Heterogeneous typologies as urban homogenizers

SH |

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mC:t    2015.04.28    #makecalgarytalk

Over the last, say, decade, the idea of building mixed use structures has become hip as all get out. The iconic example is of course the contemporary return to the historically normal format of retail on the ground floor, and residential above. Maybe you tuck some offices in the middle, maybe you don’t worry about it. It’s definitely a move with plenty of precedent, much of it pre-elevator, for instance it was the iconic typology of Hausmann’s Paris. It is a typology that has again become so popular that it seems at the moment that there are basically three types of development in this city: The aforementioned hybrid, normative skyscrapers, and suburbs. Well four if you count road ways. It’s certainly an appealing format, providing streetscapes that have a sense of life to them (when compared against otherwise analogous strictly residential developments.) They also justify a modicum of architectural adventurism and provide a pretext for something more than a dolled up linear extrusion of undifferentiated optimized floor plates.

 

A quick ten minute jaunt around Kensington provides some useful examples. There are currently half a dozen such buildings that are mid construction, two completed (one actually quiet old), and one abortive attempt that desperately wants to be a mixed commercial residential, but instead has some truly awkward ground floor apartments due to zoning issues.

On the other hand, and as you might have surmised from the title, they pose a serious problem. The issue springs, roughly, from two sources. The one is the popularity of this approach. The other is the scale at which they produce a mixture of uses. These mixed use developments are mixed solely at the scale of architecture. They are functionally two (or if you are feeling really provocative) three types of mid-sized building welded together in a predictable pattern. When taken in conjunction, these factors are rapidly recreating a broader condition that is utterly homogenous and undifferentiated. We are, with ever increasing fervor, producing a city scape of mixed use commercial/residential mid rises, jammed shoulder to shoulder (probably on a historically interested pedestrian friendly street, but that’s neither here or there.)

 

I’m not suggesting that this is the current condition of the world. It’s pretty manifestly not. The number of these types of buildings under construction shows that they don’t yet occupy all space, but equally the number of these construction sites, pretty clearly shows a trajectory.

 

Here’s the really important part: This should not be construed as a prognostication of doom. I emphatically don’t know that there is anything wrong with midsized mixed use buildings becoming the new normal. I mean these buildings are normally pretty egregious wrecks of pseudo modern aesthetics, but that is failing of any given building, not of the typology. The salient point is that this is a trend in the way we are sculpting our built environments that is insufficiently remarked upon.

SH

 

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  1. mooonunit says:

    I agree that many mixed-use buildings claim to be providing new, vibrant typologies when in fact they simply stack normative approaches to design in cute, up-and-coming neighborhoods. I am curious however, what you think a suitable solution or variant would be to this homogenous condition.

  2. Mike says:

    I think that the reference to Haussmann’s Parisian development is really interesting. For Paris, it was a series of very rapid developments, all planned by the same “hand”. Essentially though, Paris ended up with the same thing that you are talking about in your article – a ton of new developments that are, for argument’s sake, of the same size, style, and typology as one another. I think that the key difference between Haussmann’s Paris and Calgary in terms of the development of new neighbourhood typologies, is that Haussmann also completely overhauled the streets, the public greenery, and the neighbourhood plans to suit the new development. Maybe what Calgary needs is a similarly concerted effort by the City to work with developers, and to create the same rigour in the public realm?

  3. admin says:

    The shape of commercial space in Calgary sometimes seems to be the result of a strange tug-of-war between traditional urbanist desires (lots of little storefront shoppes) and the economies of retail and commercial space (big anchor stores, less specialization).

    I have seen a lot of tower podiums in the city in which a drug-store franchise has leased the entire ground-floor and locked off all but one of the shoppe doors. Is it the responsibility of the designers to provide spaces that suit demand from the market, or to impose other structures to encourage a certain type of street? Or to step back and create completely flexible spaces?

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