Nye’s Four Years Later: The puzzles of preserving valued places

Here’s a 2015 article I wrote on losing our much-loved Nye’s Polonaise lounge and polka bar in Minneapolis. It’s updated with new photos that show what happened four years later. This article originally appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of Architecture MN

Keeping Bar: Nye’s Polonaise Room

Four Years After Demolition: Revisiting Nye’s Polonaise Room

How can we save valued places whose value is more social than architectural?

By Frank Edgerton Martin

In December 2014, many Minneapolitans were shocked by news that Nye’s Polonaise Room—Northeast’s venerable piano lounge, Polish supper club, and polka bar—would be closing in 2015.

488xN

Many of us have indelible memories of singing Christmas carols with Lou at the piano bar, ordering our first jumbo martini straight up with a twist, and dancing to the polka band with the blind drummer. And suddenly, the Nye’s site was slated for a 189-unit apartment tower with average monthly rents over $2,000. This is not the immigrant Northeast Minneapolis of old.

Why does historic preservation often save districts like Minneapolis’ North Loop but seem powerless to protect the individual places we most remember?

Preservation focused on buildings more than memory

Early American preservation efforts focused on grand landmarks, often homes and workplaces of the rich, designed by well-known architects.

There was little concern for vernacular architecture, factories, or farms. Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and local designation were, and still are, largely tied to association with a period of architecture or a significant person. It still shapes a lot of policy today.

 

Nye's Polonaise Room architecure

Nye’s Polonaise Room, Minneapolis, circa 2015 with auction announcement signs.  Photo by David Bowman |  Bowmanstudio.com

 

Ironically, because preservation law is so geared to architecture, the best legal tool we had to save the Nye’s block was to protect two of its least important buildings in terms of social memory: the 1905 harness shop (at left) and the storefront bar building that  shown above on the right.

Nye’s was originally constructed in four buildings. These structures were listed as contributing to the St. Anthony Falls Historic District (SAFHD)—the city’s first such designation, listed in 1971. The wonderful Nye’s interior wasn’t listed as contributing, because it was too young to be considered officially “historic”.

40-18103-00_nyes-piano_dlr-group_marquee-0

The old Nye’s bar building survives as a re-branded new Nye’s.

27654994_10159963978335322_2387310890575503690_n

Above and below. The Nye’s new interior is filled with “Meta”  self-conscious references to the original Nye’s Polonaise along with exposed brick walls. Something the original Nye’s would have never had. Nye’s never had to seem “cool”. It was loved for being itself.

nyes-interior-booths-650x433

Five Strategies to think anew

With the puzzle of Nye’s and so many other local public places, the following are preservation strategies to consider for future planning.

1. Preserve History the Way It Was

Developers sometimes attempt to bend preservation guidelines by proposing to save only the facades of historic structures, as a kind of compromise solution. To make room for the tower on the Nye’s site, the developer, Schafer Richardson, working with Nye’s owners Rob and Tony Jacob, proposed demolishing the two newer buildings and moving the harness shop westward to sit next to the other older structure—the old home of the polka bar.

This approach creates a false history—an odd rearrangement of the past guided primarily by the need to win project approval.

2. Consider Interiors and Design from the Recent Past

5fc54a5c54ba28159194f401ac7a6b31

A byproduct of historic preservation being too narrowly focused on exteriors is that distinctive interiors are often overlooked. So are valued places under 50 years old—buildings ranging in scale and character from Porky’s drive-in restaurant in St. Paul to early examples of modern curtainwall glass buildings.

If studied today for inclusion in an historic district, Nye’s Polonaise Room, with its unique interior and rich social history, might be considered “contributing.” But soaring property values in the area are a real threat.

3. Support Affordable Homes for Valued Businesses

Even neighborhoods as lushly historic as Georgetown in Washington, DC, are dulled by uniformly high-end retail—an almost certain outcome for the redeveloped Nye’s block despite renderings that show the old “Chopin Dining” and “Nye’s Bar” signs remaining.

Character-filled legacy businesses like Nye’s and Kramarczuk’s add to the economic value of nearby properties, but rising property values make them an endangered species. There are tax credits for rehabilitating National Register buildings and others certified as contributing to an historic district. Should we also create tax incentives to retain these businesses and encourage new ones?

