Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bethesda and Balzac

One puzzling thing about Bethesda Row, a short alley converted to a pedestrianized shopping street, is how much it recalls much older urban types.  It feels more like a nineteenth-century French passage than like an American main street or mall or marketplace.  The form of the street as well as the look of the buildings seems to roll back to a nostalgic past, when window-shopping first became an urban pastime and the streets of Paris became characters in the novels of Balzac.  It all seems quaint, albeit expensive.

Just down the street, the metro station built in the 1970s opens onto the requisite urban plaza with a fountain, surrounded by scaleless highrises with sealed strip windows and a concrete ‘arcade.’   Even when the plaza is full of people, it seems empty.  

Here’s my question: Why do we seem stuck between these two options? Nostalgia or modernistica? 

Of course we are not.  Clever architects are out there working to remake the city once again.  The challenge is to design buildings with character that make a street street worth walking.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Questions of Scale - Bethesda Row and Sunset Place

Bethesda Row on a rainy morning in winter
Indoor-outdoor dining

In Maryland during the holidays, Philip and I toured Bethesda Row on a rainy day with two developers from Federal Properties, which owns the project as well as a significant part of the commercial downtown.  Federal recently bought the Shops at Sunset Place, South Miami’s faltering mall, and will renovate the building to make it more urbane (good for us) and more profitable (good for them). They described the process of transforming Bethesda’s tatty suburban downtown into a thriving, walkable shopping/residential district centered on a metro stop of the Washington DC system.  South Miami holds a similar position with a commercial main street on the metro line, serving a large, well-heeled, suburban population.

The two developers spoke of how the design of the ground floor of the buildings of Bethesda Row establishes a human scale for the street, creating the ambiance of the place, which invites people to walk, and linger, and shop.  As good urbanists, they study questions of scale carefully and worked with their architects to be sure that the street felt right for pedestrians, shoppers, and residents in apartments above.  On narrow Bethesda Row, formerly an alley, Italian lights are strung overhead define the street as a public room, with doors and windows that open generously to create places for people.   The developers teach urbanism to their architects.

They criticized Sunset Place for its lack of scale.  OK.  But, in truth, it took me until I went back there yesterday to really understand what they meant.

Sunset Place is a stage set.  We know this already.  Its preposterously grand staircase overlooks a “street” decked out in Classical/Mannerist/Who Knows What? trim and leads to upper level walkways that cross the street on picturesque bridges.  It has plenty of architectural decoration.  The entire panorama, which unfolds as one walks, was designed to be seen from a certain distance like a set, not up close. Indeed, the scenery of Sunset Place looks best from the distance of an architectural drawing - an elevation - to be specific, which notoriously has little sense of material or joinery.  Inhabiting the mall, one feels like a figure added by the draughtsman to an architectural rendering.  Up close, the “details” of Sunset Place are ridiculous. 

That's what the developers meant by human scale: real details that do something useful and interesting, developed thoughtfully in real materials that reward the eye and the touch of the hand.  Good.

Now that they own Sunset Place, I look forward to seeing what the developers of Federal Properties will do with it.
Sunset Place, South Miami