta, Chicago, even seattle.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... you always point out to me the difference between wealth and income.

But with the transition to Home Rule, yes, DC never took "ownership" of the value and maintenance of a quality, attractive public space.

Contrast that to the actions of former mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley.

Howard Gillette has a book on this, _Between Justice and Beauty_, making the point that the adoption of a pro-center city African-American agenda with Home Rule led to a rejection of the "civic architecture" emphasis that had been dominant previous.

It also reached a high point with LBJ, not only "The Great Society Subway," but the various beautification efforts promoted by his wife. I still remember as a child seeing the stamps produced to promote that effort.$%28KGrHqMOKjME5%287VvQG-BOY59%21Gq,Q~~_3.JPG

... Jacqueline Kennedy was very much involved in historic preservation efforts around Lafayette Square.

But the riots--not just here, but across the country--changed the focus, deservedly in part, and that, combined with reduced budgets (value engineering out aesthetic elements), and the neoliberal agenda discounting the value of government involvement in society, made focusing on the quality of the built environment, urban design, and public space a low priority.

... in DC, you see it also in how f*ing dirty the city is, at least in the various places I ride my bike. Obviously, neighborhoods like Georgetown outside of the commercial core are different, but I am always amazed when I travel to other places, even "bad areas" of cities, and see that even those areas tend to be cleaner than DC.

Litter is an indicator of the value people put on public places.

I thought that Tommy Wells never adequately articulated his "livable, walkable" agenda, and it sure wasn't expanded outward to cover the city as a whole.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

BIDs, for safety and protection of property values, are in part a response to this, but we need more tools and mechanisms to bring that level of attention to non-commercial areas of the city.

In my head I've been working out changing how we allocate property tax revenues to four tranches:

- general
- transportation
- parks/public spaces
- neighborhoods

and the creation of mechanisms, "Main street programs for neighborhoods" (PA already laid out a way to do this, which used to be called "Elm Street" but is now called "Keystone Communities" I think; for a time Maryland had a similar program called Pine Street), to execute programs.

One of these days I'll write it out.

Just this morning I came across the "Strong Neighborhoods Program" in San Jose, which I want to learn more and write about.

Past writings on creating "Public Improvement Districts," "Transportation Management Districts" and community information systems and networks are relevant to this too.

And "strategic neighborhood engagement."

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Unfortunately I can't draw (hopefully I can strong arm Suzanne into doing it, or maybe another person), but I have this idea of creating benches, but on private property, as insets into stone and brick walls, in various locations, when a bus stop immediately abuts such structures.

If we could pilot one or two, it would be a way to demonstrate small scale changes in street furniture that contribute to civic architecture and quality public spaces.

This is in a park, but you get the idea.

2. Suzanne takes a local bus a few days/week, and I walk her to the stop in the morning. Of course, I pick up the trash and cigarette butts etc. around the stop and deposit them in the can.

This is one next to a short brick wall that is failing, but people do sit on it.

... anyway, I joke that my cleaning the stop should earn me being listed as have "adopting the bus stop." WMATA had such a program at one time. It needs to be expanded, and look at amenities additions as an element.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh, back to "Main Street programs for neighborhoods," this feeds into some of our discussion on how to make ANCs more relevant and more productive.

In other cities, they have been structures to support the neighborhood planning responsibilities of such bodies. That's one area ripe for improvement.

But the other example, besides the SJ program I just learned about (it's moving into the implementation phase, and each neighborhood comes up with 10 priorities), and the Seattle Dept. of Neighborhoods, and the participatory budgeting experiments in NYC, where each Councilmember gets about $1MM to spend on in-district projects, is the now defunct Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program, which was from about 1990-2012?.

They did a TIF bond, and put the money into neighborhood improvements. Neighborhood groups, working with the schools and parks districts, did focused improvement projects, backed with money.

But early into the process, they realized that there was a huge capacity deficit, and they added a training and technical assistance component so that the groups could be responsible.

(I found out about this program a long time ago, but it was only recently that I learned it was part of a two pronged effort by the city and the county to invest in Minneapolis to reverse suburban outmigration and the devaluation of property within Minneapolis. The county cared a lot because it impacted their tax revenues, and they did a study that found that property values held in areas near lakes and parks. So they began investing in parks and public spaces, creating greenways, eventually adding rail transit to the program, etc.)

Adding a program dimension to ANCs, with a training and technical assistance infrastructure, and a decent stream of money (but with better protections, which I've outlined on how to do that in the past) could lead to some real and positive changes.

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Not to argue with you on the narrative there. That said, I'd argue this is a regional issue and not confined to the District. You can call it a lot of thing -- lack of civic pride, transience, too many military workers, but this is a problem across the metro area.

The ANC ideas are all good, clearly zero interest by the city to pursue them, and you can also look at Arlington

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... You know ArCo way better than I, I need to look at that Community Dev. section, but that being said, they do a bunch of stuff wrt facilities and design that DC doesn't do.