4. Manage Scale

National Register listing is important for developers’ preservation tax credits, but the legal power to preserve the character and affordability of local historic districts resides with local governments.

Developers and owners have the right to close valued businesses like Nye’s in buildings that they own. But cities have the right to landmark old buildings and limit building height through spot zoning in historic districts. Massive new projects can overwhelm the legacy buildings around them—even if they are “restored”.

buchtjd_1423607155_nyesmaureen

Above. The original proposed development placed the two historic buildings together as a kind of ornament on a tall tower and base. Fortunately, after much neighborhood opposition the owner and ESG architects developed a much better, smaller mid-rise solution shown.  Image ESG Architects

The real issue here is whether Minneapolis will enforce its own laws. If it doesn’t, developers will set the terms of the debate.

The current thinking assumes that large buildings are needed to preserve some of the old ones. “You need [to build] a tall building to have the scope to move and preserve the small buildings,” a leader of the Nicollet Island–East Bank Neighborhood Association told the Downtown Journal during the Nye’s debate around 2015.

Wrong. Recent urban history shows that any sound historic building in a booming area in Minneapolis or most cities will eventually find new life. And unique places like the old Nye’s add character and value to new residential developments.

5. Preserve Smaller Businesses and Affordable Retail Rents

The Nye’s puzzle calls for a new chapter in historic preservation, one that aims to better preserve affordability for small businesses and social memory for their customers and neighborhoods. Sometimes that means saying no to the next big tower—and working to ensure that the city does not become completely gentrified, as is happening in Manhattan, Seattle, and San Francisco.

Nyes-4a

The original Nye’s supper club interior with glitter booths and chunk glass wall sconces. 

 

IMG_1851

Northeast Minneapolis is now thriving as an arts district. Many old businesses, like this bar, survive—creating a sense of layered history that themed projects can never have. Photo by the author. 

We need to create long-term economic and architectural preservation policies for historic districts that encourage legacy and small businesses to live on within future developments. Great cities find a way of weaving old and new.

Only then can we give one-of-a-kind polka bars the chance to survive—and future generations the opportunity to create new valued places of their own.

 

 

City Lighting for Character and Warmth

Finding the “Right Lighting” may be the best tool we have  to enliven the city nights

A-Mill_E_V_120

Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts at night. Photo courtesy of Schuler Shook

By,  Frank Edgerton Martin

Minnesota’s temperature extremes are hard on sidewalk paving and street trees.

But our streetscapes don’t have to be so hard on us, especially during the occasional cold and rainy days of fall and spring. There are plenty of historic precedents for urban lighting that worth remembering today.

For example, light should originate from many levels, from on high (as in the neon sign atop the First National Bank building in St. Paul) down to pedestrian-level street lamps as well as store windows and building lobby doors. Think of looking into a store window on the street and then looking upward to people walking through the glowing skyways. Light from such varied heights brings a sense of human scale and intimacy to the urban environment.

Juster Bldg. 1929

Juster Bros. on Nicollet Avenue at night, c. 1920. Collection Minnesota Historical Society

If you look at older photos of night cities, you’ll find a rich array of light sources—vertical neon signs, globe street lamps, upper story offices—all of which harmonize with the flow of pedestrians. But it seems that we’ve forgotten such nuances of urban lighting and why it matters in a four-season climate like ours.

The latest update of the Nicollet Mall is one example. The mall now has long stretches of sidewalk that seem devoid of trees, color or even seasonal pots to make the walkways more welcoming. There’s also little in the way of lighting at ground level, such as uplit building facades or illuminated store signs.

Nic Mall Chrishtmas 1969

Christmas on Nicollet Mall. Clarence R. Chaney, 1968. This watercolor is perhaps a holiday card for the Northwestern National Bank—whose glowing red “Weatherball” at the top says warmer weather is ahead. Note the Mall’s original paired street lamps and tree lights.

One of Mall’s nicest features  used to be the strings of winter lights on the trees. They created scintillating pools of light, lending an almost magical feel during the darkest times of the year. However, the new design’s trees came with warrantees that prohibit tree lights at any time of year.

