public buildings

The books are unpacked, computers humming, and solar panels generating at the recently re-opened Franklin Avenue branch library. Despite some minor quibbles, I think that the building is a fabulous success! Kudos to the Library board, the architect, the builder, and the City for promoting sustainability as a core component of the project.

Franklin Avenue Library Sign: Sign at the newly-renovated Franklin Avenue library branchFranklin Avenue Library Sign: Sign at the newly-renovated Franklin Avenue library branch

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The Town Square

27 Jul 2010

Campsite at Long Branch State ParkCampsite at Long Branch State ParkI spent a couple days camping at Long Branch State Park in Missouri this past weekend. Camping in a typical state park is about as "urban" as you can get and still be sleeping in a tent: running water, electricity, showers, and even bags of ice and firewood delivered by a friendly "host" in a golf cart! This time around, however, we opted for the slightly more secluded walk-in sites set back from a central parking lot by 50 yards or so. An easy 3 1/2 hour trip south from Des Moines, Long Branch is a gem of a State Park. As long as it doesn't storm.

But what I really want to talk about here is Bloomfield, Iowa, a town about midway between Des Moines and Macon, Missouri. Bloomfield is the Davis County seat.

The Davis County Courthouse is one of the most incredible pieces of public architecture I have seen. This Second Empire masterpiece is capable of holding its own against just about any other public building in Iowa that I can think of, save the Capitol. Here are some of the elements I believe are important about public architecture:

  1. Visual cues tell the user which building to approach. The courthouse is situated in the middle of a traditional town square. It is the tallest building in the town (perhaps in the county, excepting grain elevators). It is encircled by a ring of two-story brick commercial buildings that face the square. There is simply no question that this building is a place where important things happen.
  2. Gracious pedestrian approach. A sidewalk circles the block, with walkways that directly and understandably approach the building at its main entrance (see below). Old growth trees provide cover for pedestrians and frame views of the building itself.
  3. Understandable and well-marked entry to the building. A grand staircase clearly marks the entrance to this building. From any vantage point, the entry process is clear (assuming, of course that it hasn't been compromised by security procedures that force people to use an obscured entrance).


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Clearly, this courthouse was built as a monument to the law. It must have been a massive public undertaking, though it cost only $45,000 and change at the time to construct. As public architecture, the traditional town square really cannot be improved upon. It truly serves as the heart of the community. It is a stately anachronism that has thrived in an era of budget cuts and anonymous public buildings.

According to the online history of the courthouse this building was conceived as just such a place. At his Fourth of July address on the public square in Bloomfield, July 4, 1876, Colonel S.A. Moore said, "A new and brighter era of peace and prosperity is dawning upon the nation, that ere long will throw the full tide of its glory upon a united people; and in view of this coming prosperity, Davis county will erect a public building that will do honor to the present and future generations."

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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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