MoCo is changing. Their "Energized Places" parks planning initiative is an example. Silver Spring I keep meaning to rewrite about, wrt night time activities, and updating my 2012 piece.

The piece I am working on concerning "signature streets" in Silver Spring combines the PL and the Energized Places initiative. It probably won't be ready til next week though, a couple weeks after I intended it to be done.

That links the UD and civic architecture and transit discussion.

2. Back to DC... I wuz gonna "boycott" the Comp. Plan amendment process, but I testified about an HP matter last week, which makes me realize it needs to be formalized into a formal amendment. It will be blown off because that's what they do, but it needs to be said.

Similarly, the same goes for design review general requirements, and significant requirements wrt UD and design review on the major avenues.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... oh, wrt "the region" what suburban jurisdictions anywhere are clued into the value of urban design, intensification, etc.?

Maybe Hennepin County (wrt Minneapolis).

this isn't pejorative. If you have some examples, I'm all ears.

It definitely wasn't the case in Balt. County. I got shot down on my point about having an integrating branding system.

... speaking of which, I need to write a specific piece about Alexandria. As their wayfinding system gets implemented, it's quite impressive.

It's clearly the leader in the area on this dimension.

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

don't understand this- about 10-15 years ago a number of the station shad their ceiling coffers painted with white paint and it really helped improve the atmosphere. Eastern market station was one of them. They have done it before- why not again? And why did everyone ignore it the last time they did this? Yes- I totally concur with your stance on starchitecture and the over emphasis on this cult of personality associated with it- which is ultimately unhealthy for cities. The best architects build to last and also for their buildings to fit in with their neighbors while most starchitectual pieces stand out and have to be torn down every 20- 50 years. Anyway- this is an absurd argument- just paint the damn things- they need it badly. And why not paint them some nice pastel colors to heighten the effect? DC is supposed to be the successor to the Greco Roman built environment- yet ALL Greek & Roman buildings had wild polychrome coloring and were not so damned staid and austere. Too much of our culture is austere- and when they DO have something artistic it is done in a shitty manner and people do not like it or cannot live with it- like Geary's BS.........

At 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

and as far as sculpture or painting goes- any time a modernist starchitect starts proclaiming themselves a " sculptor" I want to run for the hills- this is also BS. Go to the Moscow subway and you see REAL sculpture- heroic and lovely sculpture- professionally done figurative works- and not asinine modernist nonsense most people cannot relate to at all. Moscow did it right. We should ADD real sculpture and make them PART of the structure as they did in Moscow- when the art is a " guilty afterthought [ as the Prince of Wales coins it] then it doesn't work well

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Urban design and suburban.

Sorry, my point was a larger one than urban design -- it was about anyone int the metro area giving a f.f. about how things look and work. Comes down to we are more transit and less rich than we think.

(I'm part of the problem -- I've overjoyed when the Nationals lose in the playoffs.).

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... about those Nationals. I might be writing a semi mea culpa piece about them, and the anchor role the stadium plays in SE, comparable to my eventual acceptance of Verizon Center (nee MCI) helping to rebrand and reposition the city at a very important time concerning the city's position image-wise, not that long after being the nation's murder capital.

(Yes, that area would have developed eventually as the west side of the CBD was built out, but still, it helped to center housing, provides a lot of visitation, etc. There are other problems as I've written about too many times already...but still there is a positive effect.

The thing is that few cities are able to take advantage of the potential for positives. DC is one. Probably Boston. NYC. SF. Wrigley Field in Chicago. Otherwise, most cities lack the right pre-conditions necessary to best leverage the economic opportunities associated with sports facilities like these. So they get hosed. Glendale, AZ is perhaps the best example. I'd be curious of your impression about this wrt Cleveland. Etc.)

Anyway, I was at a building walkthrough on opening day. The building is immediately across the street from the stadium and it made me think of a bunch of stuff.

... one being we sure f*ed up by not designing Half Street to be the equivalent of Fenway's Yawkey Way. There's still time though. I will be writing about it.

Also that there is an opportunity for Capitol Riverfront and the now termed District Wharf/SW BID to start organizing now to leverage the marketing and positioning opportunities presented by next year's All Star Game.

... getting back to the Nationals, what's hard to figure out is how much public money is the right amount, why can't cities get a profit interest in the increasing value of teams derived from the provision of stadiums and arenas, etc.

Plus, why the f* don't cities like DC put Transportation Demand Management requirements in their contracts with the team (e.g., Verizon Center is not required to pay WMATA to stay open later, but they do; the Nationals aren't required to pay WMATA to stay open and they will only do what they are contractually required to do).

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

oh yeah, how stuff looks. Um. Yes. I think it is because of what Kunstler wrote about, the "Geography of Nowhere." If you cede your aesthetic environment to the private sector, is it a wonder it is value engineered?

Some developers, mostly those who are portfolio investors, understand that in some settings, the economic return from aesthetics is high and ever increasing. Even so they only spend a $ so long as the marginal return is greater than a $.