The original mall also boasted beautiful paired street lamps lit with glowing, incandescent bulbs. In the mornings and at dusk, they shone warmly on the steam rising up from the heated sidewalks.

Those street lamps and heated sidewalks used a lot of energy and proved challenging to maintain.

New Lighting Options

Forty years later, today’s more durable and sustainable lighting technologies open up new strategies for city light and atmosphere.

Schmidt_E_H_005

Photo courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook

Take the recently renovated Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul. Now known as the Schmidt Artist Lofts, BKV Group and Pfister Associates used lighting to accentuate the brewery’s crenellated tower and cornice details. They uplit the smokestack so that the inset letters SCHMIDT’s are visible from blocks away. The landmark red neon Schmidt sign atop the brewery is once again a beacon on West 7th Street—as it has been for a century.

A-Mill_E_H_023

Above. Rear buttresses of the Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts. Below. The full visual complexity and lighting Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts at dusk. Photos courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook.

Then there’s the Pillsbury A-Mill. Lighting consultants Schuler Shook joined forces with BKV Group and Pfister to install angled uplighting celebrating texture and depth of the 138 year-old rough limestone walls, a characteristic that’s generally lost at night. In the rear, they dramatically backlit the supporting buttresses to create a sense of layering and shadow.

Pillsbury-A-Mill_U1A5737-PS_931a0a3f87ebb06978ae91800f639b88

On the A-Mill’s roof, Schuler Shook introduced bursts of color by lighting the old rooftop water tower. Visible from the Third Avenue Bridge, the water tower’s  LED warm white and blue night colors complement the historic neon Pillsbury sign nearby.

Creating Transparency

9nicollet09191313

Circa 1980 winter night on the original Nicollet Mall showing the glow of paired street lamps, white lit street trees, and the transparency of an overhead skyway.

While building walls make great surfaces for lighting, we sometimes need to see into a building — through windows and lobby doors. Being able to get a glimpse inside a building adds a sense of depth and movement as we walk along street at night.

“We try to design storefronts and buildings where the light from inside can leak out,” said Brady Halverson, a landscape architect with the BKV Group. “Transparent storefronts and pools of light at doorways help to create a sense of arrival.”

Variety and temperature

Good architectural lighting also takes color tones and directionality of light into consideration.

“When you install a lamp at the middle of your living room ceiling, you get a blanket of light without highlights or darker spots,” explained architect Peter Pfister of Pfister Associates. But “if you light the room with table lamps and focused spotlights, you get more varied and inviting spaces layers of light,” he said.

Beyond of light sources, Pfister argues that the “temperature” of light “affects the mood of a street.”

Measured in Kelvin degrees, lighting temperature doesn’t gauge how hot or bright a light source seems, but its place along the color spectrum.

Schmidt_I_H_117_edited

Photo courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook.

For example, the wall lighting at the A-Mill and Schmidt Brewery ranges from 2,600 to 3, 000K degrees, creating warmer yellows.

Yet many parking lot and street lamps are calibrated at the higher temperatures of 4,000 to 5,000 K—casting much colder, stark light that reaches into the blue end of the color spectrum.

Many people assume safety concerns require such light intensity. But lighting designers show us how security and brightness can be achieved with warmer light tones, how strategically poised spotlights can highlight beautiful old walls—and how glowing colors create a rainy nighttime atmosphere meant to be experienced and not just endured.

Frank Edgerton Martin

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the Star Tribune, March 20, 2019)

#wintercities  #architecturallighting

 

Humble Buildings Shape the City

Fewer than 5% of American Buildings are designed by architects. Here is a 2018 story I wrote on why these vernacular buildings are so important.

 

In praise of the humble midsize buildings that make the Twin Cities special

Ordinary, midsize buildings don’t often draw praise, but they make
our cities lively, livable and adaptable. 

Urban skylines are defined by soaring skyscrapers and landmark buildings visible from afar, but it’s really the smaller, humbler buildings around them that shape a city.

The IDS Center in Minneapolis and the State Capitol in St. Paul are civic signatures, designed by celebrated architects. But far more important in our daily lives are the commercial buildings — the stores, apartments, warehouses and offices — that originally filled out our downtowns and lined our main corridors like Lake Street and University Avenue.

