Distractions, Architectural and Other

It’s been a while since my last post. In part, this has been due to the demands of various projects I’ve been working on, and in part it’s been because I took some time out to design a tall building. Pause. You read correctly, but there’s two qualifiers to that last claim. First, it was more a case of refining another design, and really it’s a concept sketch rather than a design. The difference between the two is vast.

Here’s the story on the building. There’s something called the "Absolute Design Ideas Competition" underway. It’s a competition to build a tall residential tower in Mississauga, a city that’s part of the Greater Toronto Area. One of the finalists is a design submitted by Quadrangle Architects. It’s a pretty nice, fairly conservative design, with "full-sized living trees" exposed on its elevations. The trees are an interesting idea, but typical of something that always irks me about these sorts of conceptual exercises: the ability to suspend reality. A closer look at these full-sized trees in the design sketch reveals that none of them have roots. Any roots. These "living" trees just sit on a balcony with open space directly below them. Give me a break, please.

In the parameters of the Quadrangle design, accommodating a tree’s root structures would require a rather unappealing bin that would be exposed on the building’s elevation. What better way to deal with this "minor challenge" than to simply eliminate the roots?

The frustrating thing is that the other elements of the design were really very good. One could see the apartments in this building as very livable spaces. In particular the fragmented balconies not only give the building visual interest, but they enliven the balcony space itself. Too frequently balconies are drab, uniform, shadowed spaces that serve as a place to store junk while making the interior of the building a darker, less pleasant space. The Quadrangle design addresses these problems in a very elegant way.

So what else to do but see if there was a way to modify the concept? What you see here are the results of some thinking on the matter and a some work with Pov-Ray, an aging but powerful open source rendering program. Click on the thumbnails for full sized images.

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There’s some basic refinements to the source design. First, the cylindrical core has been changed to a square with rounded corners. This retains the core concept without creating a building where the balcony area exceeds that enclosed by the curtain wall. Maybe the Quadrangle equation works in Florida, but in our climate, that outdoor space is unusable for at least four months of the year (Quadrangle is based in Toronto, so they have no excuse here). Second, the trees have been moved to levels dedicated to environment and community — and yes, there’s room for the roots. One theme that interests me in high-rise structures is the loss of a sense of a cohesive community. For the most part, high-rise residents have little reason or opportunity to interact short of exchanging pleasantries on the elevator. Another is the disconnection between the land and high rise living. Some local condominium projects have a limited number of outdoor garden plots, but for most people the connection to plant life is little more than a bed of flowers.

This design attempts to deal with these issues. Not only are there indoor trees, but they’re located in a common area. Rather than append recreational space as a footnote in order to allow for a bullet on some marketing brochure, this building dedicates considerable resources to community space. In addition to the trees, there’s provision for solarium-enclosed garden plots for year-round gardening. The core of these spaces can contain recreational facilities, cafes, meeting rooms, support for home offices, and maybe even retailers dedicated to the community. In the admittedly idealistic world of design, these spaces become hubs of a vibrant community that brings the residents together in meaningful ways.

I have to close by giving credit to an architectural writer who I admire a great deal. Once a week, John Bentley Mays writes an article for the Globe and Mail that never fails to inform and entertain. Here’s a link to his article on the Absolute competition. He has some interesting observations on the competition and the choices of finalists.