Ed McMahon, now at ULI, has written about this for a long long time. He's a great writer and speaker (although like Riley, he basically gives the same speech--good thing it's excellent).

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I should have mentioned in the piece (I forgot) that many years ago, in the restoration of Union Station, they resorted to painting the ceiling of the "arcade" in the front elevation of the building, the part that serves as a covered walkway between the actual front wall of the building and the sidewalk.

That's even more heinous from a historic preservation standpoint than WMATA's action.

At 4:53 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... damn. Plus, my Signature Streets concept was developed at first, by marrying some urban design principles and planning ideas, with streetscape project examples in both cities and suburban centers, with the reality of suburban arterials, specifically Rolling Road, Liberty Road, Reisterstown Road, US 40, and York Road in Baltimore County.

But it provided a way to take responsibility for the aesthetics of a county's "primary transportation network" -- the network of primary arterials, and brand, position, structure, and finance their improvement.

Too bad I didn't get a shot at trying to carry it out.

It's possible to do it right. Frankly, the old Parkway concept (e.g., Merritt Parkway in CT, GW Parkway here, etc.) is another example.

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Parkway; yes, before ww2 that trend to humanize those work projects was still there.

If anything, going back to your stamps post, Lady Bird was trying to bring that feeling although it didn't really work out as planned.

(Moynihan push to have prominent architects do court buildings is another example, maybe more successful).

We do see those impulses in a lot of European projects, however. But again they are more conscious of "nation building" than we are at this point.

RE: Ballpark.

Well,that was Williams's dream. It would be great if it worked. The cheap decision there was to build those garages rather than under grounding them (although there might be flood concerns in that area).

And to tie it all back in, I do think Barry era Washington wasn't quite a revolutionary as outsourced. As you said, make the private sector do it and it will be done on the cheapest dime. That is why the Reeves Center is such a failure. If you want a monument to Marion, go look at chunks of downtown and their 1980s office buildings.

Having Forest City in the ballpark area probably helps. What would help more is continued removal of section 8 and public housing.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

We were on the roof of the JBG building across the street. I didn't think to take a photo looking west. Damn. But a lot of that housing is just straight up rowhouses, not public housing. But yes, from an intensification standpoint, "an opportunity." But very controversial.

... there's a block in my neighborhood, duplexes along Blair, 1950s or 1960s era single story houses on 3rd St. and some basic detached houses on Van Buren.

It's not very congenial. Given proximity to the Metro, it'd be best as a denser apartment building. But you'd have to offer each household at least $1MM to get them to sell, and then they might not think it's enough.

But there are opportunities for intensification here and there across the city. But no mechanism really for realizing them.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

While I am not one to give MB a pass, the fact is that those buildings were "of their time" and it's not likely people in the administration were too concerned about building better buildings that would last for the long term.

e.g., DC did create station plans for most of the Metro stations, fortunately they sat on shelves. Because my understanding -- based on the opposition campaign to the program proposed for Takoma as represented in flyers reproducing some of the renderings -- is that it was typical urban renewal area stuff, like the Reeves buildings, the public housing buildings on 14th St. in Columbia Heights, the two senior housing buildings in the H Street NE neighborhood, etc.

While I am glad the Takoma people were successful in fighting off that plan, because of the design, it is unfortunate that they didn't distinguish between appropriate design and appropriate intensification.

e.g./2, the demolition and reconstruction of school (Dunbar, Woodson) and libraries (Watha T. Daniel, Anacostia, etc.) constructed during the same period.

It's quite a waste.

fwiw/3, I argued with the short lived 14th and U Main Street program years ago about Reeves (some of my early writings are about Reeves, e.g. ). They seemed to think it was great there was some retail there -- most stiffed the city on rent and/or failed otherwise. I explained how the setback and design militated against connecting to the street.

Reeves though had all the same problems of other city funded buildings like it that were supposed to spur revitalization in other corridors, such as the H St. CDC office buildings or office buildings in Anacostia.

It's why I was always negative about "moving DC agencies" to Georgia Avenue or Minnesota Avenue "to spur economic development" which was proposed early on in the Fenty Admin. (e.g., DMV to Georgia Avenue).

Where the Whole Foods is on H St. was for awhile a satellite office of DMV. It had no positive economic development impact. But created problems at the micro-block level (trash, and people there for business saw nearby alleys and realized they could do illegal dumping there at night, etc.).

Separately, Kwame Brown's father (Marshall, a key personage in Barry's team) argued with me about Reeves. The argument is that the block was a major drug corner and eradicating it in favor of that building was good to get rid of the drugs.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... but the farmers market is a great way to activate those otherwise underused spaces.

you could create patios, put in a decent restaurant etc., even create a space for a pop up restaurant space to support entrepreneurial ventures, or a restaurant run by hospitality training programs out of workforce development objectives, etc.

There are ways to fix those spaces somewhat, but it requires placemaking creativity outside of their normal ways of thinking.

Like your visioning project, it could be a great exercise. I'll have to take some photos the next time I'm around there and write it up.


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