IMG_1851

University Avenue NE in Minneapolis 

Urban planners call these structures “fabric buildings,” a term largely unknown to the general public. It’s time we learned what they are and just what they offer.

Virtually all of St. Paul’s Lowertown and the North Loop in Minneapolis are filled with two- to six-story buildings. Some are nondescript, but many were designed by architects and exquisitely detailed. Their real beauty is apparent when you see them together on the streets they frame. Although these commercial buildings were originally designed for manufacturing and warehouses, they have proved highly adaptable.

Lake Street in Minneapolis is a multigenerational case study in fabric buildings and their lasting importance.

Starting around 1890, Lake Street’s stores, offices and, eventually, car dealerships grew to create a rich architectural ensemble, which made the stretch from Uptown to the Mississippi River a great place for car “cruising.”

By the 1950s, young people found an evening of magic in Lake Street’s continuity of neon, bright storefronts and sidewalk vitality — all stemming from the perfectly ordinary buildings, theaters and small businesses that thrived there. Taken alone, these buildings were nothing special, but together these fabric buildings became a destination.

(The same could be said for Grand Avenue in St. Paul, which remains a shopping, business and restaurant hub today.)

But in the 1960s, places like Lake Street and University Avenue began to lose buildings to parking lots that fronted gas stations, muffler repair shops and banks — all of which were set back from the street, creating eerily exposed environments for pedestrians. On Lake Street, some blocks had so many parking lots that the street lost its unique draw and urban feel.

In the 1980s, cities encouraged economic revival through drive-up, one-story office and business parks, also with front-door parking. St. Paul transformed the Midway area with big-box stores such as Target, which was set even farther back from the street. This new chapter in commercial architecture ignored the lure, the continuity, the sense of community created by fabric buildings.

Catching up with the past

Fortunately, during the past 20 years, planners in the Twin Cities have grown to appreciate fabric buildings as affordable locations for small businesses, and their collective density draws visitors and enriches the pedestrian experience.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul now encourage developers to learn to re-use fabric buildings and build new structures up to the sidewalk, just as they were a century ago.

There’s also a wave of new multiunit residential projects in the cities and older suburbs that function like fabric buildings. Because building codes allow less expensive wood construction up to five stories, many new apartments and condos are four to five stories tall, creating areas with buildings that are consistent in height and form.

And because of the need for housing, parking lots are being filled with new buildings that complement the older surviving buildings. The North Loop, Central Avenue NE., the 29th Midtown Greenway and Lake Street are filled with new examples.

American cities are starting to grow in population for the first time in 50 years. Thousands of old fabric buildings can be repurposed for the digital era, offering millennials an alternative to the postwar suburbs where many of them grew up.

But even more important, these buildings offer variety — in architectural period and style and in adaptability.

Great cities will continue to preserve and build architectural landmarks. But we also need to preserve and build a humble kind of architecture. We can never try to save all, or even most, of the fabric buildings in our cities. We are, however, finally learning how much they matter as cities evolve with every generation.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a consulting writer for architecture and design firms and a historic landscape preservation planner.

Two Suprises: 1. Penny Postcards were an early kind of Photoshop and 2. Los Angeles was once a great streetcar city

dbdaf99380468e246dc36d08ffd3c5dc

Postcard circa 1908. It’s hard to believe that downtown Los Angeles could be so urbane and romantic under a painted-in postcard full moon. This image comes from the time of “The Great White Way” when downtowns were brightly illuminated by the invention of the electric street lamps—shown here as Beaux Arts styled globe fixtures. 

NIMBY-ism at the original shopping mall

Here’s my commentary on a article in the Star Tribune about a suburban icon. This conflict exemplifies how many Americans hide their prejudices with superficial arguments. And they often come out when suburbs grow more dense.

Southdale logo

Original Southdale Logo from when the shopping mall opened in 1956. Alvin Lustig, the graphic designer, often worked with Southdale’s architect Victor Gruen. 

Edina leaders, residents at loggerheads on future development

City weighs its evolving footprint against residents’ resistance to apartment towers near Southdale.

