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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mixed Use, Mixed Messages

The problem with multi-task buildings

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A fever is spreading across the nation. It’s called the condo-hotel (Condotel as it’s affectionately known by real-estate experts) and it’s soon to take Milwaukee’s Park East by storm. Not one but five condohotel-retail developments are slated for the area, the first of which, Staybridge Suites, will be completed later this year.

The ecstatic approval such developments excite has much to do with their economic viability. Another is the widely held notion that diversity of uses inside a building will contribute to the diversity and vitality in the spaces outside of the building. And who in the name of Jane Jacobs would dare question the notion that mixed-use buildings are a bastion of urban vitality? Surely, by extension, the more mixed the better. What’s more, the mixed-use building reflects the multi-tasking of modern life. But isn’t there a danger that by wearing too many hats the building will forget who and what it is in the process, and end up failing to deliver that promised vitality to the street?

Mixed-use buildings predate the modern city. In the ancient Athenian Agora, monuments often doubled as notice boards, holy sanctuaries as state archives, stoas as meeting places and areas of commerce. Similarly, temples doubled as public podiums in the Roman Forum. One of the fundamental differences between new mixed-use developments and those of old is that the latter still retained a distinct identity.

A Sense of Occasion

The true value of this goes beyond mere physical outward symbols to the unique set of entry rituals each specific place invites. Whether we’re aware of it or not, entry into a hotel demands an entirely different etiquette to a place of work or worship. The act itself is incredibly significant, marking the transition between two oft-contrasting worlds, be it public and private or sacred and profane. The agility with which a single building accommodates these subtly varying transitions lies partly in the ingenuity of the design and the extent to which it allows each user a sense of place while maintaining a meaningful relationship between inside and outside.
It’s difficult to gauge how the developments proposed for the Park East area will juggle their different functions. In the meantime, we can turn to a building Downtown to gauge what might well happen. Cathedral Place, which opened in 2004, isn’t a condohotel, but combines retail, condo and office space. Despite sensuously wrapping itself around the entire block of Jackson between Wells and Mason streets, it wastes the opportunity of engaging with the street that its generous footprint affords.

Much of this has to do with how you enter the building. The grand 20-foot tall curved glass atrium that swells voluptuously at the intersection of the rectilinear wings marks its most conspicuous entrance, yet it’s inaccessible to all but office workers, robbing the site of a potentially wonderful public space. Everyone else is forced to slink away disconsolately in search of a less auspicious entrance.

The second-grandest entrance is the one to the garage. It betrays the true goals driving the designs of many such developments: surveillance and parking. Together they’ve usurped sense of place and pedestrians as crucial factors in the design.

In fact, Cathedral Place offers an altogether cold front to the pedestrian, largely due to the lack of variation of depth in the faade at street level. Though it modulates the faade at the higher levels with indented pockets of space, it proffers a taut, uniform and highly reflective skin to those experiencing the building’s lower regions.

For an example of where this depth of faade is better achieved, you can look at any number of historic buildings in the area. In the George Watts building on the next block, each retail window is set behind a masonry arch, and the contrast creates a depth that draws the eye in, and is complemented by the depth of display shelving behind the window.

In Cathedral Place, however, the designers have substituted transparency for visual depth, mistaking them for one and the same thing. The result is an almost 100% occupied building that appears strangely empty.

Rigidly Complete

When we draw parallels between today’s mixed-use buildings and those of the past, it behooves us to take note that more often than not these predecessors developed functional accretions over time, rather than the latter being packed tightly into the program from the beginning; or if they were intended for multiple uses, they were designed with an eye to maximum fluidity. Some of Milwaukee’s most engaging buildings are those that have been altered to accommodate new uses, and their success lies in being constructed solidly enough to withstand adaptation without compromising visual or structural integrity. Look at how Hotel Metro has transitioned elegantly from office and retail to boutique hotel.

Mixed-use developments react against the strict zoning put into place in the early 20th century, but in a sense these sorts of new developments stand for a similarly regimented prescription of uses. They may simply be too rigidly complete for their own good.

It might be too early to judge whether these mixed-use projects will create a host of delicious incongruities. It can only happen over time, though, and the real question is: Are these buildings going to be around long enough for us to find out? To read more about urban planning, architecture and artrelated issues, go to my blog, titled Cityscape, at www.expressmilwaukee.com.