critique

Last week, I took the following photo at the northwest exit of the downtown branch of the public library!

In Case of Emergency, Break Glass?In Case of Emergency, Break Glass?

So, you know that while I think the design concept behind the downtown library is somewhat intriguing, I am not a big fan of it as a public building. I believe that just like you and me, municipal architecture has a responsibility to be a good public citizen.

To residents, this means things not littering, stopping at red lights, and ending your 4th of July celebrations by midnight.

Public buildings have different responsibilities:

  • Respecting the street edge
  • Presenting a gracious and understandable entry
  • And perhaps most important, not trapping their occupants inside in case of an emergency

Though the entire facade (including the exit door) is made of glass, it is unlikely that occupants could break it in an emergency - it is three layers thick, plus a layer of copper mesh.

I hope there is a good reason for blockading this exit with a 2x4 from the outside but I can't think of one. While it is unlikely that there would be an emergency necessitating use of this exit, emergencies are by definition unplanned and emergency exits are not allowed to be blocked.

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I fear that we are losing the collective ability to create and appreciate good public architecture.

There are many facets to this argument. The one I will address in this post is the experience of a pedestrian arriving at and entering a public building. And what building could possibly be more public than a library, where citizens are invited in to browse through a collection of books (that they own collectively), host meetings, study, research, listen to music, use the internet, attend lectures.

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I make no secret about my opinion of the Des Moines Library Central Branch design. Despite its green bona fides, I think it is inappropriate for a public building to be so architecturally inaccessible.

Enter the Atlanta Public Library downtown branch! I am in Atlanta for a conference (learning about the new EPA lead paint rules among other things - more on that later). After classes today, I went on a long walking tour of downtown Atlanta and stumbled upon Marcel Breuer's Bauhaus/brutalist older cousin to the Des Moines Public Library (designed by David Chipperfield).

Atlanta Public Library Main ApproachAtlanta Public Library Main Approach

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Larry Bradshaw of the Living Downtown Des Moines blog has posted video of a Sunday Morning stroll through the downtown Des Moines skywalk system. This stroll (sans people due to the morning hour) makes me even more sure of my earlier analysis of the skywalk system: it needs to go.

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The Retail Blank Wall

27 Aug 2008

Storefront Decoration at University Ave. Radio ShackStorefront Decoration at University Ave. Radio Shack (circa 2005) - Photo by Polk County Assessor's OfficeWith few exceptions, blank walls ruin the pedestrian experience. Blank walls make it difficult to discern what is happening inside the adjacent buildings, decrease the number of "eyes on the street", and promote an automobile-centric environment.

The Radio Shack at University and 42nd Street is an excellent example of how the location of the main entrance can have a huge impact on the urban character of a building.

The structure itself, is actually relatively urban. It is built up to a generous sidewalk, with the parking located in back. There is a small path between buildings that allows shoppers to easily make their way from their cars to the stores in the adjacent building. It maintains a good street edge and lines up with the adjacent building.

There is just one problem, but it's a killer: the main (only) public entry to the Radio Shack store is on the back corner of the building!

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Defining Urbanism

04 Aug 2008

While I am a self-declared "urbanist", this does not mean I think everyone should live in a Manhattan or a Chicago (or even Des Moines). This post will discuss my approach to urbanism and why I actively promote urban policies and urban (re)development.

Normally to start a post like this, I would do a quick Google search for "urban" and check out what other people think an "urban" is. It's a standard timesaver used by the net generation - no need to reinvent the wheel (many blog posts are reactions or responses to something that already exists). As an aside, this approach isn't new. How many high school essays start out "Webster's Dictionary defines [my topic] as..."?

However, for the purposes of this exercise, I am forgoing that maneuver. I'm going to start from scratch and see where "urbanism" takes me.

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There. Like ripping off a band-aid, I said it and there's no going back.

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In an article published on July 10, 2008, the Des Moines Register claims that "More Iowans like suburban life". The article is based on updated Census estimates for 2007. In fact, an examination of the underlying data leads me to the opposite conclusion: More Iowans actually prefer living in central cities and towns.

Here are some reasons why.

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