By Miguel Otárola Star Tribune

The proposed seven-story 7250 France Avenue apartment tower has been redesigned several times, and it continues to draw opposition from surrounding ne

The proposed seven-story 7250 France Avenue apartment tower has been redesigned several times, and it continues to draw opposition from surrounding neighborhoods.  DJR Architecture.

Commentary

Miguel Otárol’s recent article tells a classic story of NIMBYism coupled with public ignorance of urban and transit history. It’s a story happening all over the country.

Victor Gruen, the architect of Southdale, the world-famous original shopping mall in Edina, Minnesota, envisioned a suburban future when people could walk and find “culture” with active street life.

Southdale Center exterior, Edina, MN c1956

Southdale in the late 1950s

He originally hoped to design such shopping centers in city neighborhoods with density and transit, but the 1950s/60s market did not support that.

Now it does.

The Southdale district today is a prime inner-ring redevelopment area where empty-nesters, the young, and the elderly can all live together…strengthening the district’s stores, and linking to Bus Rapid Transit or other options. Rather than creating more car traffic, such Transit Oriented Development is the best way to reduce it in the future. But some neighbors foresee doom. And, worse, declining property values.

Hidden Motives

Mixed-use, three-to-five story projects reduce sprawl, driving times, and create more tax revenue. So why the frenzied neighbor outcry?

They proclaim the looming threat of greater traffic. The loss of trees. Children read from written scripts at public meetings—claiming to like trees more than buildings.

But the real issue here is not traffic or any kind of greenery in a commercial area richly paved with asphalt. As this Star Tribune article documents, traffic has dropped “from an average of 14,500 vehicles a day on 70th Street west of France in 1996, to 9,200 in the same area in 2015, according to city numbers.”

Across the country, “traffic” is the argument of choice against any kind of change. It’s made by those with little knowledge of urban history, real estate economics, and planning innovations nationwide. For them, the only life worth living is the one they have.

But what these neighbors really fear is change itself.

They fear the social implications of greater density. They fear that people who don’t look like they do might move in close by. They fear the implications of economic access to their realm.

Urban Economics

In one of the most affluent metropolitan regions in the world, Twin Citians can no longer expect to live in close-in suburbs on large lots without any kind of added density.

When it opened in the late 1950s, Southdale lay right at the city’s southern edge, surrounded by farms and woodlands. Now, the region’s southern boundary is 20 miles to the south. That’s the real reason we have traffic.

Democracies and vibrant economies offer people choices—options in residential design, neighborhoods, and how to move around. Our free discourse concerning future growth breaks down when we use outdated claims to mask our deeper fears and prejudices.

We Like our Neighbors

I know many Minnesotans who actually want more neighbors. They’ve even formed an advocacy group here in Minneapolis appropriately named—Neighbors for More Neighbors.

With any luck, other towns will form their own chapters soon. And let’s hope that Edina, Minnesota—might be one of them.

 

Southdalelight

One of Southdale’s original Sputnik era light fixtures. Some of these vast parking areas can be filled in with new housing, creating the kind of suburban village that Victor Gruen envisioned.

 

[UPDATE: On June 5, the following day, the Edina City Council by vote rejected the housing project.]

Neighbors for More Neighbors:

https://medium.com/neighbors-for-more-neighbors

#n4mn

 

#Southdale

#Victorgruen

 

Not every building has to be a masterpiece

When the five-block Downtown East project opened in Minneapolis, nearly every architect I knew complained about the twin 18-story towers built for Wells Fargo. 

I admired the urban design and the new district that these towers anchored. Our differing perspectives made for a promising article—and here it is. 

160926_RYA_WFE_0816

Wells Fargo offices with the Commons in the foreround.  All photos by Paul Crosby. Courtesy of Ryan Companies

5 reasons Downtown East works (hint: it’s not because the buildings look cool)

Well-planned, if unremarkable, buildings have helped create a vibrant new neighborhood.

When Wells Fargo moved into its two office towers in Downtown East in 2016, many Twin Cities architects grumbled.

The twin, 18-story buildings looked like suburban office parks, they said.

