A recent endeavor–emerging thoughts about government buildings

We’ve been proposing recently (in spurts over the past year or more) on a project for a new administrative center for a Midwestern county government. The process, which began with presentation of qualifications, then progressed to the development of a “project approach statement,” and, more recently to a design competition of sorts, has been frustrating for us (and, I expect, for our competitors) and, I assume, unfulfilling for our client.

While we have counsived the importance of process—the opportunity to dwell with the client, get to know them and their people and place, observe how things work and don’t, develop concepts to test, etc.—the client has sought specific illustrations: Show me what this means to me, here.

The abstractions of process and illustrative stories from other places did not satisfy them, so they budgeted a tiny stipend, and invited the competitors—six of the country’s best architects—to develop concepts. Since this was not an “official” design competition, I expect that most, after the exhaustion of the first two rounds, committed a “B” team to develop some renderings over the couple of short weeks of the competition. The impact might be measured in the fact that, since the public presentations, only a whisper “(or maybe a “hmmm…”) has appeared in the press and the local blogs, and nothing from the client.

In the clutter of politics (internal, external, county, city, blogs, the press) it has seemed difficult to cut a clear path to a committed vision (does the client see this impediment to realizing their objectives?). In the few minutes to think about a subject in between all the other things, I’ve found some emerging thoughts (pardon the alliterative presentation).


Program and process

The client had originally presented a program, but for the purposes of the competition threw it out. The original was typical: a list of departments and areas, and a few illustrative standards, but nothing that expressed the “soul” of what the client was looking for.

A couple of bullets in accompanying communications were more effective, if too succinct, in this regard. We locked on to notions of “transforming government processes” and creating “great and lasting architecture” but there was nothing in their communications that established a baseline or benchmark to move from, nor anything specific about their aspirations.

Their terms seemed potentially in conflict. The norm of “great and lasting architecture” evokes “edifice”—an outside-in approach—and they have a few examples of this type of nominal, egocentric, accomplishment in their town. “Transforming government processes” seems deliciously and continuously active—achievable through an inside-out approach—and I have a tough time getting to it through “edifice.”

A term from other professions has begun to emerge in our firm—in lieu of “program,” the “creative brief.” We are finding it important to develop a new language, even in processes, in order to break clients and their architects, out of tired norms and nominal expectations, and into a new accomplishment.

In our own discussion of the project, we began to use a number of different terms—terms like “urban living room” and the city’s “front lawn”—to evoke not an office building for the county’s employees, but a new form of building, engaging the community and evoking a spirit that might deliver the transformations they sought.

Precedent, place and promenade

The project is at one of those great, delicious, urban locations. It’s at the consequential place of the rotation, or collision, of two grids—the legacy grid of the practical formation of the town, and Daniel Burnham’s grid, centered a few blocks away in the city’s government center.

Here we were, in a geometry of triangles and parallelograms, and also in the midst of a recently developing buzz of place. In almost equal distances, we had the commercial heart of the city at one end of the axis, and its university at the other. We were on a crossroad where people, coming from a newly developed residential area, would emerge into the employment center of the city. Up the road in one direction were the sports stadiums and in the other direction the theatres. And this is the busiest corner in town.

The site currently has two pieces of historic architecture. A modern tower, by a renowned architect, never realized fully in its master plan, and abandoned now for more than a dozen years. Despite an expected outcry from the community, the Commissioners are committed to its demolition.

An earlier piece is a rotunda, the city’s temple of wealth, the trust company’s vaults where the leading citizens kept their treasure. Designed by a New York architect who had done other significant structures for a similar clientele, it is a crusty, domed, inward-looking place, more recently modified insideto attempt to reach the common man’s banking needs, but no longer effective or useful in this mode. It is an unoccupied piece of history, but yet a symbol—to the Commissioners, I understand—of “civic” for its columns, pediments, and dome.

Other, nearby precedents in this town seemed more relevant. There are a number of “arcades” here—through-block connectors—that make pedestrian passages from north to south at several places in the downtown. Inside, they are relatively delightful places, with cafes and shops and central courts free from the nastiness of seasons in this relatively northern place.

Proposals

It appears that most of our competitors thought in terms of skin, some with features of atriums, and all as office building.

I chose to think in terms of what we’ve learned about great experiences. I also began thinking of transparency in place of crust, slab in place of tower, and city in place of building.

I first wanted to get away from façade—closed, point entry, “me” statements—and dissolve the walls, become invitational, and make “<!–you” statements.
I became concerned with the adjacent historic rotunda. When the county opened the building for tours by the competing teams, I watched people come into the space, stop near its center, and then bend backward to look upward to see, and then express appropriate appreciation for, the dome. I watched people climb to upper floors to look down. I watched people quickly say, “okay, let’s go.”

I would stand outside the building and try to imagine a respectful way to reveal its interior. The stone, the columns, the steps, the iron, all resisted any way to imagine a life within becoming a community event.

The new building, to be relevant spatially, to be a community place, to contribute to the life of the city, to meet the county’s goal of enlivening the street, needed to be the opposite–transparent, open, lively…a big urban room where what was inside, seen from outside, would pull you in and engage you. Where the dome captured an artificial sky, I wanted to capture a very real street.

Our next move was to lift the departments off the street and give the space beneath to the people.
It seemed important to make this building a more active place and a more relevant place if it were to fulfill the county’s goals. It should not be just a really good office building, but could become a great interactive destination for the community.

Our first move was to lift the departments off the street, to make not an office building but a comunity room with offices. In the space below, in this new, multi-story open room, we began to shape a new way for the county to meet its people.


Then we had to get people engaged.

In the study of what makes a compelling experience, we learn that there is first an attraction, something that draws us to a place. We then cross over a threshold into a different world. We become engaged in the new place, and tend to forget time. When we leave, we realize we’ve gone through a transformation. The experience has been so great, we find ourselves telling stories about it to others.

We built “avatars” or “personas” to represent people in the community and around them we built stories about what their interaction with the county would be/could be like. We tested extensions and abstractions of what we’ve learned in retail design, and began to design for great experience.

The traditional arcade here was self-bounded, closed on the outside, linear in experience inside. In this new big public room we made a transparent exterior, letting the walls of the surrounding buildings act as the only “enclosers” of this new room. We then brought architectural forms to the interior places and space where the public would meet the county. These buildings, rooms within the big room, could carry formal signatures that signalled a new way for citizens to get services, for developers to get supportive information, for business to learn about the communities where they might invest.

So what?

We realized that here, in this place for the public, with a different kind of architecture, a different kind of furniture, a different approach to delivering services, could be a place that had the potential to lead and deliver the kind of process transformation the county was looking for.

It seems these things might be components of more effective process and more satisfying results:

  • Look for and test new ways of writing a program. This is an opportunity to express the values and aspirations of the community, and the means you believe will be effective to achieve them. This new building will outlast your current organizational snapshot, so look ahead.
  • Seek a new way to express and embrace a sense community. Burnham is great precedent, but we are ina dynamic age, and faster and deeper change is on the way. Use Burnham’s process (it sounded like a long dwell in the community), but seek an expresion for a new age.
  • Find a new lexicon for the government workplace. Think of the impacts of technology, the demographics of the next generations, the yearning for services, the need to save time, and realize that the conventional programmatic and design language will not satisfy.
  • Design for experience. Give your citizens something to talk about, in their own words.


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