One of the interesting things about being an architect is discussing the design of buildings with non-architects.
After learning about the competition to design the new College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED) building for Kent State University, I have been informally polling community members about what they think about the design of buildings both in the downtown and on campus, and how they would conceive of a new building along the Esplanade that will soon connect the two.
In these conversations, the majority of the people wonder why it is that architects are so bent on “pushing the envelope,” both figuratively and literally. “Must every building be an exercise in designing a sculpture in space?” one of them offered. When I ask people about the design of the recent developments in downtown, there is a widespread affinity for what most of us trained in architecture hold at least a little disdain for, if not outright hostility; the mimicking of historic building forms and details.
One of the other phenomenon I encounter in talking with lay people about architecture is the influence of the convenient parking space in our thinking about urban design. The creation of pedestrian-friendly streets with buildings up to the front lot line is seen by many as out of date — even as this street pattern is the very pattern of the city in which traditional urban architecture forms were conceived. An important question for the design of the CAED building is, in what way is the Esplandade a street in terms of the way it embraces the bypassers and connects users to visitors?
Historic downtowns have tall street level spaces with 60 percent or more glazing, a second floor of offices and upper levels of apartments and/or public spaces that serve social and service groups. The density and complexity of these street patterns adds to the social dynamic of the street, with the people and places given preference to the storage of motor vehicles. With the vehicles banished from the Esplandade, in what way is it like the historic pattern of the streetscape and in what ways is it different?
What we have done in Downtown Kent is, at least in part, a sensitive construction of the historic street pattern. The details of the design of the buildings is in no small measure secondary to the basic elements of the streetscape and the way the buildings greet the street. Will this building be more focused on itself than the street?
In our day and age, what is interesting is that most of us live in space as citizens of the auto-nomous, atomic age, with the pieces of our lives as electrons circling our homes, yet we conceive of our home places and buildings in very traditional ways. This contradiction is intriguing and frustrating for those of us working to create sustainable communities, and it may offer insight as to the best way to build streets in the future.
The investment of the City and Community in our downtown is now being rapidly joined by the expansion of campus to the verge that is S.R. 59 (Haymaker Parkway). After decades of work to get the university to focus to the west rather than to sprawl to the east, some say that we are now sorry for what we prayed for, for not only has the university answered our prayers but it has remade the “Campus Link” neighborhood in its own image. Gone are dozens of houses and hundreds of residents, but they will be replaced by thousands learning, living, working and visiting in the new CAED building and the enlarged downtown. The work by the university to bring its Hotel and Conference Center across the verge is a remarkable investment in our common future, and it promises to contribute to the rapid conversion of our downtown from a quiet and uninspiring crossroads into a regional destination and national class college town.
The completion of the Esplanade, with the construction of a new village green in the form of a great lawn, offers a rare opportunity to repair a tear in the urban fabric wrought by a poorly designed redirection of a state highway. Good urban design has the opportunity to mitigate, at least to some degree, poor transportation planning. To make the Esplanade inviting and enlivened the University has included the old idea of the sculpture mile, placing interesting pieces of Art along its path. The new CAED building, placed on the south side of the Esplanade between South Lincoln and South Willow streets, will not only be a destination for students, but it is envisioned as a community center serving the campus and the city as a whole. Like the sled riding hill on front campus, it promises, in conjunction with the great lawn, to be the physical heart of our city, complementing Main and Water streets, the Commons, and the Student Center plaza as a pearl on a string of great places where we can recreate, relax and run into old and new friends.
As someone who has long been engaged in the public process in Kent, I appreciate the gesture made by the competition committee to engage the public in the design of this most public building. As an Alumni of the CAED and a 30 year practitioner I appreciate the complexity of the project and the divergent interests and constraints that a real world project entails. While it isn’t clear how much influence the general public will have on the selection of the winning firm and the execution of the design, I do hope that this opportunity is fully exploited. What better way to demonstrate the vision for the building as a place to engage the public than to show students and citizens alike that architects can listen as well as speak and draw, and set aside their hubris in favor of creating a harmonic design solution.
It was fun to listen to the briefs by the four design teams to see both how they went about learning about the place and people, studied the site and conceived a solution to the building requirements. Each of the teams clearly expended a large degree of time, money and energy on their concepts, and the designers varied in how they presented them to us.
While I sat watching the presentations, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the “average joe” in our town:
- How would most people, who have an affinity for traditional forms of buildings and straightforward arrangements of materials, react to what I knew, from the websites of the architects, would be exercises in the elaboration of the building program and envelope?
- Would there be any use of materials, proportions, scales, and design elements that had any relation to the two historic centers (front campus and downtown) which they would connect?
- Would there be any sense in which this building would related to, remember, or refer to the historic neighborhood that has been replaced by a new space?
- How will the building hold up over time? Will it remain stately and regal like the historic front campus or be seen as a brutal, trendy and insensitive design like White and Bowman Halls and several other building built in the 1960s and 1970s? Will it be worth restoring in 50, 80 or 100 years time?
- Will the architects be able to translate their discussions with people in campus and the town into spaces that work on the many scales of access, use and interpretation?
- Will the building seem wasteful and extravagant or hard to maintain?
- Will it have learned the lessons of some of the past mistakes of campus buildings, such as the Art building, with its interconnected open spaces and inappropriate use of glazing — such that it fails to perform acoustically, makes learning difficult, and fails to adequately secure classrooms from theft?
- Will the architect spend too much time defying gravity and not enough connecting the building to people and to the earth?
- Will the people who have to use the building day to day appreciate the extravagance of form that leads to shortcomings in function?
- Will the custodians shake their heads when they discover that the emperor has no clothes and they have to maintain a building that is half the building of the big piles up on the hill?
I would hope that the community and committee will ask these and other hard questions and not be distracted by design for design's sake. Each of the teams has solid design solutions that differ in slight and significant ways, that function differently and collaborate with the neighborhood and Esplanade in different ways.
I am pleased by the process and thankful for the promise that a new building will bring to a newly conceived center for our community. I wish the selection jury and the architects well and hope that you will conceive a facility that will help inspire the genius of Kent.