Built to house some 5,000 employees, these towers would never have panache (or the budget) of the 50-story Wells Fargo Center on S. 7th Street designed by star architect Cesar Pelli. Still, some griped that the office towers should have been more fully clad with richer materials, like Kasota limestone.

At first, I could see their point. But I also saw the transformative effect of the entire five-building Ryan development. The in-house architectural team of Ryan Cos., the lead developer and designer, might have been able to articulate the towers more gracefully with materials other than precast concrete and metal panels.

But, after two years, I’ve decided that how the Wells Fargo towers look is less important than how they function in the emerging neighborhood. The towers, the new Ryan headquarters, and the Editions Residences achieve a 24-hour, mixed-use neighborhood that is all too rare downtown.

From a purely architectural perspective, the towers may be commercial backdrop buildings. But from an urban design perspective, they’ve helped create a vibrant district and a remarkable addition to downtown.

Here are five reasons why:

ONE.  There’s a clear connection to downtown

160908_EDITION_081_small

View north to the Edition Residences and downtown skyline.

For decades, the area had been a wasteland of parking ramps and lots split off from the downtown core. But the Blue Line LRT broke through with a stop at the old Metrodome. Then, Hargreaves Associates, landscape architects for the Downtown East Commons, created wider sidewalks linking the area with City Hall. Today, the office towers, new residential buildings, and the renovated Armory feel like a natural extension of downtown.

TWO:  Open space and buildings work together

The Commons park opens up a dramatic outdoor room with two distinct blocks. There’s a well-framed sense of openness that sets the foreground for vistas to the skyline and surrounding buildings. This visual connection may seem natural, but the scale and setbacks of new buildings were carefully calibrated. Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recalls walking over to the Commons many times from City Hall to make sure that the Edition Residences didn’t block the view of the Armory, one the greatest WPA buildings in the Midwest.

THREE:  There are eyes on the street

160908_EDITION_001_small

The Editions provides a new street level coffee shop set next to the park.

The financial districts of most American cities become ghost towns after 6 p.m. on weeknights and remain that way on weekends. But the Wells Fargo office towers are lined with four-story apartment buildings with patios and balconies, street-level cafes and retail spaces, all of which bring people to the sidewalks and the Commons. Fronting directly on the Commons, housing and a coffee shop at the Edition adds to this vitality, keeping eyes on the street and helping to discourage crime.

FOUR:  A rich skyway journey

160926_RYA_WFE_0793

Ryan engineered three skyways to connect the downtown core to US Bank Stadium

The Vikings required a skyway link to downtown. But a three-block run from the Haaf Ramp to the stadium could have been downright ugly. Instead, Ryan designed three skyways that run through the two Wells Fargo towers. Together, they offer expansive interior views of the building lobbies (plus a coffee shop, cafes and a convenience store), punctuated with dramatic exterior vistas of the stadium and the park.

FIVE: It’s part of the city

170607_RYA_MIL-985_small

The four-story Ryan Headquarters ties the project into an historic district.

R.T. Rybak argues that the mix of buildings in Downtown East is really “like a family”. The office towers and residential buildings work together, without trying to outshine the massive U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Vikings stadium is arguably the only urban football stadium in the country—one not surrounded by parking ramps and lots. It’s the multi-modal transit and urban design of Downtown East that makes this possible.

“Great cities are made up of collections of architecture,” Rybak observes. “I don’t think you can evaluate any structure on its own. We need to think of them as a whole.”

link to the original online article here. 

Post-publication questions:

The entire Downtown East project was delivered through the “design-build” process— essentially a developer-led team with strong cost controls. This is the way that many American commercial projects are now built.

But there’s more to buildings than meets the eye. The towers are LEED Platinum certified and anchor a new downtown district.

What can we learn from their urban design? Can design-build construction create high-quality architecture while still containing costs? Please comment.

From the Archives: Optimizing wind and water in Beirut

image34

Designed by VJAA of Minneapolis, the student center at the American University of Beirut is a brilliant response to climate, topography, and precedents in urban form. 

 

FABRIC ARCHITECTURE  September 1st, 2012

The Charles Hostler Student Center at the American University of Beirut.

In arid climate cities, the way people use architecture and urban space changes with the time of day. Fabrics for shading, screening and evaporative cooling can be part of sustainable strategies to make these microclimates more comfortable. Throughout the Middle East, such commonsense tools have long been part of garden and architectural vernaculars.

Designed by VJAA, the Charles Hostler Student Center at the American University of Beirut is a masterful blend of historic Mediterranean urbanism and modern technologies. In its winning AIA design award submission, VJAA, Minneapolis, Minn., wrote that in Beirut, social activities “migrate” vertically and “condense” at various locations throughout the day. During the hot sunny hours, shop owners and families tend to use lower shaded spaces. At night they migrate to the rooftops.

Inspired by the city and the classic Beirut house that steps down hillside sites to catch sea breezes, VJAA designed the Hostler Student Center as a 3-D system of courtyards, passageways and roof gardens. Shading, breezes and the radiant cooling effects of water are all optimized in this 19,000m2 project.

An earlier campus master plan by Sasaki Associates Inc. had called for a large student building facility fronting a similarly large open space. But the VJAA team sensed that more fine-grained urbanism and local materials might offer lessons for energy conservation and comfort, both indoors and out.

At both the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Tulane University’s new Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life VJAA used metal mesh scrims to create cascading water walls offering both evaporative and radiant cooling benefits. Yet while Tulane’s water walls are set inside a large public gathering space, Beirut’s falling water is outside.Both projects merit comparison for the similarity of their student center building programs and theircontrasting climactic conditions.

 

image24

image16

Whereas summers in New Orleans, La., are hot and humid, Beirut’s semi-arid summers are typically hot and dry. There are cooler temperatures with some rain in December and January, but, for the most part, outdoor campus spaces are quite habitable for most of the year if their form and orientation can make the most of breezes and allow for user “migration” with the sun.

Founded in 1866 to offer an American style liberal arts education, AUB is located on a dense 30-hectare (73 acres) urban campus sited above the ocean that cascades down to the Corniche, Beirut’s grand oceanfront boulevard. In response to this unique microclimate and Beirut’s urban traditions, VJAA broke up the center’s program of athletic facilities, café and auditorium, creating a cluster of five buildings along courts and passages that could optimize changing breezes and shade.

image31

Working with climate engineer Matthias Schuler of Transsolar, VJAA organized the buildings around a series of radial “streets” oriented toward the Corniche to catch the sea breezes. The campus’s steep topography promised many creative opportunities for responsive design. During the day, air cooled by the shaded portion of the tree-covered campus drops down toward the sea along the radial streets creating a flushing effect with cool air. At night, winds from the Mediterranean flow upward through the campus. Cisterns are located to capture winter rainwater for later summer use; gray water from building systems is recycled for irrigation.

Making use of the campus location, VJAA draws seawater from the nearby ocean (piped from 30m below the surface) into a central plant that provides chilled water for radiant cooling at the pool, gymnasium, squash courts and café. After desalinization, seawater offers radiant and evaporative cooling for the two cascading water walls similar to those used inside Tulane’s student center.

 

image14

VJAA designed two large 6m wide by 7.7m high waterwalls to employ metal mesh panels for cooling the outdoor terrace level. Like fountains in Persian gardens and courtyards, Beirut’s two outdoor waterwalls (made of stainless steel mesh scrims) guide smooth broad “sheets” of falling water. Their cool mist radiates outward into seating areas and, when the dew point is high, the walls’ lower temperature can reduce surrounding humidity by condensing water out of the air like an ice-filled glass on a summer day.

In its proposal for the AUB’s new student center, VJAA argued that the best architecture grows out of understanding local climate and its effects on human activity. “The project is as much about human behavior, collegiate life and even politics, as it is about questions of architectural form.”

 

image6image16

VJAA’s student center projects in New Orleans and Beirut teach us that fabric solutions in shading and water walls are only one part of a larger design strategy integrating site, seasons and daily weather. VJAA’s deep understanding of arid climates and architecture is almost certainly the reason it was awarded this student center project in an international competition. When time-tested local solutions are combined with new products and technologies for ventilation, cooling, heating and water capture, great gathering places can be built that draw people at different times of day simply because they are so inviting.

Fabric Architecture Contributing editor Frank Edgerton Martin’s report on Tulane University’s water wall appeared in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue.